Volume 74, Number 40 | February 9 - 15, 2005

TALKING POINT

Balancing interests in Washington Sq.’s renovation

By Michael Haberman and Aubrey Lees

Winston Churchill once said, “This is not the end, nor is it the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.” As the co-chairpersons of Community Board 2’s task force that has been focusing on the renovation of Washington Sq. Park for the past two years, we can’t think of a more appropriate description of where we now stand.

Last week, the community board sponsored a public hearing for the Parks Department to unveil and discuss the first draft of a master plan for the restoration of the park. The meeting was just the first in this ongoing process — and it was a great start. It was a spirited meeting where many points of views were expressed and lots of valuable input was voiced. While some felt it was nothing more than a screaming session, we felt it filled its precise purpose — to let the Parks Department know that while they are moving down the right track, the plan needs some fine tuning.

Certainly, there were some things some people did not like about the design. But let’s put it all in perspective. Overall, people embraced the design outlined by the Parks Department’s designer, George Vellonakis, himself a longtime resident of the Village. With a few exceptions, everyone agreed that the park needs a major restoration. Virtually everyone agreed that the fountain should be restored, centered with the Arch, and raised to ground level to make it a better gathering space for performers and for those who want to sit and relax. Virtually everyone agreed that some of the paths should be removed to create more “usable” space. And most people also agreed that we have to look for some more play space for children, an appropriate space for a dog run and a beautiful and workable space for performances like the Washington Sq. Music Festival. Now we as a community have to work with the Parks Department to accommodate as many of these wishes as possible. But we must also remember as a community that there is limited space and we’ll all have to compromise — unfortunately, the park simply isn’t large enough to accommodate all of our wishes.

Now, the process is continuing to move forward. This week the Parks Department is meeting with the dog owners to better understand their needs and see if adjustments can be made. They are also talking with parents groups to discuss how to meet the needs of our community’s children. And they are looking at ways to incorporate the “mounds” into the overall design — in a way that makes them and the entire park more usable.

Next week, the community board, Parks Department and Councilmember Alan Gerson will host yet another public meeting to explain any changes that have been made and solicit more feedback. And then we will be back at Community Board 2 once again in March, where the public will have another chance to give their input.

Unfortunately, some people had the wrong impression of how this process has worked. They thought our task force had been meeting “in secret” with the Parks Department to come up with a plan that was a fait accompli. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our task force had three objectives — ask elected officials to commit money to the project, help private groups raise private money for the project, and ensure that the renovation project remained a top priority of the community and the city. We had no role in the design — in fact we saw the design only once, just a couple of weeks before the community board public hearing.

As we move ahead with meetings in the next few weeks, let’s remember that we have an incredible opportunity to see the jewel of our community transformed into the world-class park it should be. We cannot work against each other and let this chance slip through our fingers — we must work together as a Village, remembering that no one will get everything they want but we will all get a vastly improved park that better meets the needs of our entire community.

Haberman is New York University’s director of government and community relations. Lees is chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee. They are co-chairpersons of the C.B. 2 Washington Sq. Park Task Force.

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