Preserve Washington Square Park
NYC Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's Testimony on the Renovation
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NYC Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's Testimony on the Renovation

Testimony of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum for Landmarks Commission Hearing on Redesign of Washington Square Park, 5/17/05

As a former Parks Commissioner, I know that no city relies more on its parks than New York. Here, space is at a premium, tall buildings and crowded streets surround us, and the cost of recreation and cultural activities can be prohibitive. Our parks are our town squares where we come together to play games, enjoy music, and exercise our right to express ourselves. We need them to be welcoming to New Yorkers of all walks of life.

Unfortunately, a disturbing trend is threatening the future of our parks. Under the banner of upgrading, redesigning, and preserving, the Bloomberg Administration is taking steps to make parks across the City less accessible to the residents and visitors who use them every day.

In Central Park, Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Benepe are pushing new rules that would severely restrict the number, size, and timing of public gatherings on the Great Lawn. In Union Square, the Mayor and Commissioner are moving ahead with plans for a private upscale restaurant that would be unaffordable for many local residents and would force children to use a subterranean tunnel to go from one playground to another.

And in Washington Square, the City is supporting a redesign that includes a reduced number of entry points and a four-foot fence that would surround the entire park. To countless New Yorkers, the fence represents a betrayal of the spirit of community they associate with Washington Square and a return to a time in the 19th Century when City parks were considered a playground for the wealthy.

In principle, a $16 million renovation of Washington Square Park is a good thing. Visitors would certainly benefit from the enhanced handicap accessibility and additional green space, seating, and playground equipment included in the proposal. But other elements, such as the fence and the relocation of the dog runs so that they are almost flush with the adjacent street, are not compatible with the
character of the community nor with the needs of local residents, who were not consulted in the design process.

Moreover, I am concerned that less than half of the $16 million needed to complete the proposed redesign has actually been raised. New York University, the park's neighbor, has already contributed $1 million to the project but has also requested that the park be closed to the public for special events. Private subsidization of City parks must never come with strings attached. No renovation is worth a permanent reduction in New Yorkers' ability to use their public spaces.

Irrespective of NYU's involvement, half of Washington Square would be closed for at least two years while the park's fountain, statues, and pathway are moved in an effort to improve sightlines. It is open question whether such refined aesthetic considerations justify two years of noisy, obtrusive construction, but it cannot be debated that the park's neighbors deserve to have a say in the decision.

New York City's parks belong to New Yorkers, not to the Parks Commissioner, not to the Mayor, not to the designers, not to the private investors, no matter how much money they put up. When the needs of the community get drowned out by the ambitions of a few, City government has lost sight of its mission. It's a lesson that the residents of Greenwich Village taught Robert Moses in the 1950s, a lesson that I urge the members of the Landmarks Commission to take to heart. If New Yorkers believed in fences, they would live in the suburbs.

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