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Volume 77, Number 9 | August 01 - 07, 2007

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Above, at last Thursday’s Washington Square Park Task Force hearing at City Hall, opponents of the park’s renovation plan made their feelings known. Below, Councilmember Alan Gerson attended the City Hall task force hearing.

Wash. Sq. funds must be pulled, critics cry

By Albert Amateau

The Washington Square Park Task Force struggled over the Parks Department’s redesign of the park at two public hearings, one last Thursday at City Hall and the other on Monday, and the overwhelming community consensus was a predictable “No.”

The sticking points remain, as they have for more than two years: the height of the proposed fence around the park, the apparent inadequacy of wheelchair access to bathrooms and other parts of the park and the size and design of the central fountain and the fountain plaza, a favorite venue for spontaneous gathering and impromptu performance.

The preservation of trees in the park was another problem for task force members and the nearly 100 Villagers attending the Monday meeting.

“It’s a design for Versailles, not for the Village,” said one critic, whose words were echoed often on Monday.

“They’re trying to give us Gramercy, not the Village,” said Rosemary McGrath, a Community Board 2 member, referring to the only privately owned park in the city.

“We’re also here to speak for a park constituency that wouldn’t be caught dead in a community meeting,” said Mirabel Stoddard. “They’re the people who say, ‘We just want to stay here and make music.’ And they’re what this design is meant to get rid of,” she added.

Jonathan Greenberg, a plaintiff in two lawsuits seeking to block the project, urged the task force to ask city councilmembers to withhold funding for the redesign. That appeal was also echoed at the Monday hearing.

The task force was created two years ago to monitor whether the Parks Department’s redesign plans comply with an agreement drafted by Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn, now speaker of the Council. Both Gerson and Quinn attended at least part of last Thursday’s hearing.

The hearings of the past few days were to determine whether the contract drawings — which are expected to go out to bid in the next week or two — for the first phase of the reconstruction, covering the northwest quadrant of the 10-acre park, adequately follow the Gerson-Quinn agreement.

Brad Hoylman, C.B. 2 chairperson who also heads the task force, said on Tuesday that he would circulate a letter of recommendation to task force members this week for approval and submission to Gerson and Quinn and to the Parks Department in the hopes that the redesign could be modified.

Parks has insisted that it could not allow a copy of the drawings to be held at the C.B. 2 office for detailed public examination because the redesign is the subject of several lawsuits filed by community groups seeking to block the project.

So Quinn and Gerson prevailed on the department to present the plans to the task force at City Hall on Thurs., July 26. But task force members found that their questions to John Krawchuk, who presented the plans for the department, were inadequately answered. Krawchuk replied that he could not answer many questions because the plan was the subject of litigation.

While it was clear that the plans did not comply with the Gerson-Quinn agreement, it was not exactly clear how much the plans differed from the agreement.

The Gerson-Quinn agreement called for a fence no higher than 4 feet around the park’s perimeter. The plans specify a fence with 4-foot-tall pickets but also with posts — to be spaced every 8 feet — rising 4 feet.

The agreement calls for the central plaza around the fountain to be no more than 10 percent smaller that the current fountain plaza. The plans, as far as could be determined without detailed examination, call for a fountain plaza nearly 12 percent smaller, according to some observers’ calculations. However, several people who made appointments to view the drawings at the Parks Department’s Manhattan borough headquarters on the fifth floor of 24 W. 61st St. estimated that the fountain plaza actually would be 19 percent smaller than the current one.

“The Parks Department still doesn’t yet understand what the Village wants and needs,” said Keen Berger, a Democratic district co-leader and task force member.

Greenberg told the task force on Monday that the Parks Department’s refusal to allow the drawings to be examined at a central place in the neighborhood was a disgrace.

Gerson on Monday urged the task force to confine its recommendation to the narrow issue of the Gerson-Quinn agreement as it pertains to the northwest-quadrant first phase. He said it was the best chance for convincing the department to make the redesign acceptable.

Neither the City Council nor the community board is responsible for designing a park under the City Charter, Gerson said. It is strictly the responsibility of the mayor through the Parks Department, and the best the City Council could do would be to exert its influence — or to withhold funding previously earmarked for the project, he noted. But Gerson acknowledged that the Bloomberg administration could find other funding for the redesign.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, speaking at the beginning of the Monday meeting, set the tone of the hearing.

“Bids are going out next week,” she said. “So the notion that the city will seriously consider anyone else’s ideas is merely lip service,” she said, suggesting that legislators and councilmembers should withhold as much funding as possible. “Parks comes to the state Legislature frequently to ask for money for transportation features that border on parks,” she noted. “The bottom line is that the city and all of us are employees of the people of the city of New York. There is an incredible amount of disregard and arrogance on the part of the city,” she declared.

After Monday’s meeting, Arthur Schwartz, a C.B. 2 member who was the task force’s previous chairperson, said he, too, believes Gerson should pull his funding for the $16 million project. The community simply overwhelmingly disapproves of the entire redesign, Schwartz said.

On Tuesday, Greenberg said his Open Washington Square Park Coalition is starting a Web site effort and letter-writing campaign to get Gerson and Quinn to withdraw funding from the project.

“It’s the only thing with teeth. Nothing else will work,” Greenberg said. “It’s like Congress cutting off funds for the Iraq war. The only way to get the Executive branch to play ball is to cut off their money.”

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