Abolitionist Place not Park: Civic gurus settle bureaucratic dispute to name open space formerly known as Willoughby Square

Willoughby Square Park
The proposed design.

This space has had more names than Prince!

After a months-long bureaucratic dispute with city officials, local civic gurus settled on the name Abolitionist Place for the planned Downtown Brooklyn open space formerly known as Willoughby Square.

Community Board 2’s Parks Committee voted Monday to cut “park” from their previously-requested name change for the proposed space at Willoughby and Duffield streets, after officials said the word would mistakenly designate the plot as city parkland, which could further hold up the project that has been marred by delays for years.

“[We’re] looking for a resolution on how to name this open space while honoring the abolitionist history without using the word ‘park’ in the name, which is not allowed based on the feedback I’ve received from city Law [Department],” said Eleni DeSiervo, a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation, at the May 17 virtual meeting.

In 2019, Community Board 2 passed a purely-advisory motion requesting the city rename Willoughby Square as Abolitionist Place Park to honor the area’s rich history of fighting against slavery in the 19th century, which, according to local lore, includes possible stops along the Underground Railroad. 

Officials co-named two blocks of Willoughby Street Abolitionist Place back in 2007 an in March of this year, the city purchased the landmarked former home of abolitionists Harriet and Thomas Truesdell at 227 Duffield St., just adjacent to the proposed square. 

That month, EDC, the quasi-public agency in charge of the open space project, returned to the community board saying the renaming would inadvertently put the city lot under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department.

The greenspace agency’s borough chief said Monday they couldn’t take on any more lawns.

“It implies that we’re maintaining it. We don’t have any capacity to take on new places,” said Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin Maher at the meeting.

The Parks honcho added that the moniker would add more restrictions on what the city could do with the space.

“The term ‘park’ does have implications in it. Parkland is sacred, it can’t be traded, it takes active state legislation and so on to try to remove it,” Maher said. “Parkland is sort of forever.”

The 1.15-acre open space was originally slated as the “Willoughby Square Public Open Space” under the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, and pitched by the Bloomberg administration as a sweetener for the impending high-rise luxury development in America’s Downtown as a result of the land use changes.

Designating it as parkland would also violate a deal under the rezoning to hawk some of the site’s air rights to the adjacent development 420 Albee Square, according to a letter DeSiervo sent the board prior to the meeting on May 12. EDC wants to retain the remaining development rights of the site, she wrote.

The 17-year-old scheme has been set back most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic and previously when a deal fell apart for a private developer to build it and include a now-scrapped underground parking garage in early 2019.

EDC then took over the project sans parking, dropping its cost from $80 million to $15 million. Once it’s built, local business booster the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership will maintain the space. 

The city opened a temporary pop-up park in summer 2019, which is about a third of the size and will be removed to make room for the final product, which EDC hopes to break ground on this summer after they clear up the naming dispute.

“We’re on hold to create the construction signage and start construction progress pending the resolution of this name,” DeSiervo said.

The city rep in March proposed the board opt for an alternative such as Abolitionist Plaza, but locals and history buffs who have lobbied for remembering the area’s past rejected that idea.

After EDC brought it back Monday, the committee voted to approve Abolitionist Place.

One board member said she didn’t agree with the city’s rationale but wanted to finally get the project moving again.

“I do find this bureaucratically annoying and I don’t agree with the rationale, but I guess for me I feel like when people are sitting in there and having the experience in this space I don’t know if they’re going to care if it’s called a park or called a plaza,” said Suzanne Quint. “I lean towards getting this thing moving and created and creating more space for people but going on record that I do not agree with the rationale.”

The naming vote will come before Community Board 2’s Executive Committee for a final vote on Monday, May 26 at 6 pm. To tune in, visit the board’s calendar here.