Zuccotti Park Is Owned By a Real Estate Company -- Will They Try to Get Protestors Kicked Out?

This article first appeared on Capital New York.

As City Hall continues its wait-and-see response to the Occupy Wall Street protests, a glimpse of the end-game between the protesters and the city became clear last night in the unlikely setting of a local community board meeting.

Zuccotti Park, a less-than-one-acre public park in middle of the Financial District, has served as the base camp for the protests (and the real "occupation" site). But Zuccotti Park is owned not by the city, but by Brookfield Properties, the North American real-estate company that owns the adjacent office building, One Liberty Plaza. This complicates the city's latitude in responding to the occupation.

In public statements, Brookfield has gently suggested to the city that it is past time to restore the space to its normal use, and has posted signs in the park objecting to the sleeping bags, tarps, and use of benches as beds throughout the space.

But they've stopped there, according to a representative of the New York Police Department who attended the meeting last night. He said that Brookfield Properties would have to formally declare the protesters trespassers. It's something the real-estate company hasn't yet done, but when and if it does, it is likely to result in the clearing of the park by police.

THE CHANTS OF THOUSANDS OF OCCUPY WALL STREET protesters streaming by City Hall last night floated up to the 7th floor of the Emigrant Bank Building on Chambers Street, where the Financial District Committee of Community Board One met to wrestle over whether to issue a formal resolution on the swarms of people who have, for the last 19 days, made their home in the center of their district.

What emerged over the course of the night is that the community board’s greatest hope for restoring some degree of livability to their neighborhood—one affected by the Sept. 11th attacks, a decade of construction and uncertainty since, and now street closures, late-night drum circles and a loss of vendors—is, for the time being, to work with the protesters to negotiate some terms of peaceful cohabitation. Clearing the park, if that goal might ever ultimately be agreed upon, would at any rate have to wait.

The board hosted two representatives from among the protesters in addition to the NYPD representative, and they went head-to-head in a meeting room while police and protesters clashed in the streets below.

Committee chair Edward “Ro” Scheffe began the meeting by reading letters he said he’s received from neighbors. One had written that “the current financial system is not fair. But neither is taking over one of the few small parts of our quality of life that is a plus, and not a minus, in this tourist-inundated construction site we call home.”

Several other letters carried the suggestion of moving the protest-camp to the far larger, city-owned Battery Park.

"Whose streets? Our streets!" the chants continued, at times so loud it was hard to hear the speakers at the meeting.

“What would have to happen is that a representative from Brookfield would go into the park, and say, ‘You’re in violation of the rules of the park that apply. You’re trespassing,’” Detective Rick Lee of the NYPD's community affairs office told attendees.

They pressed him to be sure: It’s Brookfield’s move to make, then?

“That’s the scenario,” Lee said. “Politically, when that button is going to be pushed is beyond my pay grade.”

“Welcome to the 99 percent,” said Justin Wedes, one of the protester-representatives at the meeting, using a tagline popular among the protesters defined in an affiliated Tumblr blog as the people who are “getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything."

Given the circumstances Lee had detailed, various members of the committee had come to conclude that a formal resolution from the community board couldn't do much good.

“The people who need to know that our neighborhood is being disrupted—the mayor, Brookfield, the police—they all know that loud and clear,” said Patricia Moore, chair of the board’s quality of life committee and a 34-year resident of the neighborhood.

And there were worries that putting the community group’s concerns in writing could put the organization in an unwelcome political position.

Last spring, Community Board One found itself the target of considerable heat when it voiced support for the building of the Cordoba House Project—the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. Last night, committee members tried with varying degrees of success to avoid to politics of the moment, and stick to the logistics. Sometimes, the temptation was too great.

“If we’re talking geographic location,” Scheffe said, “my view is that you guys need to be in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the gated communities, where the rich people live. Because the people being disturbed are middle-class people, just like you.”

His remark was directed at Wedes and Naomi Less, a fellow Brooklynite who had joined him at the meeting on behalf of the protesters. Scheffe had already been working behind the scenes with Wedes, to get the agreed-upon quiet hours in the square rolled back one hour, from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Wedes added that the discussions were particularly useful in making the protesters understand that not everyone living in this slice of lower Manhattan are “hedge-funders and rich bankers.”

Community Board One represents parts of lower Manhattan including Tribeca, the Financial District, Battery Park City and South Street Seaport. A simmering frustration throughout the evening was the challenge of working with Occupy Wall Street’s non-hierarchical governing structure, known as General Assembly.

The Wall Street protests, inspired in part by Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests and a suggestion to model a protest on them published by the “anti-consumerist” magazine Adbusters, has adopted a consensus-driven model, where decisions are made by consensus, with hand-signals for votes.

Wedes and Less continually responded to questions and requests by saying that any promises to the community would have to come from the General Assembly, at one point confusing an attendee who seemed to think the reference was to the U.N.

“That’s one of the issues of dealing with this non-leadership thing,” said Moore. “It takes a while.”

Of course, the same could be said for New York City community boards, which under the city charter are charged with delivering to the mayor and city council non-binding but often heeded guidance on zoning, development, and other issues affecting their sections of the city.

Slowing down the process last night was the challenge of finding a target. Who controls the levers that need to be pulled?

Brookfield was identified early. If the Committee was to suggest anything as rash as clearing the park, it would have to make its appeal to Brookfield.

But in the meantime, the police department, for example, might be called upon to draw down the number of officers stationed continually on the perimeter of Zuccotti Park.

Less suggested that the NYPD could check the movement’s website, occupywallst.org, so that they can ramp up only for scheduled marches.

“It’s going to get bigger,” added one committee member. “We need to think about this.”

“Actually, it’s not us that needs to think about this,” said Moore. “The city needs to think about it.”

The chants got louder again.

“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them…”

At one point, someone got up to make sure that the windows were closed.

In the end, last night, the Financial District committee of Community Board One resolved, after an hour and a half, not to put forward any resolution. The idea of moving the protesters to Battery Park was ruled unfeasible; the head of that park’s conservancy, the ruling authority over the park’s use, would object strenuously, it was suggested.

Instead, the group opted to keep working through back channels to both the city and Occupy Wall Street, in the hopes of advancing informal “good neighbor” policies for the site.

A subcommittee of four was chosen for the task. The police department, it was concluded, might be asked to consider rolling back its objection to the use of megaphones in Zuccotti Park. The General Assembly had, after earlier trouble, been relying on a technique known as “the people’s mic,” wherein a sentence spoken by that moment’s speaker is repeated by the ring of people standing around him or her, and then by the next ring, so on and so forth, until it has rippled through the park. The people’s mic, it was agreed, was rather more noisy and annoying than a megaphone might be.

The police might also, it was decided, be asked to reconsider barricades in areas of the neighborhood where the protesters had been expected but had not materialized.

For its part, the General Assembly, it was concluded, might also be asked to reconsider holding a scheduled march this weekend on Yom Kippur.

Comity, for a moment, reigned. But it didn't last.

As the evening wore on, Detective Lee turned to the two Occupy Wall Street representatives, and, with a touch of anger in his voice, attempted his own sort of clarification.

“You can split hairs,” he said. “Barriers, this, that … but the bottom line is, when are you people leaving? What is your exit strategy? I can’t get an answer from anybody.”

“These people have lost their park,” the detective continued. “They’re losing their neighborhood.” (A resident in the room added: “And their patience.”)

“When are you people going to leave?” Lee asked.

“I can’t answer that right now,” replied Wedes, and the meeting soon adjourned.


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