Volume 73, Number 48 | March 31 - April 6, 2004

Talking Point

How the Washington Sq. Arch came to be restored

By Bob O’Sullivan

Eight years ago, when my daughter was turning 2 years old, I spent a lot of time in Washington Sq. Park playground. I was upset by the litter in and around the playground. I complained to the parks manager, K.C. Sahl, and thus began my involvement in Washington Sq. Park.

This spring, the restoration of the Washington Memorial Arch will be completed, and plans are being made to restore the entire park. This is a good time to look back at how the restoration of the arch became a community priority and how a small group of people from the Parks Department, Community Board 2, New York University and neighborhood organizations worked together with elected officials to make it happen.

K.C. Sahl was more than a park manager; he was the lead organizer for the park. In my case, K.C. invited me to a meeting of other parents who had complaints. The meeting led to a group of parents reviving a parents organization from the late 1960s, The Washington Square Park Council. Karin Bravin, Lisa Rosenthal and myself led the organization until this year, when we turned it over to a new generation of parents. K.C. helped us focus on how to improve programs in the playground, create events and finally how to improve the overall park.

K.C. introduced us to the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, now the city’s Parks commissioner. He also introduced us to Bob Cohen, then director of Community Affairs at New York University, and the late Tony Dapolito, who was the chairperson of the Parks Committee of Community Board 2. Over the following two years, we worked together staging events for families in the park and coordinating grants from foundations for playground entertainment. It soon became evident that the entire park was rundown and needed major funding to improve the environment.

At one meeting with Benepe, he suggested we focus on one major project to improve the park, possibly restoration of the fountain or the arch. Adrian suggested we build support in the community and on Community Board 2 for a park construction project. Over several years, Benepe met with us in his office and at community meetings in Greenwich Village. He was always available by telephone and offered us advice, encouragement and guidance. One of Adrian’s first suggestions was that we speak with Tony Dapolito, unofficially the mayor of Greenwich Village and an influential member of Community Board 2.

If you wanted to see Tony, you stopped by his bakery, bought some bread and asked Tony his advice. Who should we call? Who do we need to talk to on the community board? In the City Council? What about the borough president? What other community groups should we involve? Tony always provided great advice, along with stories from earlier days. Tony provided the historical context of past battles to make his points. We all miss Tony.

Many Greenwich Villagers view New York University as the evil empire. Anything bad in our community is either caused by N.Y.U. or made worse by the university, the sentiment goes. I don’t share that view, and to be quite honest consider it silly. Still, New York University is the eighth-largest employer in New York City; a major private university, it’s the elephant in our living room. N.Y.U. overwhelms the neighborhood by the size of its construction projects. Our organization opposed the size and design of the new Kimmel student center and tried along with many other groups to negotiate the size of the new law school building. We failed to have any impact on improving the student center but were able to reduce the height of the law school building by about 40 feet.

However, my interactions with university officials were a pleasant surprise. After K.C. Sahl introduced us to Bob Cohen, we met with him at least once a month and sometimes as often as twice a week. Bob was very supportive of our efforts to improve the park. Bob introduced us to his supervisor, Lynne Brown, director of government and community affairs. As a former president of the Washington Square Park Council, Bob was a major source of community information. By attending meetings almost every night of the week, he kept in touch with all of the community organizations and helped groups stay in touch and support each others’ activities.

After meeting with Benepe and Dapolito about focusing our attention on improving one area of the park, we went to see Bob and Lynne for support and advice. Lynne made it very clear from the start that N.Y.U. was in the business of education, not park construction. N.Y.U. would be supportive of our efforts but would not take a leadership role in rebuilding the park or in selecting a project for restoration. Lynne and Bob suggested we try building support in the community by having meetings to discuss our ideas and get input from other groups. Bob Cohen played a key part in helping set up those meetings, sending out information and making telephone calls to encourage community leaders to become involved in our meetings to improve the park.

Several meetings later a consensus was reached that restoration of the arch was the first step in rebuilding the park. Many people felt we should raise the money from individuals and businesses in the community to fund the project. We had several meetings discussing the hiring of a professional fundraiser or having volunteers set up events for fundraising. However, Tony, Adrian and Lynne each independently suggested that the City Council has a capital project fund and that some funds might come from that source; another potential source was the Manhattan borough president; finally, private community funds might be raised as the last part of the financing puzzle.

Bob Cohen again helped out by calling and writing to all of his contacts in the community suggesting they support the restoration of the Washington Memorial Arch by passing resolutions. Tony Dapolito helped us draft a resolution of support by C.B. 2 for the restoration of the arch and asked other community board members to support the resolution, which passed unanimously. Benepe told us the schedule for the City Council budget hearings and suggested we seek support from City Councilmember Kathryn Freed and Borough President C. Virginia Fields. Lynne Brown arranged for us to testify at the budget hearings of the Manhattan Council delegation.

In the winter and early spring of 2001, Karin Bravin, Lisa Rosenthal and myself attended numerous meetings with elected officials and their staff to discuss the upcoming budget. No one considered approaching Mayor Giuliani. Greenwich Village had never supported the mayor and many of the political clubs and community organizations had attacked him over government policy. The mayor had never supported a major project for Greenwich Village and was rarely seen at public events in the community.

In January 2001, Michael Haberman became the new director for government and community affairs at N.Y.U., when Lynne Brown was promoted to senior vice president. I had never met Michael Haberman. At the time, I felt that our project was 90 percent complete and all we needed to do was wait for the city budget process to be completed. Looking back, I realize that without Michael the full funding for the restoration project would not have happened that year. Michael worked very hard tracking the budget process through the City Council to make sure the project received the money recommended by Freed and Fields. In addition, he used his many contacts at City Hall to convince the mayor’s staff and ultimately Mayor Giuliani that the restoration of the arch would be part of the mayor’s legacy and that it was important to the city and the neighborhood. Michael set up meetings with the mayor and university representatives to argue our case.

When the budget was finally approved, the original proposed funding from Fields and Freed was included. This funding represented approximately 70 percent of the total funding needed for the project. We knew from the beginning of the process that we would still be approximately $1 million short of the full funding, but felt that we might be able to raise the rest through grants or corporate and individual contributions. To our surprise, another $1 million appeared in the budget from the mayor’s office. Haberman and N.Y.U. had been able to convince Giuliani of the worthiness of our cause.

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