Volume 76, Number 48 | April 25 - May1, 2007

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Rasheed Richard Howard from the group NuQ-Lewis blew his own horn, er, horns in Washington Square Park on Saturday.

Board 2 demands Wash. Sq. design presentation, or else

By Lincoln Anderson

Frustrated with the Parks Department’s stonewalling them on the Washington Square Park renovation designs, Community Board 2 last Thursday issued the department a final warning: If Parks doesn’t re-present its plans for the renovation by May 9, C.B. 2 will rescind its approval of the project.

The defiant resolution — written by board member Keen Berger — was passed overwhelmingly.

Parks has said it doesn’t want to re-present the plans until the several community lawsuits lodged against them are resolved. But by then the project already could be well underway.

Before the vote, however, Shirley Secunda, stood and proposed what she called a “friendly amendment” to her fellow board members — basically a toothless version of the resolution being proposed. Arthur Schwartz, the board’s Parks and Waterfront Committee chairperson, said he didn’t accept it as a friendly amendment to the resolution and that the board should instead put it to a vote as a substitute resolution. But sensing she lacked support, Secunda withdrew her motion and took her seat.

The board then voted on Berger’s resolution. Only five members voted against it: Maria Passannante Derr, the board’s chairperson; Secunda; Judy Paul, co-owner of the Washington Square Hotel; Rocio Sanz, owner of Tio Pepe restaurant; and Elizabeth Gilmore.
Plaintiffs in lawsuits against the renovation had gotten word Secunda would try something, and were relieved to see her challenge fail, knowing that at that point the tougher resolution would be passed.

“We won! We won!” said Jesse McNab, one of the plaintiffs, once all the voting was over.

It was a major turnaround from October 2005, when Secunda had gotten the board to approve her last-minute resolution to block a resolution by Schwartz that would have thrown a major wrench into Parks’ plans: Schwartz’s October 2005 resolution opposed raising the park’s central sunken plaza to grade level and moving the fountain east to align with the arch — both central features of Parks’ plan — and supported a 30-inch height cap for any fence around the park.

But with an infusion of 21 new board members under new Borough President Scott Stringer since he came into office at the start of 2006, the board’s dynamics have dramatically changed. Stringer has cleaned house, not reappointing members put on the board by his predecessor, C. Virginia Fields, and replacing them with a new crop of community-minded members.

Addressing the board before last Thursday’s vote, Schwartz — a top union attorney — said Parks’ saying it can’t comment because of the ongoing litigation is just a convenient “cover.”

“The fact that you’re being sued by somebody doesn’t mean you don’t participate in the public process,” he said. He noted that although Bruce Ratner’s development plans for Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards are being challenged in the courts, it hasn’t stopped public hearings about the project from being held.

The Washington Square plan’s opponents have challenged it on the grounds that what Parks presented during the public review process didn’t accurately reflect the real designs. Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Alan Gerson reached an agreement with Parks on the renovation, under which, among other things, the park’s central plaza is not to be reduced by more than 10 percent. However, bid documents released for the project showed that the plaza would actually be reduced by 23 percent.

In addition, city attorneys representing Parks subsequently said in court that the Gerson-Quinn agreement wasn’t binding because it was never signed. These developments and others prompted the community board to request another presentation of the plans from Parks. The Washington Square Task Force, a group including local elected officials and their representatives, also has requested a re-presentation of the renovation plans — again to no avail.

As a result, C.B. 2 last Thursday passed the hard-hitting resolution, warning that Parks has until May 9, or the board’s support will be withdrawn.

Berger was one of the new members added to the board in Stringer’s first round of appointments in April 2006.

“I am thrilled,” Berger said after the meeting. “I really think it’s time for the community board to say, ‘Enough’ — and, finally, we did.”

A lawsuit by Jonathan Greenberg, head of the Open Washington Square Coalition, and others charging that Parks’ presentation had been faulty prevailed in State Supreme Court in July 2006. In her ruling, Justice Emily Jane Goodman said Parks should re-present its plans to C.B. 2, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Art Commission.

But the city appealed and last month the Appellate Division overturned the ruling. Greenberg is appealing to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

In addition, Greenberg and another group, The Emergency Coalition Organization to Save Washington Square Park, or ECO, have both filed environmental lawsuits against the project. Greenberg said the judge on the case, Joan Madden, has combined the lawsuits for convenience’s sake and will likely hear them in a few weeks.

Asked why Parks won’t re-present the plans — especially in light of Schwartz’s example of public hearings being held on the Atlantic Yards plan despite ongoing litigation — a spokesperson hewed to the department line.

Said Warner Johnston: “The community board is well aware that due to the ongoing litigation, we cannot conduct any presentation or discuss this project until the lawsuits are resolved. We informed them of this about a week ago and also discussed this issue with Councilmember Gerson and Borough President Stringer.”

Although community board resolutions are advisory only, no city agency wants to proceed with a project that the local community board does not support.

The day after C.B. 2 approved Secunda’s resolution in October 2005, The Villager asked Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe his thoughts on it. Benepe said he was happy the board had now “approved the project twice.” The board had previously approved the renovation in April 2005.

Greenberg said he was heartened by the board’s latest resolution, which ultimately could reverse the two earlier ones.

“What’s interesting, is it’s come about full circle,” he said on Tuesday. “This seems to be a ‘preserve the square’ rallying cry. This doesn’t mean it’s over. When Parks doesn’t come back on May 9, they won’t be able to say they have the support of Community Board 2.”

Greenberg said Parks’ full bid documents will be posted on their Web site, openwsp.com, within the week, and that people will be able to see for themselves how the proposed renovation and the existing park plan contrast. Greenberg said Gerson’s office finally provided the plans.

Asked why she voted against the new resolution, C.B. 2 Chairperson Derr said because it was “threatening” and had “punitive language and overtone.” She added that Gerson told her that Parks had checked with the city’s Law Department, which told him they advised Parks not to appear before C.B. 2 until the lawsuits are resolved.

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