Tradition vs. Renovation in Washington Square
By Shoshana Schwartz
Many of the people who use Washington Square Park every day gravitate to a favorite section. For Wayne Monz, it is the chess area, where former world chess champion Bobby Fischer played. For high school student Rachel Sears, it is the lawn where she lounges and chats with her friends. Even the mounds -- the park's mysterious miniature black asphalt hills -- have their aficionados, such as Marianna Verkerk Joseph, who plays there with her children. But, if a planned renovation of the park becomes reality, all of these places could change.
And so, some community residents fear, could the whole nature of the park. They worry that the Greenwich Village park, known for its street performers, political debate and assortment of eccentrics, as well as its iconic arch, could become just another city park -- green and attractive but hardly distinctive.
The parks department, however, says the changes will improve the aesthetic quality of this park, while making it safer and more accessible to the disabled. According to the parks department, Washington Square has not had an overhaul in 25 years. As a result, the fountain system is leaky and dilapidated, and in need of drastic repair.
The $16 million renovation plan would move the fountain approximately 22 feet to align it with the Fifth Avenue Arch, construct a four-foot-high wrought iron fence around the park, eliminate the asphalt mounds, move the dog runs to the park's perimeter, and create a lawn in place of the plaza.
While New Yorkers generally welcome improvements to their local parks, the Washington Square Park renovations have attracted much opposition. Critics claim that the parks department is instituting an expensive redesign plan that most park users don't want. According to the Project for Public Spaces, an organization commissioned by the parks department to study the park's usage, "While people see the need for upgrades of certain current facilities and amenities (pavement, bathrooms, etc.), they like the park the way it is."
The renovations were scheduled to start as early as May. Before that could happen, four residents filed suit against the parks department over the size of the fountain plaza. The petitioners also charged that the proposed 45-foot spray of water from the fountain would limit people's ability to use the surrounding area.
In late July the state Supreme Court ruled against the city and the parks department. In her decision, Judge Emily Jane Goodman said the city had not provided Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Commission with adequate information concerning the plans for the fountain and surrounding plaza. The ruling put the renovation on hold.
The redesign plan does have supporters. Emily Kies Folpe, author of "It Happened on Washington Square," thinks the opponents have received more attention than they deserve. "There are many more people than newspapers would have you think who are perfectly happy to have this renovation go forward," she said. "It's really a very small number of people who have been putting forth a lot of anger and opposition."
One dispute concerns the way the park is used. The study by the Project for Public Spaces notes that "people stay in the park, they don't simply pass through." Opponents of the redesign worry that the proposed reconstruction would transform the park from a "hang out" place to a park that "you just walk through." The park is "a meeting and gathering place of opinions and ideas," said David Lawrence, manager of the park's small dog run. Many residents fear that that will be lost.
Another disagreement concerns the park’s history. Washington Square Park, built in the 1820s, has already been through a series of renovations. And the parks department notes that "use of public space in Washington Square Park has...been redefined" throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
But many in the neighborhood think that the park's current design will best preserve its historic character. "The neighborhood likes the park the way it is," Marianna Joseph said. "We just want it to be cleaned up."
Some chess players want to keep the chess area as it is because Fisher played there and the movie "Searching for Bobby Fisher" was filmed there. But the parks department has said it might reduce the number of chess tables as part of its efforts to fight drug dealing in the park.
Another controversy surrounds the asphalt mounds. The plan would eliminate them, but some residents would like to see them saved. The mounds used to a playground, and people have proposed that a playground, intended for somewhat older children, be built there now. The park currently has two playgrounds, but both are crowded and intended for toddlers and younger children. The parks department says it will create new playgrounds, but that their locations will depend on the outcome of the litigation.
Some residents are also concerned about the proposed fence around the park, claiming that it would detract from the park's feeling of openness. But Gil Horowitz, president of the Lower 5th Avenue Block Association and chairman of the Community Relations Committee of the Square Arch Realty Corporation, points out that the park originally had a fence around it. The renovation, he said, "partially restores the feel of the original park, not as tall but partially."
Beyond the pros and cons of specific aspects of the plan, some in the community object to the way the parks department has made decisions.
"The parks department from the beginning has been dishonest about the design, has gone behind everyone's backs," said Leonie Haimson, a leader of community opposition to the park's redesign. "There is lots of resentment in the community about how the parks department went about this."
But Horowitz says that dissenters have had plenty of opportunity to voice their concerns: "The parks department has had over 100 meetings with community groups," he said, adding that the redesign "is one of the most discussed and debated topics in the community."
