Who Owns Washington Park?

by Luke Stoddard Nathan


Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, a “fenced private yard in a public place…blessed with splendid trees, excellent maintenance and an air of glamor,” Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “overcomes an awkward situation” — its conspicuous exclusivity — “by pleasing the eye.” Many keepers of New York state’s only other “privately owned urban ornamental park” concur — if they opened their park to the public, it would not be as nice-looking. And anyway, sorry, it’s theirs!

An 1840 deed of partition established Washington Park in Troy, New York, a small city near Albany, at the meeting of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers. According to a walking tour booklet co-produced by the Rensselaer County Historical Society and the Washington Park Association (W.P.A.), the grantors, all “prominent businessmen or professionals in Troy,” acquired fourteen acres of land at the edge of downtown. They sliced it into narrow lots for adjoining row houses, which were then sold off “in a dizzying array of transactions” over the next twenty-five years. At the center of the subdivision, the developers plotted the two-acre square as an amenity for the exclusive use of surrounding lot owners; they put a fence around it. Sixty-six lots, twenty of which did not actually face the park, were named in the deed.

The enclave’s cachet soon diminished. In 1843, a Catholic church appeared at the park’s northeast corner, but was “opposed by nearby residents, who believed that its presence would lower property values,” according to a W.P.A. factsheet. Over the next two decades, ascendent Irish families erected “smaller and more modest homes” on the church side of the square. After the nationwide depression that followed the Panic of 1873, Washington Park was no longer as desirable; its prestige had peaked. Nearby foundries, a railroad, and a horse-drawn railway further compromised the ambience. The ironmasters left the rus in urbe for more convincing simulacra, and new owners divided the homes into flats. It wasn’t easy or cheap to tend a Victorian mansion: plaster cracked, brownstone spalled, landlords scrimped.

Washington Place — a ten-lot, Greek Revival terrace on the square’s south end (“perhaps the most important group of houses to be built in Troy,” according to the walking tour booklet) — suffered the most marked decline. A prizefighter and reputed gambler, Nick Testo, controlled most of the lots from the postwar period to his death in 1989. Assumed by his widow, the terrace “went from bad to worse,” Joe Fama, former executive director of the Troy Architectural Program (T.A.P.), a local nonprofit, told me. The roof and interior floors of one building collapsed in 2000. But despite the prevalent blight, by the mid-aughts, according to a T.A.P. report, all ten lots had been acquired by “responsible and concerned owners,” who undertook much-needed repairs and renovations.

Today, the neighborhood is an exemplar of historic preservation, flush not with gold but sweat equity and curb appeal. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and appeared as Gilded Age Manhattan in Martin Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence.” Many of the homes bear the names of their earliest occupants (Gilbert House, Cushman House, Albert Heartt House). Earlier this year, I interviewed seventeen Washington Park homeowners. (I called nearly all of them, working from a 2013 W.P.A. directory submitted during litigation, last year’s tax rolls, and Google.) Unlike their predecessors, or their compeers in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park and Boston’s Louisburg Square, they do not belong to the plutocracy — more like the salariat, or middle class. “We’re not [wealthy] at all,” W.P.A. president Lynn Kopka told me over the phone in February. “People need to get over that.”

The median city-assessed value of a Washington Park home, according to data I compiled, is $300,000. (Assessed value does not equal market value, but the two are related.) One home on Washington Place, purchased for $475,000 in 2013, whose owner told me he had spent at least $100,000 on improvements, was assessed at $375,000. That owner lives with his wife on the second floor and rents the top, ground, and basement levels, along with a carriage house in back, to young professionals. He likened the leases to a pension, which he otherwise did not have.

Lynn Kopka is the most visible resident of Washington Park, where she has lived since the early eighties. In addition to her position with the W.P.A. — the group of park-property owners that collects dues for upkeep (in recent fiscal years, according to litigation, annual receipts approached $12,500, or about $250 per lot) — she is a member of the Troy city council, and president of the Friends of Washington Park, a nonprofit dedicated to capital improvements in the neighborhood. In 2013, Friends of Washington Park reported $32,652 in total revenue. Its projects include the stabilization of a city-owned building on Washington Place (since sold to a developer), the planting of serviceberry trees one block south of the park (funded by a $1,000 grant from National Grid), and the releveling of Washington Place’s cobblestones.

