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Volume 77, Number 10 | August 08 - 14, 2007

Gerson says withholding park funds is an option

By Albert Amateau

The Washington Square Park Task Force on Aug. 3 sent Councilmember Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn a report that could be a last-ditch attempt to convince the Department of Parks to alter plans for the redesign of Washington Square Park.

The report, drafted after a Parks Department presentation on July 26 of the first-phase work on the park’s northwest quadrant, urged that the entire park project, including the renovation of the public bathrooms, comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and be wheelchair accessible.

The report also suggests a reduction of the height of the proposed fence around the park, an increase in the size of the central plaza fountain and the width of some paths in the park. The report was also concerned that large, healthy trees would be removed during the park reconstruction.

But the task force, appointed by Gerson and Quinn to monitor a 2005 agreement about hotly debated features of the design, also said Parks provided too few opportunities to review the plans to make a complete report.

Nevertheless, Brad Hoylman, C.B. 2 chairperson and task force co-chairperson, said on Mon., Aug. 6, that he hoped Parks would consider the task force’s suggestions.

“The key is to keep a dialogue going between the community and the Parks Department,” he said, adding, “I’m grateful to the speaker and the councilmember for arranging the latest presentation.”

“The next step is a response from the Parks Department,” said Gerson. “The ball is in their court. The task force message was clear and unequivocal. If the Parks Department’s response is not acceptable, we’ll look at all our options, including withholding funding from the project,” Gerson said in an interview.

At a July 30 task force meeting, several members of the audience, including Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Arthur Schwartz, a C.B. 2 member and former chairperson of the board’s Parks Committee, urged that Gerson and Quinn withhold funding the councilmembers had previously allocated for the Washington Square project. The task force, however, did not call for withholding funds.

The report noted that while the fence pickets around the park are to be 4 feet tall, in compliance with the Gerson-Quinn 2005 agreement, the fence posts, located along the fence at 8-foot intervals, exceed the agreed height by 4 inches.

“The overwhelming community sentiment is a fence should not be included in the plan, and barring that, any fence should be lower than the proposed one,” the report says.

On the positive side, the report notes the size of the existing “tot” playground in the park’s northwest section will remain the same as it is now.

However, the task force found that the proposed fountain plaza does not comply with the Gerson-Quinn agreement because it is smaller than 90 percent of the current area: “The question is, however, by how much. The task force did not have enough information from the Parks Department to draw a clear conclusion .… Rough calculations of the total square footage of the inner circle [of the fountain plaza] ranged from 88 percent to 77 percent of the current area,” the report says.

On the plus side, the report found that the number of permanent seats between the inner and outer circles of the fountain plaza would be increased from 27 to 39.

But the task force was unable to judge whether the interior of the proposed fountain remains essentially in its current form because of a lack of information. Some task force members found that the addition of fountain water plumes and a change in grade would alter the fountain’s essential form. The report suggests removing side plumes from the redesigned fountain.

The design features accepted by the Gerson-Quinn agreement include moving the entire fountain to the east to line up with the Washington Square Arch and Fifth Ave. and bringing the fountain up to grade level. But the agreement called on the department to provide the task force with documents on the condition of the fountain’s plumbing and infrastructure with a cost comparison of renovating the existing fountain and relocating it.

“The issue is of concern because the community was told by the Parks Department during public meetings in 2005 that it would cost no more to move the fountain than to repair it,” the report says.

The task force found that while the redesign has game tables in the northwest corner of the park as provided in the agreement, “the tables do not allow for seating on four sides, as is common for Scrabble, or space to accommodate wheelchairs and there may be insufficient space for viewers to congregate without blocking the paths.”

The proposed plan provides for a possible increase in the number of trees with 14 new plantings and also provides for a professional arborist to maintain them, but the task force was not sure about the size of trees that would be replanted.

Moreover, the task force was not sure that walkways in the redesign would be wide enough for people in wheelchairs or provide sufficient space for people to congregate. The placing of benches in some walkways would reduce their widths to less than 13 feet, the report notes.

The task force was satisfied that the number of people accommodated by the park’s benches would increase from 141 to 175, but called for reconsideration of the backless bench design. The task force also urged that a current park entrance between the arch and the park’s northwest corner should be kept open.

Co-chairperson of the task force with Hoylman is Tobi Bergman, a C.B. 2 member. Other task force members include Fusun Ateser, Matt Bardin, Ric Bell, Keen Berger, Doris Diether, Erin Drinkwater (representing Congressmember Jerrold Nadler), Ian Dutton, Grey Elam (representing Quinn), Erich Hahn (Representing Reverend Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church), Anne Hearn, Gil Horowitz, Alicia Hurley (representing New York University), Hunter Johansson (representing Borough President Scott Stringer), Mary Johnson, Lisa Kaplan (representing Councilmember Rosie Mendez), Honi Klein (of the Village Alliance business improvement district), Rita Lee (representing Gerson), Bess Matassa (representing Glick), Lois Rakoff, Adam Riff (representing State Senator Tom Duane) and Anne-Marie Sumner.

Gerson also issued a prepared statement about the task force:

“The Washington Square Park Task Force, with its findings, spoke clearly, constructively, and with consensus — despite the inclusion of a wide cross-section of park perspectives,” Gerson said in the statement. “The task force, to its credit, resisted irresponsible calls to, in effect, walk away and scuttle the entire process.

“Defunding the renovation, before receiving the Parks Department’s response to the task force, risks harming the park with costly, indefinite delay, greater disrepair and the loss of many improvements and protections required by the Gerson-Quinn agreement. The agreement mandates improved and expanded children’s play areas, adult seating areas, grassy lawns, improved accessibility and unprecedented protections against noise and commercialization, while preserving the performance area, fountain access and the open and free flavor and character of Washington Square Park.

“The Parks Department now bears the legal and ethical responsibility to live up to its end by honoring the agreement and respecting the task force’s input. The commissioner must now decide whether to proceed in good faith or bad faith, with the community or against a clear community consensus, with a design which enhances the park or one that undermines what the community most treasures in its main, very special community park. The community will know that any further delay, whether from politics or new lawsuits or loss of funds, will be due solely to the commissioner’s refusal to implement the reasonable and simple but important adjustment to the phase-one design required by the agreement as supported by the task force.

“Hopefully,” Gerson said, “we have entered a new phase in the protracted Washington Square Park process, in which the community and the Parks Department work collaboratively on behalf of Washington Square Park. It’s up to you, Commissioner Benepe.”

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