Volume 19 • Issue 20 | Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2006
Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
A shopper stops near the closed off section of City Hall Park.
Group says you can fight City Hall closing
By Ronda Kaysen
A coalition of Downtown residents wants to see City Hall Park completely open to the public and they’re willing to take the city to court to make it happen.
Portions of the park closed after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Police Dept. cited security concerns about City Hall. While other spaces have reopened in the past five years, the shuttered parts of City Hall Park have not. Friends of City Hall Park, a neighborhood group that formed a decade ago to get the park renovated, has been begging city officials to reopen the space to no avail. With diplomacy exhausted, the group announced that it now intends sue the city if the park doesn’t reopen by Oct. 21.
“It’s illegal what they’re doing,” said Friends president Skip Blumberg, adding that he hoped the threat of a lawsuit might trigger action from the N.Y.P.D. “We’re going to give them a chance to meet with us. We’re aiming to reach an agreement.”
The park’s history dates back to the 17th century when it was a commons used for public executions and a burial ground for paupers and slaves. In 1999, the park enjoyed a $13.5 million renovation, only to be partially shut two years later.
Today, visitors to City Hall must go through a security checkpoint and bag search. The area between City Hall and Tweed Courthouse is shut to public use, along with the adjacent gardens. Only the southern portion of the park, with its large fountain, benches and greenery, is fully open to the public.
“Lovers used to kiss beneath the cherry blossoms and children built snowmen on the lawns right next to City Hall,” lamented Blumberg, who lives on Broadway across the street from the park.
The city cannot close a public park without seeking state legislation, according to Blumberg’s lawyer. “It is clear that the city is not legally permitted to alienate public parkland without state legislation,” wrote Friends lawyer Derek Adler in a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “And we are not aware of any state legislation that authorizes such closure.”
The N.Y.P.D. has a different take on the situation. The department “believes that the security program in place is both necessary and appropriate,” wrote Commissioner Ray Kelly in a letter to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. He went on to write, “There has not been a change in any of the conditions that predicated this decision.”
Kelly’s spokesperson did not return a call for comment for this story.
Political support for a lawsuit against the city is weak. City Councilmember Alan Gerson declined to take a position on the lawsuit. “He’s well aware of the situation, but he needs to be briefed on what the potential safety concerns are,” said Gerson aide Paul Nagle. “He’s open to the idea, but he’s definitely not committed to it yet.”
Borough President Scott Stringer received a similar letter to Gotbaum’s. Neither his office nor Gotbaum’s returned calls for comment on the lawsuit.
Blumberg is eagerly awaiting the Oct. 21 deadline when his group plans to hold a rally at the park. “We’re going to have a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re going to have a chalk in and a walking tour and chess. Hopefully we’ll announce the reopening of the park on that day.”