Volume 74, Number 49 | April 13 - 19 , 2005

Park plans haven’t been squared away with community

By Marilyn Dorato and Kathryn Donaldson

If “Greenwich Village is a state of mind,” then Washington Sq. Park is its soul. The park’s future and proposed plans to alter it are necessarily a matter of concern and discussion even among residents who rarely set foot there. Parks Designer George Vellonakis, who would like to have his efforts realized, has explained his renderings and the proposed construction schedule at large, often raucous gatherings as well as at numerous smaller showings. The Greenwich Village Block Associations offered to post the renderings on our Web site but, unfortunately, the Parks Department has not yet made them available for this.

The G.V.B.A. agrees that our much-loved park needs attention. What that should entail is unclear to us. Some residents allege that small, but vocal, groups may disproportionately influence the final design; some reasonably suspect that New York University and its surrogates are steering decisions behind the scenes and speaking publicly in other guises. Others contend that the park needs no redesign and opt for a less-costly refurbishment to be completed in a reliable and timely manner. Some fear that if the community balks at this offering, the Parks Department will do nothing; that would be a misfortune.

The G.V.B.A. has taken no position regarding specific design points. We are, however, concerned about unfolding developments in the process through which the New York City Parks Department will decide what changes are necessary for our world-famous and well-used green space. Residents should be confident that the Parks Department and our public officials reach a judgment based upon an interpretable consensus that will inform the park redesign or refurbishment. The question remains as to whether not the community has that assurance. We understand that a reputable group, the Project for Public Spaces, offered several months ago to conduct a public survey, but its offer has been rebuffed. The G.V.B.A. considered a special-edition newsletter to allow an airing of each viewpoint and to gather data, but this requires funding we don’t have.

Conceivable adjustments might be made regarding specific features. Would lowering the proposed fence height mollify those who prefer no fence at all? Can gates remain open to allow for egress through the park by residents who prefer not to walk around it in the wee hours? Can the design be simplified so that the financial burden would be more reasonable to ensure that construction proceeds in a timely manner without unnecessary loss of park use? How will New York University’s students feel about the park’s construction schedule? After all, Washington Sq. Park is part of the lure that got them here. What about the mounds and the playgrounds?

An honest broker is critical to manage such discussions. As difficult as it may be to interpret and evaluate the community’s opinions, it remains the job of the Parks Department to do so. Unfortunately, recent decisions regarding nearby Union Sq. Park, make us wary. The bond of trust between the community and the Parks Department may be “irretrievably broken” if the community believes that the Parks Department has been dishonest in its decision-making process and botches this one.

Parks is evolving into a design-and-management agency that cannot maintain our city parks without the free labor of citizen volunteers and private groups. Routinely underfunded, it treats our parks as “leasable assets,” not solely as public amenities. Ironically, licenses and use fees for these public spaces typically go into the general fund, not back into the Parks Department’s budget. For example, we understand that concession/special-event fees from Union Sq. Park approach $1.5 million per year. A small portion of that comes back to the park; financial need is cited as the rationale for permanently ceding a prime part this historic gathering place to a private restaurant. Our urban recreational spaces are “cash cows.”

Corporate logos, displayed on a temporary or permanent basis, are becoming commonplace. During the New York Is Book Country event, the Target logo overwhelmed Washington Sq. Park one weekend last fall and offended many Villagers. Some of the positive aspects of the event — yes, there were some good things about it — may have been overlooked due to distaste for the arrogant methods of its sponsors. To date there has been no assessment concerning New York Is Book Country and the event will reportedly not reoccur only because the organization is defunct.

The G.V.B.A. believes that the hefty $16 million dollar price tag on the Washington Sq. Park design may serve as excuse to permit private park uses. Last year more than 400 special-event permits were issued for Union Sq. Park. Several large grassy areas in the new Washington Sq. Park design are intended to provide space for large gatherings; they will be irresistible to private entities seeking permission to use a newly refurbished, iconographic park to promote their products and/or activities.

The iron fence that will surround Washington Sq. Park is slated to be almost 5 ft. high when its foundation is factored into the measurement. This fence is a source of friction; the G.V.B.A. believes that valid points have been made on both sides of this issue. After it is installed, the park will, indeed, be more easily policed. This change, however, may have a deleterious affect on nearly blocks. The antisocial element that frequents Washington Sq. Park will relocate elsewhere. This foreseeable dilemma should be discussed now. Washington Sq. Park should not be “cleaned up” by moving its problems elsewhere.

The community is plausibly suspicious of New York University’s participation. N.Y.U. is maintaining a low profile, but who supposes that N.Y.U. will not influence the design as well as the park’s future uses? N.Y.U. promised to hold its graduation ceremonies in the Kimmel Center’s auditorium when that facility was in the planning stages. When Bobst Library was first proposed, N.Y.U. promised that the entire building was essential library space; administrative offices would not be housed there. Neither pledge was honored.

No matter our suspicions regarding our institutional neighbor, Washington Sq. Park serves as N.Y.U.’s campus and features in its brochures and public relations efforts. N.Y.U. is not going to go away and it has a legitimate interest here. But our city agencies and the community have an obligation to ensure that residential needs and desires precede those of the university. Supposedly, as reassurance that N.Y.U. is not influencing the design, it has pledged only $1 million to the funding efforts. N.Y.U.’s financially prudent “sensitivity” is no reassurance; its contribution should be determined by a sense of responsibility, not integral to a scheme to “buy the park.”

John Phillips wrote “California Dreamin’ ” while staying at the old Hotel Earle on Washington Sq. Park. We’re dreaming, too — of a Washington Sq. Park that fulfills the needs of the community that loves it, respects its history and will be a vigilant custodian. The G.V.BA. doesn’t know what those needs and desires are, yet, and neither does the New York City Parks Department.

Dorato is secretary and Donaldson is treasurer of the Greenwich Village Block Associations, an organization representing 35 block associations.

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