Volume 73, Number 52 | April 28 - May 4, 2004

Police forced off plaza to neighbors’ delight

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Paul Lee, right, joined others in Chinatown on April 16 at James Madison Plaza to celebrate the end of the plaza’s use as a parking lot for police vehicles.

The asphalt triangle behind Police Headquarters didn’t look like much of a park on a recent, sunny Friday afternoon. But James Madison Plaza was finally free of cars, and Parks Department workers had installed flowerbeds and benches around its perimeter just hours before community members gathered there to celebrate the plaza’s reopening as a public space.

This evolution resulted from a court order by Justice Walter Tolub of State Supreme Court, who ruled that by April 15 police had to vacate the plaza that they had used as a parking lot since the Sept. 11 attack.

“I couldn’t be happier we’re here today,” said Paul Lee, a community activist who has worked on the campaign to reopen the plaza and neighboring Park Row. To underscore the plaza’s reclaimed use, Lee brought a beach chair festooned with balloons to the April 16 celebration and news conference.

Office workers and residents enjoyed bag lunches on park benches before yielding to city Parks employees, who wasted no time in giving the benches a fresh coat of green paint.

“It’s very pleasant,” said Jeffrey Gilliam, 52, who works in the Municipal Building nearby.

Gilliam suggested installing a flea market in the newly emptied plaza near St. James Pl. and Madison St. Richard Woo, 54, envisioned hot dog stands and a fountain to enliven the area for neighboring Murry Bergtraum High School students and Verizon workers.

Woo, who works in Chinatown, sounded one note of concern when he asked where the cars that had been parked in the plaza would go.

“Would they be on streets where people shop?” Woo asked. “That could hurt businesses.”

The cars that used James Madison will now park in the newly renovated municipal parking garage next to 1 Police Plaza. A police spokesperson confirmed on Monday that the garage, whose mid-2001 closing to the public sparked community outcry, had reopened for police use only.

Even as residents and elected officials hailed the plaza’s reclamation, they cautioned that more needed to be done to clear Park Row, a major artery linking Chinatown to Lower Manhattan that has been closed since 9/11 for what the city has called security reasons. The community is currently crafting its legal response to the Park Row closing and is considering whether to file a new suit on the matter, Lee said.

“This community is a community that has suffered, and they can’t be asked to sacrifice over and over again,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district includes James Madison Plaza. Representative Nydia Velazquez, State Senator Martin Connor and City Councilmember Alan Gerson joined Silver at Friday’s event.

On May 3 at 1 p.m., the City Council will hold a hearing on proposed street-closure legislation that would require the city to undertake a full review process and ease the impact on the community if the city keeps a public street closed beyond a certain period of time. The legislation would apply to Park Row, Gerson said.

“I don’t have to tell you what a disgrace this is,” Gerson said, noting that the director of the emergency room at N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital told him that the Park Row closing hindered ambulances on their way to the hospital at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.

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