Downtown

Willoughby Park delayed after historians say design leaves out abolitionist history

September 13, 2019 Mary Frost
The proposed Willoughby Square Park from the North West corner. Rendering courtesy of NYCEDC and Hargreaves Jones

Community Board 2 voted on Wednesday to temporarily put off approving a design for a new Willoughby Square Park in Downtown Brooklyn after hearing claims that Brooklyn’s abolitionist history was being shortchanged.

“We have received concerns that local historians with expert knowledge of this history have not been consulted,” Glomani Bravo-Lopez, Councilmember Stephen Levin’s deputy chief of staff, told the full board.

Bravo-Lopez asked the board to table their vote on the new park for 30 days “until stakeholder input can be considered and historians can be consulted … and abolitionist history receive the adequate remembrance in the final sculpture.”

After hearing from CB2 Chairperson Lenny Singletary that there were other agencies involved — “It’s not just the [Economic Development Corporation], there’s the Design Commission” — the full board overwhelmingly approved the motion to table their vote on the park design for 30 days.

Glomani Bravo-Lopez, Councilmember Levin’s deputy chief of staff, asked the Community Board 2 board to hold off their vote on Willoughby Square Park for 30 days. In the back to the right is CB2 Chairperson Lenny Singletary. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.
Glomani Bravo-Lopez, Councilmember Levin’s deputy chief of staff, asked the Community Board 2 board to hold off their vote on Willoughby Square Park for 30 days. In the back to the right is CB2 Chairperson Lenny Singletary. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.

The long-delayed Willoughby Square Park, to be built between Duffield Street and Albee Square West, has been in the works since 2007 as part of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan.

A previous design called for the park to be built on top of an underground parking garage. The latest design scraps the parking garage and its developer, American Development Group.

CB2’s executive committee had unanimously approved the EDC’s new design on Aug. 26. This plan calls for a shady, 1.15-acre open space with a children’s play area, garden, water element and room for small concerts.

An art element themed “In Pursuit of Freedom” would be chosen this fall under the Percent for Art law, which allocates one percent of city construction projects funds for art.

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Representatives from historical organizations, however, told the Brooklyn Eagle following the August presentation that the park was supposed to have “a fundamental theme of memorializing Brooklyn’s great role in the abolitionist movement.”

An art element to be decided later was not a fundamental theme, they said.

Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society and the New York City Freedom Trail, told the Eagle on Friday that he was thrilled with the reprieve. He said he intends to make his case to CB 2’s Cultural Affairs Committee.

“There is this wonderful rich abolitionist legacy right there on Duffield Street. That’s why this project got approved,” he said. The abolitionist theme “is integral to the park.”

“There’s no question they have cut the memorial budget way down, since they’re running this through the Percent for Art program,” he added.

A new design for the long-delayed Willoughby Square Park in Downtown Brooklyn was approved by CB2 on Monday. This rendering shows the park from the North East corner. Rendering courtesy of NYCEDC and Hargreaves Jones
The new design for the long-delayed Willoughby Square Park in Downtown Brooklyn. This rendering shows the park from the North East corner. Rendering courtesy of NYCEDC and Hargreaves Jones

According to Crain’s, the EDC has budgeted roughly $15 million for the park. One percent of that for artwork would be roughly $150,000.

According to Morris, the Bloomberg administration in 2007 had allocated $1 million for programming and $1 million for a capital project “specifically dedicated for a memorial to abolitionism and Brooklyn’s role in abolitionism.”

The programming money has been allocated to a partnership between Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center and Irondale Ensemble Project, but the capital money was never allocated, he said. Morris also said the EDC has removed the original RFP, to which he responded, from its website.

Morris and Todd Fine, president of Washington Street Advocacy Group and a historian at CUNY studying public art in the city, have filed a FOIL request to obtain a copy of the original RFP.

“They design the park and to subsequently put in some kind of abstract something — upright squiggles with upside down struggles as a memorial to abolitionism — it’s ridiculous,” Morris said.

In August, an EDC spokesperson contradicted Morris, saying, “This public art will be a prominent feature, fully integrated with the landscape and gathering spaces of the newly designed site.”

EDC has been trying to fast track the project to get it underway before the end of the de Blasio administration.

Technically, Willoughby Square is not a city park, but a “publicly accessible open space,” according to the EDC website.

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