Volume 77 / Number 27 - December 05 - 11, 2007
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Parks prevails: Wash. Sq. revamp to start this winter

By Lincoln Anderson

Clearing the way for the Washington Square Park renovation’s Phase I to begin, Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden on Monday ruled against two environmental lawsuits that had been lodged against the project by neighborhood residents.

Madden rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that a full-scale environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., needed to be performed for the project, and agreed with the city that a less-intensive environmental assessment statement, or E.A.S., that had been done was sufficient.

“This long-delayed project has been twice approved by the community board and local electeds and we are grateful for today’s decision and look forward to begin the restoration of this great park,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Benepe thanked the city’s Law Department for winning “these four cases,” referring to the several lawsuits that had tried to derail the plans.

Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, head of the Law Department, added, “This decision confirms that the Parks Department carefully considered all the potential environmental impacts of the renovation and correctly determined there would be no adverse effects. We are pleased that each of the four suits have been dismissed and look forward to commencing construction in the near future.”

Monday’s ruling concerned two consolidated lawsuits. In Greenberg v. Bloomberg et al., plaintiffs Jonathan Greenberg and Luther Harris claimed that the E.A.S. for the renovation, completed by the Parks Department in 2006, insufficiently analyzed the construction’s impacts, neighborhood character impacts and natural resources impacts likely to result from the renovations. In Emergency Coalition Organization to Save Washington Square Park v. Bloomberg et al., a separate group of neighborhood plaintiffs similarly claimed that the E.A.S. failed to properly consider the project’s potential adverse impacts on natural resources, open space resources, socioeconomic conditions, parkgoers’ First Amendment rights and access for individuals with disabilities. 

Although no date has been announced for the start of the work, the combined statement from the Parks and Law departments said construction is planned to start by the end of the year.

Needless to say, Greenberg was deeply disappointed at the ruling. Having heard that Madden was writing up a long decision — it turned out to be 34 pages — had given him encouragement that the ruling would go in the plaintiffs’ favor.

Although sounding dispirited on the telephone Monday afternoon after the announcement, Greenberg said the opponents still have a few options left. The first, he said, is to wage what he called a “Don’t Fund Destruction” campaign to lobby the City Council not to fund the project. Second, he said, “There is lots of talk of protesting” when the construction does begin. In addition, he said, “There is another kind of lawsuit, by a different kind of plaintiff — a cryptic kind of lawsuit.” He said he couldn’t explain the details of that cryptic kind of suit any further at this point, but that it would become clear at the appropriate time, if necessary. And then there is the possibility of appealing Monday’s decision, though it’s not clear if they will do so, he said. Furthermore, at this point an appeal would not have a chance of gaining an injunction to stop the work from proceeding, he noted.

Greenberg said Council Speaker Christine Quinn could stop the project in its tracks, if only she wanted to.

“Is Christine Quinn going to continue to turn a deaf ear to her constituents and people who love the park?” he asked. “And is she going to expend the political capital that she has up to this point not expended to preserve Washington Square Park?”

On the other hand, Greenberg said, Councilmember Alan Gerson, whose district contains the park, “has very little power to stop this plan, and he’s not indicated that he would do anything else. He has indicated he wants the lawsuit settled and the process to move on. I think he’s tried to do what is politically expedient, achievable,” Greenberg said.

‘An incredible victory’

Indeed, Gerson hailed the whole process — culminating now in the green light to move forward — as a resounding victory.

“The outcome is expected,” Gerson said of Madden’s decision. “It’s what I and others predicated over a year ago, because courts are very deferential to city agencies when it comes to design issues. That’s why I thought it was important to negotiate instead of relying on litigation. If we had not negotiated, we would not have gotten all the concessions that we did.”

At the same time, Gerson said, Greenberg and the his fellow plaintiffs and opponents should not feel down, because they played an important role in “shaping changes” to the original plan presented by Parks.

“I think we have an incredible community victory here with all the concessions by the Parks Department and changes in the design,” the councilmember said. “We’re keeping access to the inside of the fountain. We’re keeping 89 to 90 percent of the so-called performance plaza around the fountain — that’s amazing. We’re keeping the mounds — which were going to be leveled.

“We lowered the fence — without any gates, without any spears, delicate design, very different from what was originally proposed,” he continued. “More green space. More seating — improved seating, very important for seniors. We’re going to get a preteen playground that wasn’t in the original design. The children’s playground will be expanded and the tots’ playground refurbished. Improved chess and Scrabble areas.

