Call it “The Project Formerly Known as Sponge Park.”
A dispute between the architect of an innovative greenspace and the not-for-profit group heading up its development has left a proposed Gowanus park without a name.
It was all smiles back in 2008 when “Sponge Park” — whose name refers to the absorptive power of plants planned along the length of the 1.8-mile canal — was unveiled.
The landscape architecture firm dlandstudio and the advocacy group Gowanus Canal Conservancy said they hatched the idea together as a way to capture excess rainwater during storms so that less raw sewage gets into the canal.
And elected officials and government entities were enthusiastic about the project, with Rep. Nydia Velazquez allocating $300,000 last year, funds the conservancy received last week.
But behind the public meetings and ebullient press releases, there was a rift wider than the canal itself.
It turns out that “Sponge Park” is not some kind of public trust — it’s a trademarked name that belongs to dlandstudio — as do two Web domain names that use the name to promote dlandstudio’s business.
“They trademarked the name without our knowledge or permission,” said Andy Simons, chairman of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.
Simons specifically blamed dlandstudio’s principal, Susannah Drake, for the betrayal. Strong word? You decide: For her work on the park, Drake received about $21,000, of which $16,000 came from a New York State Council for the Arts grant.
Simon’s mind is made up.
“When you are taking public money, you are not supposed to be creating something that is privately owned,” he said. “As soon as you take public funds, it becomes publicly owned.”
Drake said that she trademarked the name two years ago, when she designed the park. She said the conservancy knew about it since last year.
“I don’t feel bad protecting my divine right,” she said. “All I was doing was protecting myself and my design firm.”
She said the benefit she derives from the trademark is that if a larger architecture firm uses the name, they’ll have to compensate her.
Drake said she admires the conservancy and enjoyed working with them. “It was great chemistry. I don’t know what happened,” she said.
And that $16,000 payment? Peanuts considering how long she worked on the project — three years.
“I was working pro-bono for two to three years — that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees!” she said.
Betrayed? Now Drake is using the word.
“I do feel a little betrayed,” she said.
Regardless of the naming battle, the conservancy said the “Sponge Park” ethos, if not the actual name, will live on, first at the site on Sixth Street between Second and Fourth avenues, thanks to a new grant the Department of Environmental Protection aimed at managing runoff into the canal.
Drake also won money from the same agency for a stormwater management project in Queens.
“If I create the same kind of system in Queens, I’m calling it Sponge Park,” Drake said.
Along the Gowanus, The Project Formerly Known as Sponge Park is still a long way from creation, and is over a decade away from completion, as it is complicated by a federally overseen Superfund cleanup of the canal.
Besides, Simons said, he never liked the name Sponge Park.
Part of his distaste was that in 2008 the conservancy had Bob Zuckerman as its executive director, and the worry was that the media would dub him “ ‘Sponge’ Bob,” a reference to the children’s cartoon. “I though it was inappropriate and belittling to a good design,” Simons said.
Zuckerman, who left the conservancy after two years in 2009 to run for City Council, said he doesn’t recall Drake ever formally telling the organization that she trademarked the name.
He said he only remembers “a good, normal working relationship,” and offered, “Whatever the situation is, I hope they work it out.”