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

Dog owners growl, mounds moms erupt at park forum

By Lincoln Anderson

The dog owners were howling in anger, with one of them almost getting ejected from the room. The mounds parents were literally climbing the walls in outrage — before the long-simmering issue of the three climbing hills suddenly blew up in a frenzy of screamed accusations and the whole thing was called off.

“A Greenwich Village meeting,” someone commented knowingly during one of the more chaotic moments.

But it wasn’t just any Greenwich Village meeting. It was the first public presentation of a design to refurbish Washington Sq. Park, the Village’s landmark centerpiece, which hasn’t seen a major renovation in over 30 years. More than 200 people attended.

As promised, dog owners turned out in force, concerned about the plan to move the park’s two dog runs to the park’s southern edge opposite Judson Church. And the mounds parents came to express their fear that despite earlier assurances of the Parks Department, the park’s former play area for adolescents would not be rebuilt under the redesign.

They heard a presentation of the plan’s basics by landscape architect George Vellonakis, the designer, and Bill Castro, Parks Department Manhattan borough commissioner. Castro noted that although the park will be renovated in two, successive, one-year phases, first the western half, then the eastern half, the dog runs will remain open during both phases.

Yet, it was clear that the dog run members want the runs to remain centrally located in the park. Jim Fouratt, a member of the park’s run for small dogs, called the idea of a run on the park’s periphery, “a terrible idea.” Other members echoed his comments, noting dogs might be startled by loud noises from car traffic on Washington Sq. S., that the dogs would be in greater danger of running into the street and that pedestrians stopping to look at the dogs playing in the run would congest the sidewalk.

Fouratt repeatedly insisted to know who from the dog runs the Parks Department has met with about the plan, prompting a warning from Aubrey Lees, Community Board 2 Parks Committee chairperson and co-chairperson of the C.B. 2 Washington Sq. Park Task Force. Castro said he had recently met with Clay Bushong, the large run’s vice president, and seven other members and that their reaction was favorable.

Bushong, who only a few weeks ago was despondent over the dog run plans — going so far as to abruptly resign from the Washington Sq. Park Council over it — has since become a convert. He spoke at last Wednesday’s C.B. 2 meeting, welcoming other dog owners to join a committee that will continue to work with Parks on the dog run’s planning.

Vellonakis said the new dog run will have a high-tech, crushed-stone surface, pop-up sprinkler system and underground drainage, keeping it very clean. A hedge would provide a barrier between the run and Washington Sq. S.

In general, Castro said, the challenge is to balance the interests of “special groups” — as in the dog run and mounds — with those of “the general public — who want more lawns.” Parks is trying to avoid a situation where these groups are pitted against each other. But in such a small park in a neighborhood already so sorely lacking in park space it may be unavoidable.

The current locations of the park’s two dog runs are areas Parks envisions as lawns. Castro said Parks wants to have more movies and musical events on lawns on the park’s west side and to offer “the ability to sit on these lawns at night and relax.

“We have an opportunity to do something special,” he stressed. “George’s plan is not a radical plan, as you can see.”

Dog run members ultimately wanted to know if moving the dog run to the park’s periphery was a “done deal.” Castro said that because the large dog run won’t be included in phase one of the construction, it could conceivably stay in the park’s interior.

Another concern is that the proposed spot where the two dog runs would be relocated is in shade much of the time.

“They’re so full of it,” said Janet Wolfman, 61, as she left the meeting. “It’s a done deal. The thing is that that building that [New York University] put behind Judson Church has put the whole south side of the park into shadows. Now that’s where they want the dog run to go. It’s all done to accommodate N.Y.U…. We fought for the dog run here. It took us 10 years.”

Wolfman tends gardens around the edge of the dog run, but said those along the run’s southern side no longer grow because they’re now in perpetual shade from the new N.Y.U. School of Law building.

After the meeting, Vellonakis denied that the new law building is putting the area of the park across from Judson into shadow.

(When The Villager visited the park last Sunday around 3 p.m., the proposed new dog run area was entirely in shade — so was the southern half of the existing large dog run, where dogs and their owners were clustered in the northern part in the sun. Some of the dog owners there saw a positive in the proposed new location, in that the shade would keep the dogs from overheating in the summer. Bushong said a member of the dog run who is a landscape architect will use a computer program to conduct shadow studies of the site. Bushong said he was at the proposed new spot for the dog runs the other day and that it was still sunny at 11:30 a.m. He said that helping get him to accept the plan are the perks that Parks is offering, including garbage removal, now done by dog run members.)

On Feb. 9 at 75 Morton St. at 7 p.m., the dog run members will meet with Castro and Vellonakis in a special meeting just on the dog runs.

