‘Sponge’ worthy? Battle brews over name of a water-sipping Gowanus park

The Brooklyn Paper
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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.”

Updated 5:19 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

tee gee from sunset park says:
Does "much ado about nothing" seem like an appropriate title for this article? also, there is key information missing. like, how does this park separate sewage water from run off? isn't all sewage treated in nyc? and on rainy days, don't sewage treatment centers have containment vats to hold the extra "dirty" water until it is treated and released clean? unless i'm told otherwise, i think this is just a nice parklike strip along the canal that has little to no concrete so that rain water can be absorbed. but that begs the question, why keep clean rainwater from the dirty canal?

did drake "invent" or develop a new concept? and the last time i heard anyone besides drake invoke "divine" right it was the Queen of England. What the hell is divine right?

if i was drake, i'd be worried that she won't have much future business when other groups hear what she has done. "property" rights to development usually transfer to the person paying for the work unless specifically mentioned in the contract.

i think the park should be called Square Pants Park!
July 23, 2010, 9:12 am
Carolinia from abroad says:
I'm confused. I thought the name "sponge" was referring to that contraceptive thing because the park --it it worked well--would keep the condoms out of the canal.
July 23, 2010, 3:19 pm
an engineer from NYC says:
You don't trademark a standard approach to stormwater management.... If I bake a new cake, drain it with rum, and then call it my rum sponge, should I trademark it and then get mad when I find out that someone else is making the same thing, since it was really a 17th century german recipe?? dland - get a life
July 27, 2010, 4:15 pm
Jerry Krase from Park Slope says:
if people had been more concerned about cleaning up the canal than for getting credit for doing it, we would be already clamming there. now that it is superfunded, we have to keep on top of both the politicians and the activists to do more than just name things. i am sure that the conservancy as well as all the other well-meaning community groups gccdc, frogg, cga, pscc, fac, etc.. (as well as my grandson jack who lives very nearby) who are concerned with the realization of the hoped for 'clean-up' will agree that getting something done is more important than getting praise.
Sept. 16, 2010, 11:14 am

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