“Plus, we have unprecedented protections against commercial activities,” he added.

Gerson said the park’s dilapidated bathrooms will also be renovated. Asked when, he said, “The planning will be worked out — but we’ll press for it soon.”

Fountain to shift

The first phase of the work, to last 12 to 18 months, involves dismantling the fountain, restoring it and reassembling it about 20 feet to the east of its current spot. The park’s northeast quadrant will be renovated as will the playgrounds and the chess and Scrabble areas. The rest of the park will be left open while this work proceeds. After this phase is completed, the second phase will commence, including new dog runs on the park’s southern edge and a new preteen playground and renovated mounds, with the part of the park renovated in Phase I, in turn, left open for parkgoers’ use. Gerson said there will be no construction on weekends and holidays.

A contract was recently awarded for Phase I, which is now budgeted at more than $11 million for a project originally priced at $16 million. The Parks Department now says it does not know what the project’s final cost will be.

The councilmember doesn’t think the renovation project is perfect, though, feeling, for example, it’s not necessary to align the fountain with the arch or raise the sunken plaza.

“I think moving the fountain is silly,” Gerson said, “but it has to be dug up and repaired because of its plumbing. It will remain on the Waverly axis, but will just be moved a little bit.

“The depressed plaza will be leveled,” Gerson said. “But that’s what it was in the ’50s and ’60s heyday of the guitar strumming — and it will continue to be [a place for guitar strumming],” Gerson assured. “It’s not something I would have done, but it’s not worth jettisoning the whole project over it. The fountain, the same thing. The plumbing is falling apart. It’s not going to change the character of the park by moving it a few feet.”

The councilmember said the Washington Square Park Task Force, set up as part of the so-called Gerson-Quinn Agreement with the Parks Department concerning the project, will continue to monitor the plans and the work’s compliance with the design guidelines. Gerson said Benepe told him “demolition” will start this winter.

‘Time to move forward’

Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2 and of the Washington Square Park Task Force, said the task force was pleased that Parks responded to a number of the task force’s recommendations that it made in a report on the project.

“It’s going to be hard to find someone who agrees with every detail of the plan,” Hoylman said. He added that he agreed with filing the lawsuits, since they were “part of a process. They raised certain concerns that needed to be addressed,” he said.

But Hoylman added, “I think it’s now time to consider moving forward. There are still some remaining questions that the task force had — moving the fountain and whether that is a cost-neutral proposition. I understand that will be addressed. Common sense would dictate that if the cost is higher, we shouldn’t move the fountain.”

Hoylman said he’s also concerned about preserving trees during the renovation, but that he’s received a personal assurance from Parks on this front.

“I regret that it’s taken [these] lawsuits to get information [about the design] from the Parks Department,” the C.B. 2 chairperson said.

Hoylman said C.B. 2 and its Parks Committee, in particular, will keep monitoring the project and that, if Gerson and Quinn want the Washington Square Park Task Force to remain actively involved, it will be available for that purpose.

Anne-Marie Sumner, president of the Washington Square Association, which championed the renovation, said she’s relieved that the work can now proceed.

“C’mon, it’s been rough. It’s been really rough,” she said. “Frankly, if the fountain had not been moved, it would have been a good compromise. But ‘consensus’ seems to be a foreign word around here. They lost $2 million with time, costs of materials going up. I’m much relieved that we can get this thing moving onward and forward. It’s been 30 years [since the park’s last renovation]. The sidewalks are cracked and joggers are having trouble with it. We can’t argue about a tree being moved or chopped down. It seems that it’s just the time to stop.”

N.Y.U. backed rehab

John Beckman, New York University’s spokesperson, said the school is glad the work is ready to move ahead.

“N.Y.U. has long supported a renovation of Washington Square Park,” Beckman said. “We believe it is in need of one, and we have pledged financial support. However, the details of that renovation — the design particulars and the timing — were items we felt should be sorted out between the local community and the Parks Department.”

Because of the renovation work, N.Y.U.’s commencement ceremony won’t be held in the park this year.

“We have been making contingencies for this day for a couple of years,” Beckman said. “N.Y.U.’s graduates have always been deeply honored to be allowed to have their commencement in the park. It is a wonderful ceremony, and it will no doubt be a cause for some disappointment for those classes which are unable to have their graduation there. We expect to be in touch with the Yankees organization, who will be playing an away game on our commencement day, Thurs., May 15, 2008, about having our commencement in Yankee Stadium.”

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