Volume 77 / Number 28 - December 12 - 18, 2007
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A crowd of 3,000 people waited to get into the new Apple Store on W. 14th St. last Friday.

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Workers pounded in tall posts for a chain-link construction fence in Washington Square Park on Tuesday.

Fountain figures might pour cold water on project

By Lincoln Anderson

As workers pounded in tall fence posts and moved stacks of metal barriers into Washington Square Park on Monday and Tuesday, cordoning off the area for Phase I of the park’s renovation, opponents were making a last-ditch effort to derail the project.

Luther Harris, a plaintiff on an environmental lawsuit against the project that was defeated last week, personally funded a study of whether moving the park’s fountain would add to the cost of its renovation. Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe has publicly stated that there is no cost difference between repairing the fountain in place or repairing it and moving it.

Anthony Walmsley, a New York City-based landscape architect hired by Harris, determined that moving the fountain would add more than $500,000 to the $2.5 million cost of refurbishing the fountain.

On Monday, Jonathan Greenberg, Harris’s co-plaintiff on the failed environmental lawsuit, presented the findings to representatives of City Comptroller William Thompson. Aides to Councilmembers Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson were also shown the Walmsley report.

A year and a half ago, at a presentation of the park renovation project at a City Council hearing, Parks Commissioner Benepe testified, in response to Gerson’s questioning, that moving the fountain wouldn’t cost extra. Gerson and Quinn subsequently wrote a joint letter to Benepe on Aug. 6 of this year, stating, “We expect to see the documents after bids [for the work] are received to confirm that there is no more than a negligible cost to moving the fountain. In the meantime, we will hold you to your City Council testimony dated June 6, 2006, that there is no significant cost differential. Should it be otherwise we would oppose moving the fountain.”

Said Greenberg of Benepe, “There may be a criminal offense. I don’t know. Did he know it was wrong when he said it? If the fountain cannot be moved — it’s the whole linchpin of the renovation.”

A comment from Parks could not be obtained by press time.

Doris Diether, a veteran member of Community Board 2, called Walmsley, “a very good architect. I’ve know him for years,” she said. “I don’t think the fountain should be moved. If they move it, they don’t know what they’re going to run into — bodies buried there or underground streams.”

Gerson said although he and Quinn had asked for the Parks Department’s comparative cost analysis of moving the fountain versus keeping it in place, Parks said it couldn’t supply it because of the ongoing litigation. But once the lawsuits were decided last week, Parks provided Gerson with a summary stating that the costs were the same. He said he hopes to see the actual figures by Wed., Dec. 12.

“I wish they had come out with this earlier than on the eve of the work starting on Washington Square Park,” Gerson said of Harris and Greenberg. “They knew about this for over a year. You have a commissioner with the Parks Department being the equivalent of under oath. We have two differing reports from two experts. We have to get to the bottom of this and we will.” At the same time, Gerson said the issue should be kept in perspective: “You’re talking about a $500,000 price differential in an $11 million project,” he noted, adding delaying the work will just cause the project’s price to rise.

Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, said, “I think we have to wait to see what [figures] Parks provides.” Of the Walmsley report, he said, “It does raise the question of whether it will be a de minimis cost. We have been assured the cost would be de minimis — and until we get the information on the park, there really isn’t anything to add. I would prefer that they would provide the information to allay public concern. I’m not a park designer, but it seems like a valid consideration and one that hinges on common sense.” Hoylman noted that the Washington Square Park Task Force, of which he is chairperson, is on record asking Parks to provide the fountain cost comparison figures.

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