Squaring Off Over Park; Ink Spilled on Factory

A collective sigh of relief could be heard emanating from New York University’s Kaufman Management Center last Thursday, April 21, as Community Board 2 finally voted on, and passed, a resolution supporting the first phase of the long-awaited and endlessly debated renovation of Washington Square Park.

The restoration, if finally approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Art Commission, will begin this summer, at a cost $16 million dollars, and will continue for three years. The work will be divided into two phases: first, relocating the fountain so that it’s aligned with the famed arch and landscaping the northwest quadrant (the rest of the park will remain open while work is done). The second phase involves landscaping the remainder of the park, relocating the dog run, replacing the playground and installing a perimeter fence. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2008.

While the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the Parks Department’s plan, the meeting wasn’t without conflict: Pandemonium reigned briefly before the meeting was called to order when Jonathan Greenberg, the coordinator and founder of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition, an activist group protesting the renovation plan, grabbed a microphone and asked the densely packed crowd to raise their hands if they were opposed to the park’s renovation. (According to Mr. Greenberg’s count, there were 72 people present who were opposed, with only three supporting the plan.)

Mr. Greenberg said the renovation “is going to convert our beloved park into a construction zone for a minimum of two years-possibly as long as four.” He described the sunken fountain as “the heart and soul of Greenwich Village” and said that it would lose its unique character as a gathering place if moved and leveled to grade.

More ominously, Mr. Greenberg described the Parks Department’s renovation plans as “back-door privatization,” in which the city invests large sums of money in parks without adequate financing, necessitating private funds to bail out the project. Mr. Greenberg pointed to Union Square Park as an example, where the Union Square Partnership, the local B.I.D. (business improvement district) association, is working hand in hand with the Parks Department to renovate the north end of the park. A controversial part of that renovation includes a privately run restaurant in the park’s pavilion, bifurcating the park’s two playgrounds.

(Last Feb. 10, Board 5 passed a resolution supporting the Union Square renovation over the objections of City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, Assemblyman Scott Stringer, activist groups and assorted community members-some of whom suggested that the Department of Parks and Recreation be renamed the “Department of Parks and Restaurants.”)

Among the few board members to vote against the resolution, Rosemary McGrath said that she was unhappy with the proposed fence, the elimination of the mounds-the asphalt-covered hills in the southwest quadrant of the park-and the lack of community awareness regarding the Parks Department’s plans. Before voting against the resolution, which approves the first phase of the renovation, Ms. McGrath paraphrased her mentor, Jane Jacobs, with whom she worked to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the 1960′s: “If you accept the first part of the plan, you’re stuck with the rest of the plan.”

But most board members expressed support for the plan, and a palpable sense of relief was felt after the voting was concluded. The renovation has been a contentious issue for several years, with many community-board meetings resulting in acrimonious standoffs between supporters and opponents.

After the vote, Board 2′s parks committee chair, Aubrey Lees, expressed her relief that the drawn-out process was finally completed. “I think it’s going to be terrific-I’m so happy,” Ms. Lees told The Observer. “Overall, when it’s finished I think everyone is going to be so happy. I think it’s going to be the beginning of re-establishing Greenwich Village as the place everyone wants to go.”

Superior or Inferior?

Community activists scored a victory in their ongoing battle to save the Superior Ink Factory, at the corner of West and Bethune streets, at last Thursday’s board meeting. Related Companies, the behemoth developer behind the Time Warner mall at Columbus Circle and the much-derided “Sculpture for Living” development currently being built on Astor Place, is seeking a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals so that it can tear down the old Nabisco plant to replace it with a 23-story Charles Gwathmey–designed luxury-apartment development.

The board voted unanimously to recommend that the B.S.A. deny the variance, finding that the scale of the proposed building would overwhelm the surrounding community. It also calls on the city to consider zoning changes for future developments in the area, which require a much more stringent review process than variances.

Leading the charge against Related’s plans is Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The group is also lobbying the city to create the Far West Village Historic District, a move that would protect other historic buildings in the neighborhood.

“I was thrilled not only by the unanimous vote, but by how strong the wording of the resolution was,” Mr. Berman said. He added that his organization would make presentations to B.S.A. in an effort to sway its decision. (Community-board resolutions are strictly advisory, although city agencies do consider the various boards’ positions before making a decision.) Mr. Berman’s group will also hold a rally and march at 12:30 p.m. on May 14, at the intersection of West and West 12th streets, to protest Related’s plans.

Jesse Masyr, an attorney representing Related, said, “We are obviously disappointed in the board’s decision-but as the board knows and everyone knows, it’s a recommendation, and the process moves on.”