The park redesign is being funded by a private-public partnership, meaning that the city only has to pay $6.8 million of the $16 million in costs. Private businesses and other contributors will cover the rest.
NYU made a $1 million donation. It says it supports the renovation as long as the park is available for commencement and the dog run is not moved in front of the library. The university, which dominates the surrounding area, is "agnostic" about the specific details of the plan, said Alicia Hurley, NYU's associate vice president for government and community affairs.
The parks department says the private-public partnership will provide enough money to pay for the renovations â€“ and will even make possible a more extensive renovation than the city could have afforded on its own.
But, as with everything else about the renovation, there is dispute over the funding. Some critics worry that the private funding will place control of public property in private hands. And other New Yorkers question where the city will find the money to maintain the park. "They haven't found time and money to maintain what they have," said resident Karen Brooks. Eliza Nichols, the daughter of Robert Nichols who was the lead architect for the 1969 redesign, questions whether the parks department is taking on more than it can afford: "We're very afraid that we'll be stuck with a building site but no money for years."
A Cleaner, Safer Hell’s Kitchen Park
By Dan Rivoli
For years, parks department employee Frank Davis has been picking up litter in Hell’s Kitchen Park, on 10th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets. The park, which opened to the public in 1979, had long been a haven for the homeless, peppered with broken beer and liquor bottles. For much of that time, it was an environment that reflected the shabbier aspect of neighborhood that surrounded it, Davis said. He recalls that he would “never see kids in the park beforeâ€¦. It was a dump.”
Now, though, a $1.24 million renovation of Hell’s Kitchen Park has made sunny days there picturesque: mothers chatting while their children rest in strollers or play and then cool off in the sprinklers. Others come to eat lunch or simply relax. The changes, spearheaded by community residents and the local block association, have also removed a source or crime and blight in the area.
Hell’s Kitchen Park is nestled between the large high-rise apartments and ground floor businesses that line 10th Avenue. Large trees grow around the perimeter of the park, providing shade. Thanks to the renovations, which were unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 16, an open space separates two playgrounds, equipped with clean water fountains and a red rubber mat for safety. For older kids and athletic adults, there are two graffiti-free handball and basketball courts.
Before those with higher incomes started calling this piece of the West Side home, the area suffered from high crime. The park was a “drug den” and “a nice place for winos to drink,” said Elke Fears, president of the W 47 â€“ W 48 Street Block Association
Since residents with higher incomes exerted their influence on the neighborhood, the park needed to follow suit. Residents worked hard to improve Hell’s Kitchen Park, said Fears, saying it “needed major renovations. The old, unsafe playground equipment needed to be replaced with safer, handicapped-accessible equipment.”
Crime was another issue. People came to the park to break the law because there were areas that could not be seen by the police from the outside. Now, thanks to the park’s new design, police can “see every corner,” Davis said. Before the renovation, the park did not have a fence, so there was nothing to stop people from sleeping on benches, or using drugs or alcohol at night. Now, the park features a fence, and it is against the law to be caught in Hell’s Kitchen Park when that fence is locked for the night.
The renovations finally were made in part because City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents the district, used money from her discretionary fund.
Maintenance has been a joint effort by the parks department and members of the community, specifically the W 47 â€“ W 48 Street Block Association..”
The block association has “always been the shepherd of the park,” said John Doswell, co-chair of the waterfront and park committee for community board 4 “They kept it safe and kept their presence there,” he said. Community board 4 lends a hand as well.
Davis, the parks department employee, likens the care and maintenance of the park to that of a new car. When you get a new car, you want to keep it clean, he said.
Meanwhile other work remains to be done in this area of the far West Side. Doswell, co-chair of the waterfront and park committee for community board 4 says that De Witt Clinton Park, almost six times larger than the .58-acre Hell’s Kitchen Park, has yet to be renovated. “The larger park that needs attention is De Witt Clinton Park,” he said.
Gas Tank Park
By Alexander Perkins
For nearly a century, the Elmhurst gas tanks -- towering 200 feet above ground -- cast an imposing shadow over the local community and served as a landmark for commuters stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
“The tanks were an eyesore,” said City Councilmember Dennis Gallagher. And so, when the tanks outlived their usefulness, community residents fought to replace them with something more attractive.
In 1996, the aging tanks, now obsolete, were torn down, and for the next five years, the KeySpan energy company parked its trucks on the lot.
