Volume 16 • Issue 22 | Oct 28 - Nov 03, 2003

Park plans’ costs go up

By Josh Rogers

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Drumgoole Plaza is expected to be first park space to reopen in the plan, although some are concerned that too much money was spent on the project.

City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said the estimated costs to renovate or build 13 Downtown parks have gone up, but he doesn’t think the $25-million project will have to be scaled back as a result.

“The bids are a bit high,” Benepe said of contractors’ estimates. “I think that’s not unusual and I don’t think any of the plans will be diminished in any way.”

Benepe, in a telephone interview, did not say how much over the budget the plans are, but he said there are many ways to save on design and construction costs without eliminating park features and he is hoping to get more corporate sponsors to fund things like park fountains.

The $25 million was announced at the end of May and comes out of federal money being administered by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency set up by Gov. George Pataki to help Downtown recover from the 2001 terrorist attack.

Benepe said the Parks Dept. may end up requesting additional money from the L.M.D.C. although he has no plans to do so at this point.

Parks and L.M.D.C. officials have never released a park-by-park breakdown of the costs, arguing that they are fluctuating with each project and in all likelihood will continue to change.

Madelyn Wils, a member of the development corporation’s board of directors and the chairperson of Community Board 1, said she is concerned because costs have been ballooning and she thinks the Parks Dept. has not done a good job of communicating.

“There has been a general malaise about getting us information early,” Wils said at last week’s C.B. 1 meeting Tuesday.

A day later, Wils said she has heard the costs to renovate Drumgoole Plaza, adjacent to Pace University, have increased to $400,000, which would mean there will be less money for other parks.

“We don’t get pictures fast enough,” Wils said. “We don’t know how the finances are being shifted around.”

Benepe said the cost increases may mean the agency will not be able to fund additional smaller projects that Wils and others had hoped for. Wils had said previously that she was optimistic there would be a little money to improve additional plazas such as Finn Square in Tribeca.

Because Drumgoole is under entrance ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge, Wils said “it never will be a well-used kind of park,” which is why she doesn’t want to see the costs go too high there.

This is another issue on which Benepe and Wils disagree.

“Drumgoole makes me the happiest,” Benepe said. “We took a forlorn plaza that was an embarrassment, that was across from City Hall and right near a great university, and turned into a place that people will go to…It’s a very important space.”

The plaza, which is almost complete, will be the first renovated space to open under the plan.

Benepe said there has been a lot of consultation on the plans, particularly considering how fast the projects are expected to be finished. Most are scheduled to take up to 12 months.

“We have gone to the community board early and often,” said Benepe. “I think there has been more public participation on this project than in any series of parks [we have redesigned].”

He said Lower Manhattan missed out on most of the great expansion of city parks during the Depression under the direction of one of his predecessors, Robert Moses, who used federal money in the W.P.A. program. Benepe said when you factor in the new parks built in Battery Park City in the last 10 years, the redesign of City Hall Park and Foley Square, and the upcoming L.M.D.C. projects, this will be the greatest period for Downtown parks in the city’s history.

“There has been more done for parks in Lower Manhattan in the last 10 years than there has been in the last 370 years,” Benepe said.

The improvements are needed, said Mike O’Connor, a vice president of the Downtown Alliance, which manages the Financial District’s business improvement district.

“We’ve done these surveys a few times asking people what they want and it always comes out that the number one thing is transportation and number two or three is open space and parks,” said O’Connor.

He said the benefits will be apparent next summer when there will be more and nicer plazas to eat lunch. He hopes the Parks Dept. will let only licensed food vendors into the plazas, like they do in larger parks; however, such a move will undoubtedly be challenged by leaders of street vendors, who have challenged most new proposed regulations.

O’Connor said the Alliance is working with Parks to remove the artistic iron benches in Coenties Slip to a new plaza and make room for a redesign and expanded Coenties. The move is opposed by the benches’ sculptor, James Garvey, a Seaport resident. C.B. 1 last week voted to table a resolution endorsing Parks’ redesign of Coenties, since the Garvey dispute had not been resolved.

The Alliance paid Garvey $25,000 in 1998 for the Coenties pieces, which are near Water St., just north of Broad St. The plaza was created as part of an experiment to close part of the wide street to traffic and Garvey has given conflicting answers about whether he was told that the work would be temporary. O’Connor and Parks say it was always going to be temporary.

“We can create another park space by moving his art work to another place,” said O’Connor.

“He’s saying my work is there and you have to leave it there,” O’Connor added. “We never agreed that it would be a permanent fixture. We like his work but we understand the Parks Dept.’s feeling that from a design perspective they want to begin with a clean slate over there.”

Garvey said no one at the Parks Dept. has given him a straight answer as to why his work can’t stay at Coenties. The Alliance plans to restore the work and move it to a plaza near Edgar St. and Trinity Pl., near the entrance to the Rector St. 1,9 subway station.

“The furniture could go to another place, but I don’t endorse it going to another place,” Garvey said.

He said he arranged the benches in the shape of an X, so that people looking at the plaza from the nearby skyscrapers would see people criss-crossing through the plaza and be drawn there themselves. He was pleased when visitors would tell him that they came after noticing the plaza from their office windows.

Of the benches’ current condition, Garvey said: “It’s rundown now. When they talked about restoring it, it’s because they haven’t taken care of it.”

He was also taken aback when Ray O’Keefe, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Financial District committee called him selfish for opposing the move. O’Keefe, also a board member of the Alliance, opposed the C.B. 1’s vote to table the Coenties resolution.

“When bullies don’t get their way, they start calling people names,” Garvey said. He said he turned down the Alliance’s offer to take a consultant’s fee on the project which he said was offered if he would support the move of his work.

Benepe, in the telephone interview, said Garvey’s modern art doesn’t fit in the historic area.

“Coenties, because it is near the Stone St. Historic District, needed to have more traditional materials,” Benepe said.

“The Coenties Slip project is really just a few heavy stones to block off the traffic and some furniture, which was fine,” said Benepe. “But we were looking to redesign the whole plaza.”

Coenties is likely to have a fountain and be expanded to become part of the southern sidewalk. Benepe said he has had continuous talks with corporate sponsors. He did not confirm or deny a rumor that Goldman Sachs may pay for the Coenties fountain.

Judy Duffy, assistant district manager of C.B. 1, said there have been talks about changing some of the other park plans. For instance, Washington Market Park in Tribeca was originally going to get a new lawn, but Duffy said the neighborhood group that oversees the park is talking about the possibility of building a bathroom there instead. Duffy said in order to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, which is adjacent to the park, has to build a less-steep pedestrian ramp to its entrance, which may create room underneath for a bathroom.

Tribeca Park on W. Broadway may get more plantings in the redesign, said Duffy. She said the board will be meeting with the Parks Dept. later in the week to get more details.

Benepe said many of the Downtown parks and plazas will have similar elements such as distinctive benches and lamp poles or as he puts it a “vocabulary park to park that speaks to each other.” The mayor’s Art Commission, which must approve each plan and which has had tense relations with Benepe’s predecessor, Henry Stern, has criticized some of the designs. But Parks’ architects have been incorporating the criticisms into new drawings said Benepe. He said there were no lingering tensions with the commission, “Their suggestions have been terrific,” he said.



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