“We won’t ever leave [Washington Park] unlocked and open,” Kopka told me over the phone. “Because it, historically, was created for those that bought into it, essentially, through deeds and whatnot,” she said. A woman who bought and restored a three-house row on Washington Place (“an exercise in insanity because I don’t know if I’ll ever get my money back”) echoed Kopka’s sentiment. “It’s the way it’s been since the beginning, why should it change now?” she said. “That’s like you buying your house and then somebody says, ‘No, you’ve gotta share some of this land with somebody else.’ It’s like, ‘No, when I bought my house I bought this property with it.’”

“I’m not gonna give away my front yard any more than someone in [nearby suburb] Clifton Park’s gonna give away their front yard,” an owner-occupant on Washington Street, the north side of the park, told me. I asked another man who had lived on Washington Park since the nineteen-forties if he ever wondered whether the park should be opened to the public.

“What would they use it for?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Reading or walking around or laying down on the grass?”

“Well, we try to keep the grass pretty well-manicured. And if they wanted to read, they could read at home, couldn’t they?”

Sure, I said, but it seems like the park is seldom used.

“We all use it,” he replied. “We sit here and look at it.”

At present, despite an exhortative column in the Times Union last summer, there is no concerted, public campaign to open the gates to Washington Park — it’s private property, full stop. Except the W.P.A does not own Washington Park. The partners decreed that the park would be “conveyed in trust” to the city of Troy for lot owners’ exclusive use, “as soon as an act of the legislature shall be passed” to permit such an arrangement. No such legislation has ever been passed.

In 2013, the W.P.A. sued the city after a municipal-wide reassessment, the first since the nineteen seventies, found the park was incorrectly marked as exempt from taxation. Washington Park was then assessed at $54,500, which produced “an annual tax bill of about $2,200,” according to the New York State Supreme Court. The parties had settled a similar case in 1977 to preserve the park’s exemption after the previous citywide assessment. One longtime resident said that his grandfather and father each represented the W.P.A. in disputes with the city. “About every thirty years a battle erupted,” he laughed.

The W.P.A.’s argument for why the park ought not be taxed took several tacks. The strongest point seemed to be that the value of the park was included in the city’s assessments of the surrounding properties. Gramercy Park’s trustees successfully argued along those lines in “People ex rel Poor v. O’Donnel, a decision affirmed in 1910 by the [New York] Court of Appeals,” according to The New York Times. (The Times reported in 2012 that “residences with park access are valued [ten] percent higher than Gramercy-area properties without it.”) The Gramercy Park case set a strong precedent for proceeding against the city — except Gramercy Park’s trustees were vested with title, while the W.P.A. was not. “The parties agree,” New York State Supreme Court Justice Patrick J. McGrath wrote in September of last year, “that title to the Park remains with the heirs of the five original grantors.” The court dismissed the suit.

One bright Saturday in March, a little after 11:00 AM, Lynn Kopka warned a group of hunters to be careful when running, and then opened the west gate to Washington Park. A dozen knit-capped children toting baskets rushed into the square, which was stocked with five-hundred-and-five plastic eggs. The enclosure — a flat, hedge-less lawn flecked with hardwoods — has no nooks or crannies. The Easter egg hunt would be easy; every curbside prospector could see the lurid shells. Parents and chaperones trailed their charges into the park. Since almost none of them were keyholders, the event was a rare chance to enjoy the park. “We’ve moved […] towards being friendlier — let’s put it that way — over the past decade or so,” Kopka told me over the phone in February, “because this is an asset, and if we expect the areas around us to have the kind of investment that we have here, we’ve gotta be a little friendlier.”

According to litigation, the W.P.A. hosted eight quasi-public events in 2013: the Easter egg hunt, a children’s campout, a Halloween party, three picnics, and two tours for senior citizens, who bought tickets from Hudson Valley Community College. The events were publicized in the W.P.A.’s monthly newsletter, which, according to Kopka’s deposition, had a distribution list of about five-hundred, including park-property owners, tenants, and anyone else who requested it.

There are other parks — public ones — in Troy, keyholders reminded me. Prospect Park (not the one you are thinking) is an eighty-acre public park about six blocks east of Washington Park, though the only formal access point is considerably farther away. It has big trees, a playground, and a stellar view of the steepled cityscape and settlements across the river, but is overladen with asphalt and is technically closed from November to early April. When I visited, an attractive pavilion looked a bit shabby, and grass grew in the center of an abandoned swimming pool. “The city does such a shitty job [of maintaining] its own properties,” one Washington Park homeowner told me. Lynn Kopka put it more mildly: “The city doesn’t have the resources to tend to the parks that it owns now.”

