By Albert Amateau
City Councilmember Alan Gerson told the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee on Monday that he would hold the Department of Parks to the oral agreement that Parks made with him and Councilmember Christine Quinn last year about the size of the central fountain plaza in the redesign of Washington Square Park.
The Nov. 6 meeting of the committee, headed by Arthur Schwartz, ended with a unanimous resolution calling on Parks to present detailed plans to the community board on implementing the Gerson-Quinn agreement at the Jan. 8 committee meeting.
At issue is a commitment by Parks to make the size of the redesigned plaza no less than 90 percent of the current size. But at an Appellate Division hearing on Oct. 31, a city attorney told the appeals panel that Parks had not signed a written agreement with the two councilmembers and that the city is under no obligation to make the redesigned plaza 90 percent the size of the present plaza. Moreover, the attorney noted that the Council has no role in the Washington Square Park redesign.
Nevertheless, Gerson told The Villager on Nov. 7, “The agreement is still valid.” He threatened to hold up funding for the Washington Square Park reconstruction in next year’s budget if Parks fails to adhere to the agreement.
“A statement issued during the budget process in June, signed by me, Speaker Quinn, Councilmembers David Weprin, head of the Finance Committee, and Helen Foster, head of the Parks Committee, says the Parks budget was conditioned on complying with the agreement,” Gerson said on Tuesday. Even if it is too late to withhold funding this year, it could be held up next year, Gerson said.
“I could also go to court,” Gerson said, adding, “but I don’t think it will come to that.” Gerson said that Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told him last week that the department would indeed honor the agreement to reduce the size of the redesigned plaza by no more than 10 percent. “The way we left it was that the plaza would be 90 percent of the size of the current plaza,” Gerson said.
Benepe was not available on Tuesday to comment on the conversation because the department was closed for Election Day.
Regarding the city’s argument in the Appellate Division last week that the agreement was not binding, Gerson made the distinction between the legalities of a court challenge of the review process and the Gerson-Quinn agreement on the actual size of the proposed plaza.
In the court case, State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman in August ruled in favor of a group of Washington Square residents who challenged the review process of the park redesign. Goodman said that Parks did not adequately describe the plaza size and the design of the fountain jets in plans submitted for review to Community Board 2, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the city Art Commission. She ordered Parks to resubmit those issues for review to C.B. 2 and the two agencies, and the city appealed.
But Daniel Alterman, an attorney associated with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was outraged at the contradictory statements by the city.
“It’s fundamentally dishonest [for the Parks Department] to make a deal with two councilmembers and then say it’s not valid because it wasn’t signed,” said Alterman, “How can they say one thing in court and something else out of court?” Alterman said he thought the city attorney should tell the Appellate Division that the statement made before the panel last week was incorrect and then submit a corrected statement.
Jonathan Greenberg, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said on Tuesday that Gerson’s distinction between legalities and the actual plaza size was false.
“If it hadn’t been for our lawsuit, the Parks Department would have broken ground with a 23 percent reduction of the plaza and without any regard for the Gerson-Quinn agreement,” Greenberg said.
The size of the plaza is at issue because it has traditionally been where impromptu performances take place. Community Board 2 and opponents of the park design insist that the plaza remain hospitable to spontaneous groupings and performers.
Gerson said there has been widespread confusion about the plaza size. Parks says the redesigned plaza would be 23 percent smaller that the current plaza while the challengers say that the plans really show a 33 percent reduction in the plaza.
Gerson noted that the current plaza slopes down to the fountain from a circular concrete seating rim; this is the area in the redesign that the agreement states must remain 90 percent of its current size. In the redesign, the plaza does not slope down to the fountain, but is raised to grade level.
Beyond the concrete seating ring is an outer plaza that includes a circular path. The Parks plan calls for a 23 percent reduction of the combined inner and outer plaza area. The challengers of the redesign say there is a 33 percent reduction in the size of the inner plaza alone.
The Nov. 6 C.B. 2 Parks Committee resolution calls on the full community board to reaffirm its endorsement of the Quinn-Gerson-Parks Department agreement of Oct. 6, 2005. The resolution calls on Parks to present an “accurate, written, up-to-date plan, including elevations” and “demonstrating, item by item, how its plans comport with the Quinn-Gerson agreement.”