Lawsuits, not politicians, will save Wash. Sq. Park

By Jonathan Greenberg

Thank you for last week’s sober, evenhanded editorial in The Villager about Washington Square Park and the lawsuits that we, and others, have filed to stop Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Benepe from their enormously unpopular radical redesign of Washington Square Park. Their plan would transform the unique public park that is the heart and soul of our community into a construction zone for years and years, then reopen it as a garden-style pedestrian pass-though mall with a significantly shrunken, inaccessible, ornamental fountain as its centerpiece.

After reading the admonition in last week’s Villager article on our lawsuit by my old friend Councilmember Alan Gerson that “enough is enough” with our lawsuits, I feel compelled to set the record straight about the role that litigation has played in preserving the Washington Square Park that so many New Yorkers love.

Although Alan’s hard work and good intentions give honor to the title “public servant,” I believe that the positions he has taken on the park’s renovation have not served our community well.

The so-called “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” would allow the park’s central, sunken plaza to be brought to street level, permit an imposing 4-foot fence to enclose the park (replacing a discreet 2-foot tube fence), create a reliance upon private funding (and, likely, a conservancy) for the first time in the park’s 178-year history, allow much of the park to be unnecessarily closed for three years for a gut redesign (instead of repairs and smaller improvements) and allow its walkways to be severely reduced in width and bisected with planters.

Even if this “compromise plan” were not problematic, the city has repeatedly denied that it will be bound by this unsigned agreement, both in the city’s legal filings and during the Appellate Court hearing on Oct. 31.

Despite Alan’s idealistic assurances that the city will “honor” the agreement that they have repeatedly disavowed, the Parks Department bid documents sent out a year ago demonstrate that the city had no intention of adhering to the terms of the Gerson agreement. Although Gerson’s agreement stated that the park’s central plaza could be reduced by no more than 10 percent, the bid documents (which were sent out months after Gerson announced the agreement) showed a plan that reduced the plaza by between 23 percent (the city’s numbers) and 33 percent (our numbers, counting the eastern area of the current plaza).

Now Councilmember Gerson suggests that we back off from our lawsuits and leave the future of the park to him and a new task force that has even less legal influence over the actions of the Parks Department than he has.

Without the court-ordered injunctive relief won through our lawsuit, Washington Square Park would have been closed for construction and a radical redesign nearly a year ago. Why should we, local taxpayers, leave the fate of our beloved park to politicians who have never provided us with a real choice about whether we prefer the park to be repaired or redesigned; who have refused to survey park users and our community about how we would improve our park; who have refused to provide us with even the most rudimentary professional usage study or even with construction-abatement plans for their radically transformative plan?

It was two years ago last week that I wrote a talking point in this newspaper asking the Parks Department to undertake a survey of park users and the community, and to provide us with a usage study for the enormous changes that the Benepe gang has been demanding.

For two years, Parks has done nothing of the sort, and has instead refused to budge from its radical redesign, or even to disclose its full plans to the public for review. Even when admonished, in Judge Emily Jane Goodman’s court ruling, for omitting material information from its presentations to our community board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city appealed the decision rather than provide its final plans for public review. (Readers can see the Parks Department caught in its lies in a Web video at www.openwsp.com.)

And now we have filed an environmental lawsuit, asking for a real plan instead of the Parks Department’s recent “assessment” that a full environmental impact statement is unnecessary. Given the magnitude of the planned changes, we want to see a usage and circulation study, as well as a plan for how small children, dog owners and surrounding residents will be impacted during three or more years of intense construction. These lawsuits would not be necessary if the Parks Department would simply to do its job and serve the public.

The City Council has no direct control over our Parks Department’s planning. I believe that Alan Gerson is trying to make the most out of a difficult situation, with an incredibly wealthy and powerful mayor lined up behind this plan. But neither Bloomberg nor Benepe own our city’s public spaces. And as Robert Moses and Mayor Robert Wagner found out nearly 50 years ago when they tried to build a highway through the park, Greenwich Villagers do not shrink from challenging the powerful.

Thankfully, we still have an independent judiciary that acts as a check and balance, even on a powerful mayor.

So with all due respect to my old friend, we are not going to leave the future of our park to Alan Gerson. The Parks Department has misled us, our community board, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and our elected representatives. We have taken our fight to court, where we stand the best chance of saving what so many of us cherish most about Washington Square Park.

Greenberg is coordinator of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition and a plaintiff in two lawsuits against the Washington Square Park renovation project