The $3 million monument dedicated to essential workers that Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed for Battery Park City’s Rockefeller Park will be located in a different site after local residents protested over the loss of park space and physically blocked bulldozers.
George Tsunis, the chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, state public benefit corporation, told residents at a meeting in the park Friday “this site is going to change, it’s going to be a new site,” in a video posted on Instagram.
Residents have protested Cuomo’s plans to build a Circle of Heroes monument to “represent the essential workers who served their communities throughout the pandemic” because Rockefeller Park is a beloved expanse of leafy green space in an area that lacks major parks.
Other objections include a sense that the project was pushed ahead by the Cuomo administration without any community input, that trees will be destroyed to build the monument, that Cuomo has already erected two monuments in less than a year in the area, and that they are worried about kids being burned by the monument’s planned “eternal flame.”
“We should absolutely honor the essential workers, but no one who uses this space daily was involved in the discussion of the design or placement,” local resident Sissel Juul told Gothamist/WNYC. “It’s not that we don’t want a monument—we just don’t want to sacrifice highly used green space and mature trees in the name of essential workers.”
After bulldozers were positioned on the fields Monday, several parkgoers and their kids camped out in the park next to the machinery to block them from being able to break ground on the project.
Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents the neighborhood, told Curbed that Cuomo favors the neighborhood, which is run by the state Battery Park City Authority board, for his projects because “he doesn’t have to go through anyone else’s jurisdiction in Battery Park.”
“We all want to honor the essential workers, but why does everything have to be in New York City?” Chin added.
“The governor is very well aware of what’s happening, and the governor is the one who’s pushing the view, ‘let’s find another location,’” said Tsunis, who was appointed to the Battery Park City Authority board in 2017 by Cuomo.
Tsunis said the planners originally “really did not understand the proximity” of the monument to the grassy expanse that’s heavily used by families to picnic or sit on the grass.
“Like I said, I’m a father. When there are other alternatives that we can go to, we go to. We pivot,” Tsunis said.
The monument’s design involves a ring of 19 red maple trees symbolizing the city’s essential workers, including paramedics, hospitality workers, nurses, transit workers, doctors, teachers, and others, as well as benches, pathways and a flag pole. The worksite will take up about 10% of the park: the total square footage of lawns in Rockefeller Park is 143,000 sq. ft., and the entire monument worksite is 14,000 sq. ft.
Tsunis said before the community outcry, the BPCA board had discussed making the monument smaller and situated in a corner of the park instead of the main section.
“So what we were trying to accomplish is to protect that open space over there and find the place so we thought that was a good compromise. But when additional facts are brought to your attention, it’s prudent to analyze those and pivot, which is what we did,” Tsunis said.
Cuomo’s spokesperson Jordan Bennett told the Daily News that “This project always incorporated community input and this is just the latest reflection of that.”
Bennett added, “We’re committed to building a monument to essential workers that New Yorkers will be proud of.”
Curbed pointed out the monument planning has moved much quicker than normal thanks to Cuomo’s ability to expedite the process. “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,” Curbed wrote. “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.”
Tsunis acknowledged the state “really want(s) to get this done. We should get this done for Labor Day,” he said, and added, “I can tell you I wish we had done this sooner. I can’t go backwards in life, and you have my apologies for that.”