Volume 74, Number 51 | April 27 - May 03 , 2005

Villager photo by Jennifer Weisbord

N.Y.U. students protested the Washington Sq. Park renovation plan at last week’s Board 2 meeting.

Opponents can’t get over fence, as plan is passed

By Lincoln Anderson

Critics of the Washington Sq. Park refurbishment plan wore green ribbons around their wrists and pointed their thumbs down to show their disapproval. They held up defiant banners and posters with slogans like “The Fountain Stays Put.” But their protests didn’t change Community Board 2’s resolution in favor of the renovation plan for the landmarked square, which passed the board by an overwhelming majority last Thursday night.

About 200 people attended the meeting, most of them there for the Washington Sq. issue. Around 30 of these were New York University students.

The main fireworks came right before the start of the meeting, when Jonathan Greenberg, head of the Open Washington Sq. Park Coalition, called for a vote of the largely anti-renovation audience on whether they favored the $16 million, two-year project, which would close half the park for a year at a time. Jim Smith, the board’s chairperson, protested Greenberg was out of order.

Two speakers were allowed for each side of the issue during the board’s public session. Marc Brodeur, an N.Y.U. sophomore, and Leonie Haimson, a Village parent, spoke against the plan.

Brodeur said ringing the park with a wrought-iron fence over 4 ft. tall could be dangerous if there’s a mass event.

“If something disastrous happens in the park, how do you get out?” he asked.

Also, he said, nobody he knows supports the idea of moving the fountain two-dozen or so feet to the east to center it with the Washington Sq. Arch. And N.Y.U. students don’t want “a massive construction project” keeping them out of the park, he added.

“Most people who live here don’t know this is going to happen,” said Haimson of the project, adding, “I think it would be extremely depressing and destructive to the community to have a fence.” She also spoke in support of renovating the three play mounds in the park’s southwestern section.

“They say that no matter what they hate the hills and they’re not going to put them in the plan,” she said.

Speaking for the project were Tobi Bergman, former vice chairperson of the board’s Parks Committee, who, the previous week, had not been reappointed to the board by Manhattan Borough President Fields, and Luther Harris, author of a definitive book on the history of the square.

“If we miss this opportunity, we will lose the park we love,” said Bergman. He noted the Parks Department feels the fence is needed to protect the park’s lawns, which will be renovated as part of the refurbishment. Bergman said the lawns get damaged at night when people go into the park to walk their dogs or play pickup soccer games.

“There’s no point to create beautiful lawns in there if they’re going to be destroyed right away,” he said. At the same time, Bergman said the park’s “wonderful openness” is something that needs to be preserved. “It’s not just a sight to see, it’s the heritage of the park,” he said. He said he personally feels a fence around the park should only be waist high. The park’s current exterior pipe-railing fence is 21/2 ft. high.

As for the fountain, Bergman said it has to be taken apart anyway, because the substructure needs repair, so moving it a bit afterwards is not a big deal.

Harris said the park currently is comprised of “a shabby square and a beautiful arch.” After years of delay, the arch’s renovation was completed last year. Fondly recalling the sight of the World Trade Center through the arch, he said centering the fountain would create a more pleasing vista than currently exists.

“Why wouldn’t you want this beautiful fountain with [restored] urns, instead of the Kimmel Center to look at through the arch?” he asked.

George Vellonakis, the landscape architect responsible for the current redesign plan, gave a presentation of the square’s history: The park opened in 1827; in 1867-’70 a reconstruction cut a wishbone-shaped carriage drive through the middle of the park from north to the south; in 1969-’70 the roadway bisecting the park was eliminated and the park was renovated.

Vellonakis said the submerged central plaza ringed by concrete walls was a product of the ’60s when this kind of design was overused. He said a “pinch point” on the plaza’s western side near the Holley statue should be opened up, while an asphalt expanse on the plaza’s eastern side should be closed up, increasing lawn space. At the moment, Parks is looking at adding a 3 ft. 10 in.-high fence atop an 8-in. curb around the park, the curb being needed to keep soil inside the park, he said. Parks is considering a slightly lower, 6-in., curb, too, he noted. The fence would not be any higher or more visually intrusive than the historic fence that rings the old Northern Dispensary building on Waverly Pl., he added.

Chad Marlow, a C.B. 2 member, put in a plug for the mounds.

“Whenever I heard about ‘the mounds,’ I didn’t get it,” he confessed. Then, he said, he went by one day after it had snowed and saw young children sledding on them and, “It was magic.”

Councilmember Alan Gerson urged the board to pass the resolution and not table it until next month’s meeting. The Parks Department wants to start construction this summer.

“Any leverage is now — before June,” Gerson stressed. He said if Parks doesn’t adjust the plan to meet the community’s priorities, he’ll work to pull City Council funding from the project and block further Council funding.

“As proposed, I feel the fence is too high — that the fence is way too high — and possibly not necessary,” Gerson said. He also said the play area for children ages 7-10 slated for where the mounds are now will have more space than currently planned.

Ed Gold, a veteran board member, made a motion to amend the board’s resolution in favor of the renovation by adding the provision that the fence be no higher than 21/2 ft. He noted that at the Village Independent Democrats’ recent borough president candidates’ forum, “every candidate who was asked about the fence said they didn’t want it.”

Added Brad Hoylman, another C.B. 2 member, “I think the board owes it to itself to acknowledge the opposition. We’ve treated them to a certain extent with a certain amount of contempt.”

Rosemary McGrath, a longtime board member who doesn’t like the fence, warned they could get stuck with it if they didn’t oppose it in their resolution.

Citing the legendary Village activist and urban planner, McGrath said, “One of the things Jane Jacobs taught us — if you accept the first part of the plan, you get stuck with the rest of the plan.”

However, Larry Goldberg, another board member, said, “It’s not perfect — but it’s good. And you don’t reject the good because it’s not perfect,” he noted, pointing out that in fact the plan was “very good.”

The amendment on the fence failed by a long shot when put to a vote by board members.

The board’s resolution in favor of the park renovation passed with only five votes against: Gold, McGrath, two other veteran members — Doris Diether and Keith Crandell — and Don Lee.

After the meeting, Diether noted the park renovation has been calendared for a May 10 hearing at the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission next month, so it needs to be voted on by the C.B. 2 Landmarks Commission, too.

Sean Sweeney, the board’s Landmarks Committee chairperson, confirmed the committee will consider the issue at its May 2 meeting, which will probably be held in N.Y.U.’s Silver Building at 32 Waverly Pl. Sweeney noted the committee had considered the renovation of Abingdon Sq. Park, another park also in the Greenwich Village Historic District, previously. “It’s a question of taste in an evolving park,” Sweeney noted of Washington Sq., adding, “I guess the mounds are landmarked.” The meeting will start at 6:30 p.m., but the park issue will be considered starting at 7:30 p.m. in deference to paid lobbyists and professionals who have business before the board, he said.

Smith stressed the board already has done an exhaustive review of the renovation.

“Whether you call it the Parks Committee, the Landmarks Committee or the Bubble Gum Committee, the community board has been absorbed by this issue and we have given it full attention,” Smith said.

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