Opponents of the city’s plans for a large-scale renovation of Washington Square Park think they have a shot at killing it off, thanks to what they allege were misrepresentations by the Parks Department when it got approval for the plan. A lawsuit filed this week seeks to block construction and force the department to get another round of approvals from the local community board and two city commissions. Renovation opponents believe that, this time, those bodies would vote down the city’s plan.
The $16 million renovation job, which was supposed to shut the park in phases for two or three years, has been controversial from the get-go. The plan’s supporters say that the reconstruction of the main fountain, the playgrounds, and the walkways are what the beat-up park needs to remain a Greenwich Village gem. Their foes agree the park needs some fixing, but believe that what the Parks Department proposes is a wholesale revision that will straitjacket and sterilize the famously uninhibited, unstructured public space.
The renovation opponents allege in their suit that the Parks Department “deliberately withheld material and made material misrepresentations” to the community board, Landmarks Preservation Commission, Art Commission. The suit accuses the city of failing to disclose that the size of the central plaza will decrease by 33 percent, and that the fountain will feature a plume of water 45-feet high (making it impossible to sit next to, sans wetsuit). By hiding these details, the suit argues, the city prevented the oversight bodies from doing their jobs and may have violated the city charter and administrative code. One of the plaintiffs, Jonathan Greenberg, called the Parks Department moves “a classic bait and switch operation.”
The plan’s backers dispute that claim. “They have been informed, and informed, and informed,” says Anne-Marie Sumner, president of the Washington Square Association. “I would not buy into the idea that the Parks Department has deliberately misrepresented. That would not be possible, in my mind.”
The Parks Department doesn’t comment on litigation, but a spokesperson says the size of the central plaza is still in flux. Parks has claimed that the fountain’s height can be adjusted to accommodate different kinds of activities.
The lawsuit asks the judge to send the city’s more detailed plan back to the community board and the two commissions. Renovation opponents believe that given the changes to the project—and in the membership of some of those bodies—they can knock the plan off in a second round. A survey released late last year by the Project for Public Space found that in Washington Square Park, “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 city has already agreed to hold off on any work in the park until a court hearing on May 18; no contractor has been selected, anyway.