In March, I asked Troy Mayor Patrick Madden and Deputy Mayor Monica Kurzejeski if they agreed with the W.P.A. members’ estimation of the city’s parks. “There’s improvements that can be done,” said Kurzejeski, who cited cuts in Parks & Recreation personnel. Mayor Madden — who, along with Kurzejeski, only assumed his position this year — also acknowledged “room for improvement.” (When I asked if he’d like to see Washington Park opened to the public, the mayor praised its residents, who, driven by a “love of architecture,” have “invested far more than they’ll ever get out of it.”)

One Washington Park homeowner told me that for him and his partner — academics with a young child — the park, in spite of its “embarrassing exclusivity,” was a “nice selling point to the area.” Another owner told me she’d like to see Washington Park opened to the public, though her phrasing was hardly affirmative: “I would have no problem with the space being open,” she said, “just because I know people are not clamoring to get into that park.” A former W.P.A. official and her husband, park residents for thirteen years, told me they’d like to see the square opened to the public — in theory — but had no faith in the city to maintain it.

Some owners advocated for the creation of a waterfront park. A significant swath of Troy’s waterfront, about five blocks west of Washington Park, consists of industrial brownfields and vacant lots. This, residents argued, was a more relevant concern for the city than their square’s accessibility. If such a waterfront park were created, Troy would become so popular, one Washington Place landlord told me, “you’d have to build Trump’s wall to keep the people out.”

One park-property tenant cited the fate of Barker Park — a much smaller, plaza-like park downtown — as a kind of testament to why Washington Park could not be opened to the public. The Times Union reported in 2012 that the city “removed four benches” from the park “due to complaints about fights and lewd behavior by those who loiter[ed] in the area.” I asked if such a fate were unlikely to befall Washington Park, given all the eyes on it.

“It would totally happen here,” the tenant replied, “because these people are too shy to come out and kick junkies out of here. They’re not gonna do that.” He spoke of a “population of people here who are in halfway homes, or rehabbing, or [who] just got out of the mental hospital. [Troy is] kind of a processing zone for people who are in transition, and [there are] a lot of people who have mental health issues and people who have substance-abuse issues.” Troy is the Rensselaer County seat, and there are a number of social-service agencies downtown. Two of the Washington Park residents I met in person expressed disdain for people who use such programs.

“Imagine, if those gates were open,” said another Washington Place property owner, who had affixed surveillance cameras to the side of his building. (His truck, he told me, was twice broken into.) “People hanging out there, throwing beer bottles, throwing everything, and next thing you know, not picking up dog shit, [people] stepping on it, the whole nine yards. Will anyone want to live here? Would everyone want to maintain this park? It’s a privilege. It’s the history.”

A one-time W.P.A. official and professor emeritus of a local college, who bought her property in the nineteen sixties (“a time when no one wanted to live in the city,” she said), told me it would be wrong if the city somehow rented her Queen Anne-style row house “to people who need social support.” I asked why. “Because it takes a certain level of sophistication and education to appreciate some of the nice things, quite frankly,” she said. “If you have in a house like this, you have four or five kids run around with no supervision and no sense of upbringing, good God. I’m totally against that. You can quote me on it, I don’t care.”

I wanted to ask Lynn Kopka if she ever considered opening the park to the public on the understanding that Friends of Washington Park could raise funds and win grants and marshal do-gooders to keep the park pristine. Washington Place, with its leveled cobbles and refurbished buildings, attests to her skill at brokering this sort of public-private partnership. Could the W.P.A. not open the park to the public with rules that defended its traditional, passive function and residential spirit? Would this not be the same kind of savvy, era-appropriate repurposing that occurred a century ago when owners converted single-family row houses to apartments?

Elena Madison, vice-president of the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit, told me in an email that a “Friends” nonprofit “is a common mechanism for supporting parks, both public and private, that has been around for many years now.” She cautioned, though, that this kind of group does not typically “have the capacity for day-to-day cleanup and maintenance. It is one thing to organize a seasonal park cleaning, or planting for that matter, and quite a different deal to provide daily care.” Homeowners told me that, beyond contracted maintenance, the park was a product of volunteerism. If the park were opened to the public, they predicted, that sense of stewardship would dissipate.

