A state judge on Tuesday sent the city’s bid for a remake of Washington Square Park back to the drawing board, ruling that the parks department had failed to provide enough information about its plans to the local community board and the city’s landmarks and art commissions.
That means work on the historic park, which since May has been blocked by a temporary injunction, is still prohibited until the plans go through the approval process once again. The city could appeal—in a statement released Wednesday the Law Department said it was “exploring our legal options”—but even if it does the facts ascertained in the trial court will weigh heavily, and the project will be stalled for some time. An attorney who argued the case for opponents of the makeover says the ruling by Supreme Court Judge Emily Jane Goodman means, simply, “We win!”
The ruling is the latest episode in a long-running drama over the city’s proposal, which is backed by NYU, the Tisch Family, and some local groups who argue that the park has been neglected and is in need of a major renovation to make it prettier, more accessible to the handicapped, and better for kids to play in. The plan calls for moving the historic central fountain, retooling the fountain jets to emit a higher stream, rerouting the paths around the park, and other fixes. Opponents believe the $16 million scheme, which would be funded by a combination of city and private funds, will sanitize a park that has always thrived on spontaneity, chasing away the musicians, performers, and loungers who have made it a Greenwich Village destination.
In their lawsuit, the opponents charged specifically that the parks department didn’t tell Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (which approved the park plan last year) all they needed to know about where he fountain jets would be placed, how high they’d shoot water, and how much the central plaza would shrink (the city says by 23 percent; opponents contend it’s more like a third).
The city argued that community boards have no binding power and that the parks department made its plans abundantly clear. But the judge didn’t buy it, saying the extent of the changes was “far from obvious” in the diagrams the city provided to the local board and the landmarks commission. Her ruling also states:
. . . essential aspects of the Parks Department’s plans for the fountain and the fountain plaza, which could have a substantial impact on the historic role of the Washington Square Park, were not adequately revealed to Community Board 2 or the Landmarks Commission, precluding the exercise of their roles in the oversight process as intended buy the City Charter and the New York City Code. As a result, both the Landmarks Commission and the Art Commission were denied the informed views of the Community Board in reaching their decisions, and the Art Commission was additionally deprived of the views of the Landmarks Commission.
What may have wider significance for future land use disputes is Goodman’s finding that, “The role of a Community Board, even if advisory, is an integral part of the review process for work on public land, and provision of plans which omit or obscure significant elements vitiates that role.”
The Law Department released a statement by Chris Reo, senior counsel in the environmental law division, that said the ruling was wrong “because it ignores the fact that the Parks Department’s renovation plan for Washington Square Park has been the result of more than two years of public outreach and input.”
“This project has been twice overwhelmingly approved by the community board, is supported by most local elected officials, and was given binding approval by the duly constituted Landmarks Preservation Commission and Art Commission,” Reo continues. “Washington Square Park is a unique and important public space that badly needs restoration. The Court’s ruling will hinder this long-standing and publicly approved plan. Also, the judge’s decision could force the taxpayers to pay hundreds of thousands in additional expenses because of rising construction costs.”
In another decision released Tuesday, Goodman ruled on a separate suit claiming that because the city allegedly did not respond in a timely way to a Freedom of Information Law request about the park plan, the decision of the Art Commission should be tossed out. The judge sided with the city in that case, dismissing the suit.
But the end result is the same: Barring a successful appeal by the city, CB2, landmarks and the Art Commission will all have to look at a more detailed version of the park plan. Even if those details alone don’t sway votes, opponents of the plan have bought themselves time to lobby for “nays.” And community boards have a court decision affirming their role in land use decisions.
“It’s a process that’s set forth in the city charter and the city code,” says winning lawyer Arlene Boop of the community board’s work. “It’s real. It represents the Democratic process and you can’t manipulate it. [Goodman] came down on the side of process.”
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