Mystery box: CB1 receives enigmatic proposal from sculptor

Photo by Colin Mixson When this enigmatic black box arrived on Community Board 1’s doorstep earlier this month, confusion ensued.

Photo by Colin Mixson
When this enigmatic black box arrived on Community Board 1’s doorstep earlier this month, confusion ensued.

BY COLIN MIXSON

The unmarked black box appeared suddenly and without warning at the office of Community Board 1, like an obelisk from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Within the monolithic case were renderings of a majestic fountain laid out on thick, fold-out poster boards, along with a booklet and a CD in a custom-made jewel case, all packaged with the same care you might expect when unwrapping Apple’s latest iPhone.

The Parks Department and The Battery Conservancy also received identical packages containing the unsolicited proposal for a dramatic, multi-million-dollar monument to nature’s fury — a Hurricane Sandy memorial.

It was highly professional, aesthetically stunning, and, according to one board employee, a thoroughly perplexing proposal.

“We were all very confused,” said Diana Switaj, director of planning and land use for CB1, who was among the first to behold the odd package. “We weren’t notified in advance it was coming and it’s outside of procedure. So it was basically confusion. We didn’t know who the company was, or the sculptor. Nobody reached out to us in advance, which is very uncommon.”

Normally, when the city wants a monument it asks for one, issuing a request for proposals to solicit designs from interested firms, and then selecting a winner through a competition or bidding process, according to the Parks Department.

In this case, however, award-winning sculptor Sassona Norton contracted the TASC Group, a Chelsea public relations firm, to pitch her vision of a Hurricane Sandy memorial directly to the city.

Without any indication that the city was interested in hosting a monument to the traumatic 2012 superstorm, Norton has already “invested a considerable amount of resources and funds into this project,” according to a letter that accompanied the proposal. In addition to hiring the public relations firm, the sculptor has also lined up graphic designers, engineers, construction contractors, and even a foundry to assist in the project, the pitch letter says, as well as establishing a not-for-profit called the Hands for Tomorrow Fund to raise the $10 million she believes will be required to build and maintain the monument, the letter stated.

Entitled “From Chaos to Order,” the centerpiece of the memorial would be a column composed of massive bronze hands housing a fountain which the TASC letter describes as “a theatrical event; a dynamic tour de force that casts people and water as foes.”

Photo by Colin Mixson The mysterious box contained an elaborate proposal for a memorial to Hurricane Sandy from sculptor Sassona Norton.

Photo by Colin Mixson
The mysterious box contained an elaborate proposal for a memorial to Hurricane Sandy from sculptor Sassona Norton.

The fountain would perform what Norton envisions as sort of a three-act play. Beginning with “Storm Assault,” jets of water attack the bronze column before moving onto “Storm Defeat,” and ultimately “Celebration,” in which the fountain erupts in a geyser of water blasting 50 feet into the air, in a spectacle that locals and tourists will regard as the “Old Faithful” of Lower Manhattan, according to the letter.

Norton wants to build her grand project in the middle of the Oval, the three-acre lawn in The Battery that’s set to be unveiled in June as a major addition of green space for a part of town that doesn’t have much of it.

Downtown has only 21 square feet of open space per resident, according to a 2014 study commissioned by CB1 — the seventh-lowest ratio out of Manhattan’s 12 community districts — so locals are none too eager to sacrifice their precious park space to the massive monument.

“You’re looking at an area that has slivers of green,” said CB1 chairwoman Catherine McVay Hughes. “This monument to Sandy, there are probably a lot better places for it to be than Downtown and Community Board 1.”

Hughes pointed out that Downtown Manhattan wasn’t the only neighborhood hit hard by the superstorm, and that Norton might have better odds pitching her monument to another community board.

“Although CB1 suffered due to Sandy, there are other places that suffered more and are more worthy of the proposed installation,” said Hughes.

The Downtown community, which lost two lives to the catastrophic storm, is not opposed to erecting some fitting memorial, but local leaders prefer a more low-key and practical approach. The board has passed a resolution in support of participating in FEMA’s High Water Mark program — which posts signs indicating the height of floodwaters — commemorating the disaster by informing locals and visitors how far the storm surge reached into the neighborhood. The $500 signs, paid for through the National Flood Insurance Program, are better suited for a neighborhood that’s more concerned with finding money to protect itself from future floods than spending millions to remember the last one, according to Hughes.

“It’s a minimal sign — minimal cost,” she said. “Right now we’re focusing on rebuilding [The Battery] and resiliency.”

The Battery Conservancy, which maintains the park — and presided over the nearly year-long wait for the Oval’s opening — isn’t eager to see the lawn hijacked by a memorial either.

“I think it should be the lawn it was always envisioned as,” said Warrie Price, president of the conservancy. “Downtown has waited a long time to sunbathe, picnic, and have a place of leisure, and it should stay as the place it’s always been meant as.”

It’s unclear exactly what support Norton hopes to get from the city — whether she simply requires a site for the monument or if the sculptor expects the city to pitch in with funding for the project. Neither Norton nor the TASC Group returned calls for comment by press time.

The Parks Department, which has the final say, said it is not currently interested in a permanent monument, but it might consider a temporary installation, and directed Norton to its website for instructions on how to properly submit a proposal.

“While NYC Parks is not currently considering such permanent proposals, as New York City’s greatest public gallery we are always open to proposals for temporary artworks that beautify our parks and honor our city’s history and culture,” the agency said in a statement. “NYC Parks does have other resources for artists to propose temporary artworks—also highly competitive—detailed information can be found in the Arts & Antiquities section of Parks’ website.”

Rendering by TASC Group The memorial — centered on a fountain that would occasionally send a jet of water 50 feet in the air — is being pitched for the center of the Oval lawn in The Battery, but local stakeholders are loath to give up precious parkland for a monument that nobody asked for.

Rendering by TASC Group
The memorial — centered on a fountain that would occasionally send a jet of water 50 feet in the air — is being pitched for the center of the Oval lawn in The Battery, but local stakeholders are loath to give up precious parkland for a monument that nobody asked for.

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