Lawsuit to be filed against Washington Sq. renovation

By Lincoln Anderson

Opponents of the renovation plans for Washington Square Park are planning to file a lawsuit this Friday or Monday to stop the hotly debated project from moving forward.

The Villager first learned of the lawsuit on Thursday, when Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee, leaked the fact that he had been receiving phone calls from lawyers who were putting together the case.

The point person of the lawsuit is Sharon Woolums, a public member of the Parks and Waterfront Committee and one of the organizers of the recent Peoples’ Rally to Save Washington Square.

The lead lawyer on the case is Ronald Podolsky, an attorney known for his history of “fighting City Hall” who is reportedly taking the case pro bono.

Woolums and others involved with the committee that has been meeting about the lawsuit were guarded about its details. Last week, it was said they were making final determinations on the best grounds on which to base their argument.

“There are people threatening lawsuits,” said Schwartz of C.B. 2. “They’re looking for grounds – one of which may be the burial ground.”

Until 1825 Washington Square was a potters’ field and contains 20,000 bodies. The assumption would be that the plans to move the park’s fountain 20 feet to the east to align it with the Washington Square Arch, as well as to make improvements to lawns and other work might dig up and disturb the ancient corpses.

Luther Harris, a plaintiff in the suit and author of the definitive book “Around Washington Square,” said that the paupers’ burial ground was filled primarily with poor people – both whites and blacks – from the state prison on Gansevoort Peninsula and the Alms House by City Hall. The cadavers may be from 8 feet to 13 feet beneath the surface, he said.

Other grounds reportedly being contemplated for the suit involve the concept of “limiting access” to the public park. The $16 million, two-year project would close half the park for a year at a time, although the opponents fear the closing might drag on as long as three or four years. One of the most contentious parts of the plan, a 4-foot-tall wrought-iron fence would be added around the park and closed at night with moveable gates. (Also, one might conjecture that another type of limiting access cited in the suit might be the fact that the currently open asphalt expanses in the park – especially on the east side of the fountain – would be turned into lawns that might be closed periodically for reseeding or allowing the grass to rest, as well as the fact that the park’s central paths would be divided at points by viewing gardens, narrowing the space on these walkways.)

Another leading opponent of the park plan, Jonathan Greenberg, head of the Open Community Washington Square Park Coalition, said he was not involved in Woolums’s lawsuit. Woolums confirmed Greenberg wasn’t a part of their suit. However, Greenberg indicated more than one group might be suing to stop the plan.

“Our group – with other groups…. There are a number of groups looking into that right now,” Greenberg said last Thursday of possible litigation in the works. “It’s not even my group that’s the main pusher on this. It might be a few lawsuits that might be consolidated into one by a judge.”

Told of the lawsuit by The Villager on Friday morning, Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, said, “We haven’t been served with the papers yet. So we wouldn’t be able to comment until we’ve seen the papers.”

Greenberg and some other opponents, including Mary Johnson and Harris, addressed Community Board 2’s full board meeting on Thursday night, asking them to revisit their approval of the renovation plan.

“I was lied to, and this board was lied to,” Harris said of the plans for Washington Square.

“On behalf of all the Villagers and the citizens who feel this was handled in a very underhanded way, we ask you to reopen this issue,” Johnson implored the board. Citing “subterfuge, newspaper revelations,” Johnson said the fact that the Parks Department did not publicly disclose that the park’s fountain was being renamed for the Tisches after their $2.5 million donation for the project typified the project’s secretiveness.

But the board decided not to revisit its resolution. Schwartz, in an interview with The Villager, said he felt it was “too soon” to revisit the resolution – just three months after the board took a position – but that he hoped to work with Councilmember Alan Gerson on pushing the department to make changes to the design.

“Whatever is going to happen is really going to come down to his [Gerson’s] negotiations with the Parks Department,” Schwartz said.

However, Schwartz said, Parks doesn’t seem very open to talking about any changes. “I asked the Parks Department to come down to the [July 11 Parks Committee] meeting and they were annoyed,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re not coming. The board already has a resolution.’ I didn’t try to reopen the whole issue before the board. There’s a part of me that wants to do that. But it would require more public hearings and I’m not sure I want to do that. – In the end, I think any change is going to come because of Alan.”

Schwartz said Gerson told his committee meeting that Parks is set on moving the fountain and raising the plaza area to street level.

“Alan reported that they’re adamant about the fountain – so maybe we should focus on other areas,” Schwartz said.

Harris noted that the fountain is at the location of the former hanging gallows. He noted that Peter Cooper recalled seeing a hanging there as a teenager, and that Mayor Edward Cooper, his son, recollected his father having witnessed the hanging at the current site of the fountain.

“That makes that spot the most historic spot in the Village,” Harris said.

(Although an old English elm at the square’s northwest corner is known as “The Hanging Tree,” there were no actual hangings there, according to Harris. It once had a branch that looked like it would have been ideal for hanging, which may have given rise to the myth, said Harris.)

Greenberg feels bringing the fountain up to grade will make the plaza a “pedestrian mall” and spoil its freewheeling character. He says the north ramp down to the plaza is handicapped accessible, though admits the ramps on the three other sides of the fountain are not – but that one accessible ramp is enough.

“You go to City Hall, you only have one A.D.A.-compliant ramp,” he said.

Beyond the lawsuit, both Schwartz and Harris said the upcoming hearing by the Art Commission on Aug. 3 could determine whether the project is allowed to proceed. The commission – which reviews issues affecting art and architecture on city property – will weigh in on the plans to move the fountain and the park’s two statues, of Garibaldi and Holley.

Schwartz recalled how in the past the Art Commission killed a plan for a fence around the Bleecker Playground seating area because it would have been within 40 feet of a statue called “The Family.”

“They can throw a major monkey wrench into things,” he said.

Harris noted that the two Washington Square statues were placed in their current positions in the 1880s by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons Jr. and have only been slightly moved, if anything, since then. He said that, under the renovation plan by George Vellonakis, moving the statues to the north of their ovals and facing them south would make them “lose their prominence. He just doesn’t understand the history,” Harris said of Vellonakis. “He doesn’t understand the significance of it.

Regarding the Art Commission’s review of the renovation plan, Harris said, “I think it has a good chance of killing it.”