Update, July 2: The Battery Park City Authority’s chairman announced to residents yesterday that the state will find another site for the monument.
On Monday, Andrew Cuomo sent another round of bulldozers into Battery Park, and the neighbors aren’t having it. Five days earlier, the governor had revealed the first renderings for the “Circle of Heroes,” dedicated to working New Yorkers’ sacrifice during the COVID-19 pandemic. “While we will never be able to fully repay our essential workers, we can honor and celebrate them with this monument that will stand forever as a tribute,” he said in the announcement. “These heroes continue to inspire us every day and we are forever grateful for their service and sacrifice.” But it’s also the third monument he’s built in Battery Park City in less than a year — the area’s $63 million art collection already includes a statue honoring the Catholic saint Mother Cabrini and a memorial to Hurricane Maria victims — and a local coalition of financial consultants, emergency physicians, and soccer moms is saying “enough.” These newly minted activists are opposing the governor’s plans, not specifically in opposition of the monument itself but instead to save some green space and issue a referendum on the state’s ability to do as it pleases with the southern tip of Manhattan.
The design for the area, called Rockefeller Park, comes just three months after the governor said he would build a $3 million COVID-19 monument, and it was a shock for residents to see the speed at which state officials worked to pave over grasslands and uproot 40-year-old trees without so much as a public hearing. Residents said they aren’t opposed to the monument; they just don’t want it in their backyard without having a conversation. That’s because the proposed memorial would include 19 red maple trees, cover 3,000 square feet of parkland, and an open flame. “It’s unforgivable,” said Margaret Chin during an interview with Curbed, adding that she still hasn’t heard from Cuomo’s office about the project. “He should stop this memorial and really engage with residents and local elected officials to find a more appropriate place. We all want to honor the essential workers, but why does everything have to be in New York City? It’s just because he doesn’t have to go through anyone else’s jurisdiction in Battery Park.”
Four local elected officials told Curbed that the governor has overstayed his welcome in Battery Park City. Of the three projects he’s built here, none has been built with any form of public engagement, though the governor’s office has continued to refer to an “open process” that consults a selection of civic leaders.
“While I do believe it is appropriate to memorialize those lost to the pandemic, I feel this project has been drafted too hastily and is little more than a gesture,” Chin wrote in a letter addressed to Cuomo earlier this week, urging the governor to stop construction. “New Yorkers who kept the essential services running cannot be cut out of this dedication; everyone must have a voice in this project.” Other politicians, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler and State Senator Brian Kavanaugh, have sent their own letters opposing the project.
A group of residents told Curbed that they intend to file a lawsuit against the governor in an effort to delay the monument. While most residents agree that essential workers deserve a dedication, they said that the honor would be more appropriate at a relevant site. New Yorkers have previously suggested a tribute outside Elmhurst Hospital in Queens (once the epicenter of the city’s outbreak) or further afield on Hart Island (the city’s public cemetery).
However, opponents of the memorial may have little recourse for stopping the governor’s plans, because the Battery Park City Authority, which administers the area on behalf of the state, is helmed entirely by Cuomo appointees. The chairman is the hotel magnate George J. Tsunis, who was the subject of a 2018 article in the New York Times that revealed he and his wife contributed more than $180,000 to the governor’s reelection campaign and that Tsunis received his appointment to the authority just two weeks after hosting a “summer barbecue” fundraiser for Cuomo.
Fealty to the governor, and not the residents they represent, has local community-board members like Eric Gyasi worried. He said that the authority’s leaders, like Tsunis, won’t have to live with their decisions because the majority of board members live outside the neighborhood. For example, critics of the project say the introduction of more hardscape to the area could cause drainage problems in what is one of the neighborhood’s worst flood plains. “Why can’t the governor take a week and work through these issues with residents so that the community has a monument that truly supports essential workers?” asked Gyasi, who recently ended his term with the community board. “You can’t just ungrind a tree or replant a stump once it’s removed.”
The governor’s office did not respond to emailed questions from Curbed, but Tsunis, in a statement, said that his agency plans to reach out to neighbors to discuss the monument’s location and “ensure it is one that’s optimal for the entire community.”
Over the weekend, dozens of families staked out the monument’s location and staged impromptu rallies. Some even camped there overnight on Monday, during a heat wave, to ensure that construction workers wouldn’t secretly start plowing through the grass. There are local WhatsApp group chats that have capped out at 250 people, and an online petition that has racked up more than 7,000 signatures, with a plea that “the littering of monuments across once green space in our residential neighborhood brings daily reminders of sadness to us and to our children who are already struggling emotionally.”
Normally, a permanent monument would have to go through the New York City Council and its Public Design Commission for approval, a process that often takes years and includes public feedback and a design competition between artists. By comparison, Cuomo’s office has expedited approvals via a closed committee that often fails to release budget numbers or the selected artist’s name before the unveiling. The governor has still not released information on who designed the essential workers’ monument.
In the meantime, critics are also attacking on aesthetic grounds. “It looks like a fucking bowling-ball trophy or a participation award,” said Theodore Grunewald, a prominent architecture preservationist, who also suggested that the renderings look like a woman is pulling her young child away from the open flame of the memorial. He added that it would be hard for the monument to honor essential workers at a moment when Cuomo is facing accusations and an FBI inquiry into whether he provided false data on nursing-home deaths to the Justice Department. “This is idiocy. It’s profoundly uninspiring and does the first responders a disservice.”
The mounting criticism has had a snowball effect, and little league sports teams and neighborhood kids are starting to write their own letters to Cuomo, asking that he reverse course. Some longtime residents say that Battery Park is ready for a fight. “This was the last straw,” said Daniel Akkerman, a financial consultant who founded a nonprofit organization called Battery Alliance earlier this year to demand more transparency from the authority. On its website, the group accuses the agency of “gross mismanagement,” in which “the egregious sums paid by homeowners in the community are not being spent on the community but instead are being wasted on needless pork barrel spending projects.”
The unwelcome monument announcement comes as Battery Park City residents are already beginning to worry about the stability of their neighborhood. Apartment owners here say they’re frustrated with the extra costs associated with living under the authority, such as ground rent and civic fees. They’re also increasingly concerned about the neighborhood’s 100-year land lease, which expires in 2069. Although that seems like a long way off, it is drawing close enough to inject a note of instability into any application for a 30-year mortgage, because if the ground lease is not renewed, ownership of the land under all the apartments will revert to the state. Officials have said they are working on a renewal, but nothing is settled.
Some essential workers with ties to the area aren’t thrilled about Cuomo’s plans, either. They include Rafael Torres, an emergency physician at White Plains Hospital who helped lead the center’s COVID-19 response and vaccination efforts. He said that the area slated for demolition is where his eldest daughter took her first steps, and it was a refuge when he returned after exhausting shifts at the hospital.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Torres, who added that he hadn’t been politically active in the neighborhood before the monument, but that he and others will continue their advocacy for residents. “It shows that things can be done on state land without any community input, and that we need to have a strong advocacy group that can negotiate for us.”