By Julie Shapiro, Jill Colvin, Shayna Jacobs, Ben Fractenberg and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN — The controversial barricades that have ringed Zuccotti Park for months were taken down Tuesday night by police and park security officials — reversing a long-standing practice that has prevented Occupy Wall Street protesters from returning to the Lower Manhattan space where the movement started, sources said.
The move comes a day after advocates affiliated with the Occupy movement sent a letter to the Department of Buildings demanding that there be unrestricted access to the park, which must be accessible to the public 24-hours-a-day under an agreement with the city, capping a legal battle that began last November.
More than 100 newly invigorated protesters streamed in after hearing that the barricades were removed and stacked on the edge of the park, which is near the World Trade Center, with demonstrators chanting "Occupy Wall Street, all day all week!"
Demonstrators, who have been without a base of operations since the Nov. 15 raid that cleared them from the park, noshed on trays of lasagna for dinner and had apple pie for dessert.
Aside from security guards confiscating one tent, the event was largely peaceful anddrew raves from protesters.
"This is awesome. Unexpected as f--k, but really, really awesome," said Anthony Robledo, 22, of Queens. "Everyone can really enjoy the park. Now we're free to roam where we want. The park is again free land."
Richie Machado, 21, also of Queens, said he expected to sleep in Zuccotti Park, adding that the next step is to fully reoccupy the space.
"It doesn't mean the battle is over," he said.
But Edward Heath II, 37, of Chicago, said that the development seemed "too good to be true."
"It's one of those iffy moments," he said. "We're not sure what police or security are going to do."
Police said the barricades were taken down because it was determined they "were not needed," according to chief NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. But he noted that the move was "unrelated" to the letter sent by advocates.
Brookfield Properties, which owns the space, confirmed that it took part in the barricade removal, but declined to comment further, a spokeswoman said.
The barriers have been a source of contention between protesters and city officials since they were erected in the wake of the overnight raid last November that cleared the park of the anti-greed demonstrators.
In addition to the barriers, guards from Brookfield Properties were posted at the entrances around the park throughout the day, leaving the space largely empty.
On Monday, advocates associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement sent a letter to the DOB saying that the barriers violated zoning rules that required the space to be open to the public around the clock.
They also said that people entering the park were refused entry for possessing a variety of items, including food, musical instruments and yoga mats.
But a DOB spokesman said there was no violation for inadequate access to the space.
"This is a step in the right direction — toward restoring Liberty Park to the people," said Gideon Orion Oliver, president of the New York City branch of the National Lawyers Guild, which helped pen the letter.
"It is also an acknowledgement that the City and Brookfield have been flouting the letter and spirit of the law and the Constitution."
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that signed onto the letter to the DOB, was happy about the news.
"We're pleased that the city appears to be giving the park back to the people," Lieberman said. "We hope to now resume its rightful place as a center and meeting place to protest in New York City."
Yetta Kurland, a civil rights attorney who argued in court for an unrestricted opening of the park to protesters after the Nov. 15 eviction, said the barricades and searches conducted after the park reopened were clearly illegal and not aligned with the post-eviction ruling by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael Stillman, which said that protesters could not have tents or sleeping bags.
"It is a public park being surrounded by barricades, monitored by the private security guards making capricious determinations of who can be let and and who they're not letting in," Kurland said.
"It's clear you cannot surround a public park with barricades, stopping people from entering it."
Ro Sheffe, chairman of Community Board 1's Financial District Committee, who lives nearby, saw the barricades being removed from his window.
"The park has been returned to the community, finally," he said. "The barricades should have been removed a long time ago."
But Sheffe said he was somewhat concerned about the protesters reoccupying the park as they did before, due to safety and quality-of-life issues.
During the occupation, residents of the area complained about noise from drumming and a lack of sanitation at the park. There was also a string of alleged crimes linked to the protesters.
"We can't allow what happened before to happen again," Sheffe said.
The mayor's office and the DOB referred questions to the NYPD.