Liability was another complication. In previous budgets, the W.P.A. earmarked about $1,000 for insurance. It was not clear how much this figure would increase if Washington Park were opened to the public but remained under private control. The Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, recommended to me by Madison, did not return my request for a prospective quote.

Kopka stopped returning my calls after our first conversation. At the Easter egg hunt, she said I had “misrepresented” myself and refused to elaborate.

That Sunday afternoon, I sat on the steps of School 10 Apartments on Adams Street, one block south of Washington Park. T.A.P. converted the Colonial Revival schoolhouse into housing for low-income families in the nineteen-nineties. I met Sharkey, a Family Dollar employee who has lived in the building for two years. He smoked as we talked and watched Washington Place residents tidy up their back decks. He told me neighborhood kids played in the parking lot behind the complex. A group of teenagers sitting on a stoop across from the parking lot affirmed Sharkey’s claim. One of the young men opined that for football, the parking lot was preferable to Washington Park. Trees got in the way. Another said there were “not enough safe places” for younger kids to play, but all agreed that Washington Park, if opened to the public, was more likely to appeal to “older people.” They said they’d be more interested if the park were a pool, or if it were frequented by attractive women.

A title clerk, who has lived near Third Street and Adams for twelve years, told me that she and her sister take their children to The Crossings of Colonie, a large park across the river, fifteen minutes by car. Public parks in Troy, she said, are “not clean.” She understood why Washington Park residents kept their park closed to the public, since “a lot of people” — drug dealers, she clarified — “cause a lot of problems.”

Scott Morelli, an auto detailer who lives on Third Street with his partner and their four young children, told me he likes that Washington Park is private. “Look at the other parks in the area,” he said. They got “trashed,” he said, by teenagers who smoked and drank. He also takes his family to Colonie. He told me he could get a key to Washington Park. I asked how, noting that he did not live in a park property. “Lynn Kopka,” he said. Other keyholders, he claimed, told him that if he called and asked her, she’d give him one. I couldn’t find another non-park resident to corroborate Morelli’s claim. But I did find evidence to suggest that keys to Washington Park are not strictly limited to people who live in W.P.A.-member buildings.

“I mean, don’t be fooled,” one park-property landlord told me, “It’s not like the only people who have keys to this park live around the square. There’s more keys to this park lurking around Troy.” Another owner told me he once offered a key as a gift to a man who had moved to the neighborhood with his family, though the man declined the offer.

During the lawsuit, the city asked the W.P.A. to identify “every person who has a key to the fence that surrounds the subject property.” In response, the treasurer mentioned property owners and a landscape contractor. “Additionally,” he wrote, “owners of multiple-unit Park properties may request a key for a tenant’s use, but a list of owners who have done so is not maintained by the Association.” The city’s counsel asked Lynn Kopka during her deposition who, other than park property owners and the landscaper, had a key to the park.

“I would assume,” Kopka said, “that if you are a tenant — ”

“You really don’t know the answer,” her attorney cut in.

“I don’t know,” she said.

As an architectural student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the nineteen-sixties, Joe Fama volunteered with the Troy Architectural Program (T.A.P.) and later scored a work-study position. He became its first executive director in 1972, and he retired last October. He chastised himself for using “we” when referring to the community design center’s myriad projects in Troy, but it was unavoidable: he had drafted plans for buildings on every side of Washington Park.

In the nineteen-seventies, T.A.P. successfully opposed the construction of a highway and cloverleaf interchange in a poor neighborhood north of downtown. But the group of architects found themselves best suited to offer their draftsmanship and building-department-navigation expertise on the cheap. “We basically saw ourselves as the architectural equivalent of [the] Legal Aid [Society],” he told me, though T.A.P. charges for its services. “We got good at writing grants and getting subsidized money for ourselves and our clients,” he said.

When I asked Fama what he thought about children playing in a parking lot so close to a two-acre green space, he was diplomatic, but implied that park access wasn’t worth the inevitable (and perhaps unwinnable) fight. “These folks have come in, [and] they’ve made a major investment,” he said. “They’ve chosen to live in the city of Troy […] Because Troy is desperate for more tax base, this is a great thing.” He continued, “I want to see the city do well…But at the same time, do I want to agitate to have the kids who live at School 10 go into that park? I’d rather have School 10 as an institution coexist peaceably and happily with the neighborhood that’s getting better and better. So that’s a choice I made.”