Barricades surrounding a New York City park that was the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement are a violation of city zoning law because they restrict public access to the space, civil rights groups said Monday.
The New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild filed a zoning complaint with the city's buildings department, urging officials to remove the metal barricades that have surrounded Manhattan's Zuccotti Park since Mayor Michael Bloomberg evicted the protesters Nov. 15 in an early-morning police raid.
"The barricades have all but ended Liberty Plaza's role as a functioning public plaza," the letter says.
Since the eviction, members of the public have only been able to enter the public through two "checkpoints" at the park that are guarded by police officers or security personnel. The park had been the site of a months-long encampment that became the de facto headquarters for the Occupy movement, which targets economic inequality.
The granite plaza near the New York Stock Exchange is one of more than 500 "bonus plazas" in the city: privately owned public parks borne of a little-known compromise struck in 1961 between the city and developers. According to the compromise, in exchange for building a towering skyscraper, developers had to also construct a plaza that would provide "light and air" for passers-by. The bigger the plaza, the taller the building could be.
Virtually all bonus plazas are required to be open 24 hours a day, barring a safety issue. They are governed by specific regulations in the zoning law. For example, the law states that the layout of such plazas must promote public use and easy pedestrian circulation throughout the space. And any "design element" that limits public access is also prohibited by zoning law.
The complaint accuses the city of failing to enforce the law by allowing the barricades to exist. It says the barricades are blocking access to major walkways and enclose "far more than 50 percent" of the plaza's perimeter. The complaint criticizes the city for allowing police officers and private security guards to search members of the public before granting them entry to the plaza.
"Who is searched and what is prohibited is arbitrary and inconsistent," the letter says. "It varies by the day, the type of activity in the park at the time, the attire of the person attempting to enter, and the caprice of security personnel."
Buildings department spokesman Tony Sclafani said Monday that inspectors have found no problems at the park.
"Our inspectors determined that no violation is warranted due to adequate public access to the park," Sclafani said in an emailed statement.