Gerson: Book’s not closed yet on festival conditions

By David H. Ellis

With just over two months remaining before the New York Is Book Country festival descends upon Washington Sq. Park, apprehensive residents and Community Board 2 members have enlisted the assistance of City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who says stationing the event in the Village is still open to debate.

Responding to repeated concerns of constituents, Gerson indicated that lingering questions must be addressed and possible concessions might have to be made before he will accept the event’s arrival in Greenwich Village on the weekend of Oct. 2-3.

“Any event must fit within the livability requirement of our community or it’s not going to happen,” said Gerson to members of C.B. 2 during last Thursday’s board meeting at New York University’s Silver Building on Waverly Pl.

The festival, which is scheduled to move from its previous site on Fifth Ave. between 48th and 57th Sts. to Washington Sq. Park, of which it will use one-third, and the surrounding area, including N.Y.U.’s campus, typically attracts 40,000 or more people and over 100 vendors who peddle books and related merchandise.

When first approached with the idea in June, Board 2 members overwhelmingly voted against the recommendation of the board’s Parks Committee to issue the festival a permit for the use of Washington Sq. Park and the surrounding streets, citing potential traffic congestion and the board’s traditional position of keeping commercial activity out of the park. However, following a July 7 meeting between N.Y.I.B.C., the Parks Department and Art Strickler, Board 2 district manager, it seemed that the event had been approved for the Village site, provided retail book sales were restricted within the park and exhibitors could not occupy the eastern side of the square.

Earlier this month, Strickler and Ann Binkley, executive director of New York Is Book Country, both indicated that the Parks Department had approved the event and that the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit was poised to sign the necessary street permits for vendors who are expected to occupy LaGuardia Pl. and Thompson and Sullivan Sts. between Washington Sq. South and W. Third Sts. However, Gerson’s office hinted that the deal was not final.

“The Parks commissioner wouldn’t issue permits until they ran it by the councilmember,” said Dirk McCall, Gerson’s chief of staff. “We don’t think anything will be done until the councilmember has been involved.”

The Parks Department confirmed that the permit for use of Washington Sq. Park is pending and has not yet been approved. Calls to the Community Assistance Unit were not returned.

According to Brad Hoylman, Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee chairperson, the misunderstanding between festival planners and opposing residents and board members has developed due to the limited information provided by N.Y.I.B.C. organizers on such issues as street closures, which has reached board members in “drips and drops.”

“We don’t have any idea on what streets will be closed and for how long and its effect on residents and business owners,” said Hoylman.

“Normally this project should be up for public review and input with issues like traffic and in this case it didn’t happen.”

Susan Goren, a member of the Washington Place Block Association who spoke out against the book festival during the July 22 Board 2 meeting, echoed Hoylman’s concerns.

“Where was the community input and where was the process it was supposed to go through?” asked Goren. “My belief is the Parks Committee thinks it’s wonderful because they’ll get more money for the park, but it will open the floodgates to commercial activity.”

Aubrey Lees, C.B. 2’s Parks Committee chairperson, said the book festival would be a good fundraiser for the park and — referring to the park’s problem with drug dealers —“books are better than drugs.”

Gerson said he is attempting to schedule a meeting with Parks and C.A.U. officials, N.Y.I.B.C. organizers and residents next week in order to answer concerns of several Board 2 committee chairpersons and residents. If necessary, Gerson says event planners may have to make further concessions.

“What we are going to do is meet with sponsors, city administrators and community groups and go over details and see if it is possible to have it take place within that framework,” said Gerson, again stressing the concept of “livability.” “If we can’t come to terms, we will oppose it.”