EAST VILLAGE — Parents who take their kids to Tompkins Square Park are begging the city Parks Department to abandon a controversial plan to lower the fences around the play area by three feet, claiming the tall barriers provide much-needed security in a park overrun by vagrants, substance abusers, and rowdy college students.
Dozens of community members showed up at a Monday meeting to weigh in on the contested plan, which would lower the fences around the two playgrounds at the southeast corner of the park from 7 to 4 feet as part of a larger reconstruction project.
The majority of parents who spoke echoed resolutions from elected officials and the community board, pointing to the park's documented vagrancy problems as reason to keep the fences high.
One local father recalled being attacked by a homeless man two years ago while playing in the park with his then-4-year-old son outside the fences. He said the tall barriers now provide him with a sense of security when taking his tot to the playground.
"It was scary, and it happened outside the playground, and was right on the curb," said Jake Wolff.
That fence sort of makes us feel safe and protected, and if something, God forbid, were to happen to someone inside the playground..." he added, trailing off.
The fences are just as much for keeping children inside as they are for keeping vagrants out, argued parents and grandparents who expressed fears children could hop over shortened fences if they turned their backs for a moment.
"Kids do jump the fence if you're in a lower-fenced area — my grandson does — and I feel like when you're in the park you feel like the kids are safe in there," said neighbor Cyndi Kerr. "I personally feel a sense of security when I take my grandson to the park."
Kerr also pointed to the drunken college kids she said carouse in the park at night, who she said would damage the play equipment if given easy access.
"They would go in and destroy it, vandalize it," she said.
But the Parks Department believes lowering the fences would actually make the play areas safer — lowering barriers that block sight lines discourages negative behavior while at the same time making the green space more open and aesthetically pleasing, argued Manhattan Parks Borough Commissioner Bill Castro.
"People who are interested in criminal activity — they try to hide," said Castro.
Many disagreed with the notion that lower fences discouraged bad behavior — saying the theory doesn't apply to the drug-addled vagrants in Tompkins Square Park.
"Your focus on sight lines to reduce negative behavior is only the case with planned criminal behavior," said psychologist Frank Gardner.
"It is not the case at all with impulsive behavior that would come from somebody who is having a serious mental illness issue, is having drug and alcohol related problems, and that unfortunately is something that is a reality in this area."
The planned revamp is part of the city's Parks without Borders initiative to make city parks more "opening and welcome" by lowering sight-blocking barriers such as fences and greenery and providing adequate lighting.
As part of the larger renovation project, Tompkins Square Park will also get refurbished play equipment, spray sprinklers for kids to play in, and new seating. These changes are funded by $1.46 million from City Council, while the changes specifically related to Parks without Borders is funded by a separate pool of $490,000. Castro could not immediately say whether the Parks without Borders money could be allocated for other repairs if the plan to lower the fences is nixed.
Castro also pointed to other recipients of the Parks without Borders treatment, such as the Pearl Street Playground downtown and the Hester Street Playground in the Lower East Side, where no safety issues have been noted as a result.
But those parks don't have the specific issues with homelessness and drug abuse that Tompkins Square Park has, argued community members, noting Tompkins Square Park is flanked by homeless shelters.
A few dissenters spoke in favor of the lower fences, however — one mother with an 18-month-old child said she could could see the alteration creating a more open and healthy environment for kids.
"They're New Yorkers — they should learn how to cope with danger," said Olympia Kazi, adding she would support the fences staying as they are if that were the majority opinion.
Castro said he would take all feedback from the meeting, along with feedback from parents he polled in the park, to Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver, who will make the final determination.
A spokeswoman for the Parks Department said Silver will make a decision by this spring.