Volume 76, Number 35 | January 24 - 30, 2007

Villager photo by Tequila Minsky

A girl passing through Washington Square on her way to school last week gathered some rare snow to make a snowball.

Wash. Sq.enviro suits cite trees, dust, hawk

By Lincoln Anderson

The lawsuits keep on mounting against the embattled Washington Square Park renovation plan, threatening to further stall, if not outright kill, it. Two new lawsuits take aim at the $16 million project on environmental grounds. Among their charges are that the renovation will chainsaw down a full third of the trees in the park’s northwest quadrant, create pedestrian bottlenecks and threaten the habitat of a juvenile red-tailed hawk that recently took up residency and started hunting in the park.

Last Friday, two plaintiffs, Jonathan Greenberg, coordinator of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition; and Luther Harris, author of the definitive history book on Washington Square, filed the first of the two lawsuits. An Article 78 suit in State Supreme Court, it charges that an environmental impact assessment, or E.A.S., the Parks Department did for the project was faulty and that a more lengthy and involved environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., must be done.

In addition, the Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square Park, or ECO, was expected to file suit in State Supreme Court on Wed., Jan. 24, also challenging the renovation on environmental grounds.

The Greenberg/Harris suit contends the E.A.S. that Parks completed in November fails to comply with the requirements of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act on three points: First, the E.A.S. doesn’t accurately document the plan to fell 40 of 120 trees in the park’s northwest quadrant, which would be a major impact on the park’s “natural resources,” the lawsuit argues; second, the section of the E.A.S. concerning “neighborhood character” fails to discuss the impact that narrowing the park’s paths, bisecting them with concrete planters and adding more benches, as well as erecting a taller fence around the park’s perimeter, would have on changing pedestrian flow and circulation; third, the lawsuit contends, the E.A.S. doesn’t detail the construction process’s impact on the park or give construction schedules or explain what will be done, for example, about “fugitive dust” created by the work.

“The E.A.S. is the way to skirt the need to do an E.I.S.,” Greenberg said of Parks’ determination of a negative declaration on the E.A.S. — which the department itself conducted — meaning that, in the department’s opinion, no E.I.S. is needed.

Regarding the trees, Greenberg obtained from Councilmember Alan Gerson the bid documents Parks issued for contractors for the project last year, and found discrepancies between the E.A.S. and the bid documents. According to the lawsuit, the E.A.S. states that of 120 trees in the park’s northwest quadrant, two that measure at least 20 inches in diameter will be transplanted, while eight will be permanently removed. Left out of the E.A.S., the bid documents additionally note that 32 trees measuring between 6 and 18 inches in diameter will be removed from the northwest quadrant altogether.

“Some of these trees are hundreds of years old,” Greenberg said. Greenberg is particularly concerned about the renovation’s impact on how people will be able to use the walkways and gathering areas.

“They have not gotten an objective, professional usage study,” he said of Parks. “It’s all about a park you can look at and walk through, but not hang out in, and that’s their plan.” The planters planned for the middle of paths are part of this agenda, he feels, noting, “You can’t walk three abreast!”

And the construction and its disruption won’t be minor, Greenberg assured.

“For a period of three years, they could just put up a chain-link fence by the children’s playground and all the diesel smoke will go in,” he said. “No one will go there. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a plan saying what’s actually going to happen?”

On Tuesday, attorney Joel Kupferman, representing ECO, said he couldn’t publicly discuss much yet about the second suit, which he hoped to file the next day. However, he said, it does contain a bird specialist’s affidavit on the significance of the new hawk’s presence.

“The bird story is a good part of it,” Kupferman said. “The long-range damage — what’s going to happen to the trees — what’s going to happen to the root system” are other significant aspects of the suit, he added.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, however, feels that not court, but the recently started Washington Square Park Task Force, set up under the so-called Gerson-Quinn Agreement with Parks on the renovation, is the best venue to solve disagreements.

“An E.I.S. is not a binding document,” Gerson said. “We’ve seen E.I.S.es that don’t result in any significant change on a project. To go to court — you don’t know how the court’s going to rule. I think enough is enough. We have a process in place. I think the best thing at this point is to work it out through the task force. Under the Gerson-Quinn Agreement the Parks Department is required to work with the task force in good faith.”

As for the trees, Gerson said he believed Parks’ revised bid documents now accurately reflect how many will be removed.

If the renovation doesn’t move forward soon, though, Gerson warned that more of the park will become “cordoned off, like the mounds.”

As for the hawk’s figuring prominently in Kupferman’s lawsuit, Gerson said, “This is the first I’m hearing of it — again, that issue could be dealt with through the task force.”

Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of the task force and an attorney, said he had read the latest Greenberg/Harris lawsuit and feels it’s strong and could result in an E.I.S. that will delay the renovation another year and a half. He agrees the task force is a good place to work out the issues, but isn’t entirely discouraging the lawsuit.

“All environmental litigation ever accomplishes is to kill a project, because enthusiasm is lost — like what happened to Westway — or it delays the project,” said Schwartz. He was referring, of course, to the Lower West Side landfill-and-highway mega-project cancelled in 1985 after its E.I.S. fudged data about its impact on striped bass.

“I think Washington Square Park needs a lot of work, even if all you want to do is retain its existing shape and character,” Schwartz said. “I think the task force can be a vehicle for that. If the lawsuit pushes Parks to work with the community, I see that as a good thing. But if Parks won’t negotiate on differences and move a little more, we could end up with what happened with Westway.”

As for Gerson’s confidence that Parks will voluntarily work with the task force to resolve renovation issues, Sharon Woolums, an ECO leader, burst out laughing, then said, “The whole process didn’t work the first time, so why should it work now? We are where we are now because government agencies have failed us.”

The renovation has been on hold since July, when Justice Emily Jane Goodman ruled in favor of a suit by Greenberg, Harris and two other plaintiffs that charged Parks had not accurately informed Community Board 2 and city agencies about the extent of its plans to shrink the size of the park’s central plaza and add a battery of water jets inside the park’s fountain, affecting its historic use as a performance space. Goodman enjoined the renovation work from starting, and told Parks to re-present its plan to C.B. 2. But the city instead appealed to the Appellate Division, which heard the case in October. A decision is pending.

Greenberg said the initial lawsuit on the plaza size and fountain jets is truly “precedent setting,” in that it concerns to what extent city agencies must inform community boards and other city agencies of projects under public review.

In addition, after construction estimates came in millions of dollars over budget last May, Parks has retooled the bid documents, in order to, at some point rebid the project.

Asked about the pair of new environmental lawsuits and also when the renovation is now expected to begin, Ashe Reardon, a Parks spokesperson, said, “There is no start date at this point, and, as you know, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”

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