Amy Nicholson’s Muskrat Love

By Albert Amateau

Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 – 7, 2006

City says there was ‘no written agreement’ on Wash. Sq.

The long and bitter fight over the proposed redesign of Washington Square Park continued on Tuesday when an Appellate Division panel heard arguments on the city’s appeal of a State Supreme Court ruling that the Department of Parks failed to properly inform Community Board 2 about two features of the plan.

In July, Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman ruled in favor of a group of Washington Square residents who challenged the review process. Goodman ruled the Parks Department didn’t adequately reveal changes in the proposed size of the central fountain plaza, where impromptu performance is a long tradition. The design of the fountain’s water jets was another feature that Goodman said was not properly revealed to the community board and to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In her July ruling, Goodman said those two issues should be reviewed again, but she found that other features challenged by the opponents were adequately reviewed.

“There is the fundamental principal of the democratic process at issue,” Arlene Boop, the lawyer for the group challenging the city told the five-member Appellate Division panel on Tuesday. “Although the community board’s role in the review process is only advisory, we feel they didn’t have adequate information to fulfill that role,” she said.

Arguing for the city, attorney Deborah Bremmer insisted that both issues were adequately aired. She noted that Community Board 2 approved the redesign twice in the past two years.

The main issue before the Appellate Division revolves around changes from the existing size of the fountain plaza proposed by George Vellonakis, the department’s landscape architect. Opponents of the redesign insisted the new plaza be the same size as present to maintain its function as a place of free public assembly. Last year, City Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn entered an agreement with Parks that the size of the new plaza would be reduced by no more than 10 percent.

However, in the design drawings reviewed by the community board, the fountain plaza shrunk by 23 percent, according to the Parks Department and 33 percent according to the group that filed the challenge. Bremmer said the size reduction was evident in the drawings, but the opponents say the size change was obscured.

On Tuesday, Bremmer acknowledged that there was an oral agreement between the department and the two councilmembers, but she insisted that there was no written obligation for the size of the proposed plaza to be 90 percent of the current size. Moreover, Bremmer noted that the City Council does not have a role in the review of the Washington Square Park redesign.

“There is still 39,000 square feet of area in the plaza and there is nothing to prevent people from gathering on the grass [around the plaza],” Bremmer said. She also said that Parks was not obligated to tell the board the exact dimensions of the design elements.

But Boop, referring to a news article in The Villager, noted that a Department of Parks spokesperson said at the time that while Parks did not sign the agreement, the department intended to honor it.

Boop also said that information about the fountain jets, which could shoot water 45 feet high, were not adequately presented to the community board. Opponents say the volume of water would prevent seating around the fountain, as well as, of course, performances in the fountain.

Bremmer, however, said water conservation rules would probably not allow water jets 45 feet tall. Furthermore, the fountain could be shut off on short notice to accommodate other uses of it, she added. The current fountain can shoot water 15 feet into the air.

Village opponents of the Washington Square redesign attended the hearing and were outraged at statements by the city’s attorney.

“Maybe there was no written agreement [about the size of the plaza] but we all saw Gerson shaking hands with Bill Castro [Manhattan borough Parks commissioner] at a public meeting,” Susan Goren, a vocal park advocate who lives near the square, said later.

Judge Peter Tom presided at the Appellate Division hearing, with Judges Richard Andrias, David Saxe, Luis Gonzalez and John Sweeney completing the panel. From their questions, it did not appear that the judges had reached a consensus. There was no indication when a decision would come.