In addition, Councilmember Alan Gerson is sponsoring a public hearing on the design for the park with C.B. 2 and the A.I.A. Center for Architecture, at A.I.A. at 536 LaGuardia Pl., on Feb. 16, at 6:30 p.m. He said the meeting will offer a chance for the public to register ideas and input.

If the dog run debate was heated, the mounds discussion was explosive. “We want to create some mounds in the area — at least two — and have some sort of play area incorporated into it — if the community wants it,” said Castro.

However, Eliza Nichols, New School University associate provost and leading mounds advocate, noted that in March 2003 Community Board 2 had voted to support “refurbishment of the three mounds in their current configuration and height.”

The broken-down mounds have been fenced off for 10 years.

Kay Rogers of Lower Manhattan Neighbors Organizing for Parks and Playgrounds and Diane Whelton, a former, longtime C.B. 2 member, attempted to detail Board 2’s previous commitments to restoring the mounds and adolescent playground area that was formerly around them. The other play equipment gradually broke down in the 1970s and was never replaced.

Whelton was referring to some community board resolutions from the past — to show how the board has issued resolutions supporting the mounds repeatedly over the years — when Honi Klein, executive director of the Village Alliance business improvement business improvement district and a member of the park task force, remarked, “That was 15 years ago.”

At that point, Nichols snapped, yelling at Lees, “Aubrey, you did it!” and referring to the petition that mounds parents had collected to save the mounds two years ago. Whelton, too, was beside herself with frustration.

With about 50 people still left at that point, Lees shut down the meeting.

Afterwards, Jonathan Greenberg said he fondly recalled evenings as a teenager sitting with friends on the metal platforms that used to be near the mounds. There were three metal platforms of different heights with ladders to them, he said.

Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City, was disappointed she didn’t get a chance to ask questions on some preservation-related aspects of the plan.

“Anybody at this meeting would think that all people in the Village care about is playgrounds and dogs,” she said.

Councilmember Gerson, whose district contains Washington Sq. Park — noting he “grew up in it” — allocated funding two years ago to repair the mounds and has also allocated $1 million for the park’s $16 million renovation plan. But Gerson said he won’t release the funds unless five conditions are met: that there be “in keeping with the Village tradition, a full dialogical process and full input;” that the park be recognized “as a community park;” that the park’s special importance to children in the community be recognized — “from tiny tots to 12-year-olds;” that construction noise be kept down; and that the special nature of the park be recognized.

Gerson told The Villager he is “committed to the principle of providing adolescent play space to 7-to-12-year-olds,” whether that be mounds or something else. “We should ask P.S. 41 and P.S. 3 to weigh in with what they want in the playgrounds,” he added.

In addition, Jean Lyman Goetz, manager of the Washington Sq. Music Festival, said they are “dismayed at the lack of a performance space” in the plan. Performing underneath the Arch isn’t a good idea, she said, since this would “impose music on Fifth Ave. residents…and will be distracting for both pedestrians and traffic and the concerts.” She noted that the concerts each attract 1,000 people.

Castro said they are working with Peggy Friedman, the music festival’s director, on these issues.

“It’s time to think about getting rid of the fountain,” one audience member opined out of the blue at one point, taking everyone by surprise. No one seconded this idea.

On other points, Castro said there is a plan to have a separate bathroom for children.

Elizabeth Butson, publisher emeritus of The Villager and a member of the C.B. 2 task force on the park, said she approved of the design and the task force process, which was closed to the press and public. With the design having been made public last week, Parks now hopes to start work in four months.

“You can’t design a park by committee,” Butson said. “What this is doing is restoring the park to its 19th-century condition — with adding modern amenities.”

Vellonakis stayed after the meeting for an hour explaining the design to a small group, including The Villager, Ann Arlen, a former C.B. 2 member, Fouratt and Louise Simmons, the small dog run’s president.

Among the points he made, Vellonakis stressed that no trees would be removed to improve sightlines, though the trees on the Teen Plaza are not doing so well, because they have 3 ft. of soil added on top of their root system, and the grass in the park’s northwestern corner isn’t growing well, either, because one or two Norway maples there have “poisonous roots” and, as a result, may have to be removed.

Concrete walls at the park’s corners would be removed to open up sightlines. Vellonakis said all 19 existing chess tables would be kept, and remain in the same area in the park’s southwestern corner where they are now. The removal of the concrete walls here would help discourage any drug dealers from hanging out here, Vellonakis added. However, speaking earlier, Castro had been less definite on whether all the chess tables would stay, saying, “We definitely want to have it — there are some problems with it.”

According to Vellonakis, new light poles would possibly including bishop’s crook lights throughout the park, since these are the main historic light poles used on Village streets, and another kind of light pole with five bulbs for around the fountain.

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