Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

George Vellonakis with his design for the refurbishment of Washington Sq. Park

He has designs on the square, and is showing them

By Divya Watal

Many Village residents agree that Washington Sq. Park needs renovation, but few agree on how it should be renovated. That’s where George Vellonakis comes in.

Vellonakis, a landscape architect and designer of the park’s current refurbishment plan, sits in one of the three small brick buildings in Washington Sq. Park every Wednesday and smoothes out the concerns of anxious residents and park users. He has large boards to demonstrate the changes in store for the park, with maps of what the park will look like in a few years, illustrations of the different phases, details of past renovations and even historical images of the park.

“People come here with all sorts of concerns,” he says. “But once I explain everything to them, they end up supporting the renovation.”

Vellonakis answers questions in the Washington Sq. park house from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday. And there isn’t a moment when he isn’t busy.

“What about the Scrabble area?” an apprehensive Scrabble enthusiast asks.

“It’ll still be there,” Vellonakis patiently explains. “All the uses [of the park] will still be used while under construction.”

“Will it be accessible?” asks Christopher Keller, who lives near the park and uses a wheelchair.

Vellonakis pulls out his boards and charts, and he explains that the new granite surface planned around the fountain area will be smoothed, so that it is wheelchair accessible. There won’t be any steps anywhere, he explains. The renovated park will have flat ramps, because “everyone is happy with no steps, even people who don’t use wheelchairs.” Keller is pacified.

“Will they rename Holley Plaza?” asks Harvey Osgood, another concerned park user. The issue of renaming the plaza was raised at the last Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting. Luther Harris, an expert on the square’s history, proposed that the Holley statue be replaced by a statue of former Mayor Philip Hone, who created the square.

“Why do we need another monument to a politician?” Osgood asks. He is attached to Holley Plaza, and he is afraid that one of the few monuments dedicated to an engineer will be removed.

Vellonakis, who has little control over this issue, voices his sympathy. A new Hone statue isn’t part of the Parks Department plan for the square, at least not yet. Osgood leaves, ostensibly appeased.

The most contentious issue, however, concerns the proposed fencing of the park.

“Why do we need fencing?” asks Sharon Woolums, a public member of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee and a vociferous opponent of enclosing the park. “They fenced Tompkins Sq. Park, and its character has been changed completely,” she charges.

Vellonakis becomes visibly riled about the fencing question.

“In the summer, the park’s landscapes are destroyed at 2 a.m., and it’s the dog users who do it — the dogs rip up the grass,” he says. “The park is for everyone, and it shouldn’t be destroyed.”

After the renovation, temporary fencing will be placed across the park’s entrances at 1 a.m. every morning, and it will be removed at 6 a.m., he explains, adding that this is what’s done even now.

“It’s not Gramercy Park,” he says. “It’s still open to everyone.”

As for Tompkins Sq. Park, he says, the residents of that area would be enraged if the fencing were removed. It has helped the park, not spoiled it, he points out. The reason, he presumes, character of Tompkins Sq. has changed is because of fencing inside the park, along the paths. The exterior fence is not to blame.

Woolums, however, is not as easily persuaded as the others.

“I think it’s a very good thing that they’re doing this,” she says about Vellonakis’ Wednesday ritual. “I understand his point of view, but only the big co-ops around the park want this fence.”

The road to renovation may be rocky, but Vellonakis sees his role as a facilitator to ease the transformation process of Washington Sq. Park.

“Me being here on Wednesday and talking to people about the design, it really helps,” he says. “The dog run people came last week, for example. They look at the plan, and they say, ‘But where’s the dog run?! Where’s the dog run?!’ Once I explain it to them that there will be a dog run, but it’ll be here instead of there, they’re like, ‘Oh, O.K.’ ”

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