In 2001, KeySpan announced that it would sell the 6.5-acre property on 80th Road and 57th Avenue. While developers envisioned shopping malls and big box stores, some local residents saw a rare opportunity to build much-needed parkland.
A COMMUNITY PROPOSAL
The Maspeth, Middle Village, and Elmhurst areas of Queens â€“the most densely populated section of the borough - are known for their high voter turnout in local elections and for being one of the few places in the city to elect Republicans to local office.
These middle-class neighborhoods are also known for a lack of open space, with just two acres of parkland for over 167,000 residents. (See a community profile in pdf format)
Hearing the news that the Elmurst gas tank site was for sale, a local group, the Juniper Park Civic Association, distributed surveys to gauge the residents’ opinions about the vacant lot. Of the 500 responding , 73 percent said they wanted a park, 16 percent said they favored residential development, and 4 percent called for a shopping mall.
Surveys in hand, the Juniper Park Civic Association approached KeySpan and asked the company to donate the lot to the city for open space.
“They (KeySpan) told us it was out of the question,” said Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association.
Other local leaders joined the cause, concerned that new commercial development would bring more traffic and pollution to the area.
At a meeting of Queens Community Board 5 in 2002, board member Tony Nunziato confronted a KeySpan vice president. “We’ve paid for your service and you profited from us,” said Nunziato. “By selling it and not giving the land to the community, you’re disposing of our quality of life.”
In December 2002, KeySpan agreed to sell the land to the Mattone Group, a Queens based development and construction company, which hoped to put in a Home Depot, a self-storage facility, and a bank.
Flooded with letters and phone calls from concerned constituents, City Councilmembers Melinda Katz and Dennis Gallagher and State Assemblywoman Margaret Markey intervened. At a March 2003 meeting, KeySpan Chairman Robert Catell agreed to postpone the sale of the site for one year to allow the elected officials time to find funding to purchase the land for the city. The asking price: $12 million.
PROTESTING AGAINST DEVELOPMENT
Over the next year, with elected officials and community groups unable to come up with the $12 million, KeySpan proceeded with their plans to sell the land.
Devastated by the news of the pending retail development, residents of Middle Village, Maspeth, and Elmhurst formed a community task force to confront what some dubbed “the KeyScam problem.”
Frustrated residents planned protests, discussed a boycott of the energy giant, and even hung large banners criticizing the company on the Long Island Expressway.
“Let’s boycott and shut off our gas togetherâ€¦it’s time to say enough!” Tony Nunziato urged a group of residents.
The battle became a focal point of neighborhood politics.
“I couldn’t believe how upset people wereâ€¦it was definitely a hot button issue around here,” said Middle Village resident Janitza Betances.
In a final effort to address the issue, former Republican City Councilmember Tom Ognibene wrote a letter to Michael Bloomberg calling for the mayor to get involved.
Mayor Bloomberg, (who would later face a challenge from Ognibene for the Republican mayoral nomination), contacted KeySpan Chairman Robert Catell.
A week later, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the gas company would transfer the land to the city for $1, and the city would transform the Elmurst gas tank site into a public park.
However, not everyone was happy with the new agreement â€“ particularly those who believed the retail development would have created 350 new jobs and $15 million in tax revenue for the city.
“I just don’t understand the mayor’s priority and how he arrived at the decision he made,” developer Joseph Mattone told the Daily News.
When asked about the sudden change of heart, a KeySpan representative said that the heavily populated community was deserving of “more open space” and would not comment further.
FUTURE OF GAS TANK PARK
The site of the Elmhurst gas tanks
Although the deal between KeySpan and the city was brokered in 2003, the actual transfer of the land was delayed until November 2005 â€“ four days before the reelection of Michael Bloomberg â€“ because extensive environmental clean-up was necessary to meet the requirements of the Department of Environmental Protection for a public park.
With the park still in its tentative design stage, community leaders continue to stay involved by working closely with Partnership for Parks, a non-profit group, organizing community design meetings.
The community also debated what kind of park it should be: one with open green space or one filled with ball fields and recreational facilities. The Department of Parks and Recreation preferred the former.
Possible features of the aptly named “Gas Tank Park,” include trees to block out the neighboring Long Island Expressway, perimeter sidewalks, and a third of an acre playground.
The mayor and the City Council earmarked $20 million for park renovations, and the parks department anticipates construction to begin later this year.
“What’s certain is that it will be a welcome respite from city life, that will provide generations of Queens residents much needed recreation space,” said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adriane Benepe.
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