Volume 74, Number 53 | May 11 - 17 , 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A woman held up a sign during Tuesday’s hearing on the Washington Sq. Park renovation plan at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Fence for ‘peace and quiet’ is met by loud hisses

By Jefferson Siegel

Village residents had the opportunity to voice their opinions, and for the most part, their displeasure, with the Parks Department’s proposed renovation of Washington Sq. Park at a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

At the opening of the public hearing at 1 Centre St., L.P.C. Chairperson Robert Tierney announced that commission members would spend the afternoon hearing testimony, then they would “deliberate on all that information, then have a discussion among the commissioners here.” To an audible grumbling from the audience, he said a decision would be made at a future meeting.

The start time of the hearing was postponed because of earlier meetings, so community residents and activists gathered in an anteroom and in the hallway to sign up for a speaking slot and discuss strategies. The majority of the discussions expressed displeasure with the proposal.

Former Greenwich Village Councilmember Carol Greitzer greeted old friends, then stepped aside to comment on the proposal. “Basically, I object to the process, where a few people secretly meet with the architect for a year and come up with a proposal,” she said. “Now, of course, there’s turmoil because nobody likes it.” As people continued arriving, she added, “When we did the park over again over 30 years ago, the community met. People worked on every aspect of the design. It was very inclusive.”

As people continued filling out sign-up sheets, Diane Jackier, Landmarks’ director of communications, estimated that over 35 people had already registered to speak.

Luther Harris, the author of the book “Around Washington Square,” stood waiting to enter the conference room. “Aspects of the park need to be fixed,” he said, “the trouble [with the propsal] is two main items: the fence, and relocation and raising of the fountain are bad ideas. The area’s a huge respite from the rest of Manhattan, where gigantism is in flower.”

One longtime resident did agree with some aspects of the reconstruction. Gil Horowitz, president of the Washington Sq.-Lower Fifth Ave. Block Association, was willing to agree to disagree. “This [redesign] is good enough because it has most of the features I seek. A perimeter fence, so as to make it closable at night, so that we can go to sleep at night.” Horowitz said he has lived on the park for 37 years and considers the peace and quiet resulting from closing the park at night to be a priority.

The application before the commission read simply: “Application is to alter the paved pathways and landscape features.” As the crowd filed in to the conference room, many holding signs reading: “Save The Park — Preserve Our Historic Landmark, Washington Square Park!,” anticipation grew. The crowd of 50 people filled all the chairs and lined the back wall as they patiently sat through a half-hour powerpoint presentation from George Vellonakis of the Parks Department. Using slides of old photos, diagrams and plans, he outlined the history of the park’s creation and design. Built in 1827, he noted the park reached its first critical juncture in 1870, when carriages first started rolling through, necessitationg removal of the original fence to allow their passage. At the turn of the century, the next major change was at the Sullivan St. entrance, which evolved into the green space it is today. Discussing the last major renovation in 1968-’70, he recounted the elimination of the roadbed and the construction of new structures, including the bathrooms on the south side.

As Vellonakis reached the present-day plans, many in the audience noticeably shifted in their seats. Vellonakis said the intent of the new design is “passive recreation. The fountain should have been repaired 40 years ago, the foundations are exposed. The design calls for grading this space into one plaza.” Calling for a new slide of the fountain design to be projected, he continued, “This will become the great celebration space for Washington Sq. Park.” Talking of the benefits to be reaped by jazz and movie performances in a new space, he imagined a nearly 1-acre “great plaza.”

The audience had sat silently to this point, but when discussion of the new fence began, so did some soft hissing and booing. The new fence, he continued, would allow access along the park’s perimeter, so the dog run could be used 24 hours a day. The cobblestone-style stones around the Arch would be replaced with flatter asphalt pavers to make the area Americans With Disabilities Act compatible. The steps on the interior of the fountain would be kept in design, just replaced with granite.

When slides of old fences appeared on the screen, the hissing became a bit louder. The new fence, Vellonakis persevered, “is to replicate the original profile of the fence” from the 1800s. He noted the finial design is intended to resemble the style prevelant in the Village of the 1820s and its slender, circular pickets will provide transparency. He concluded, to more hisses, that the fence is intended to protect the park from late-night dog walkers, and that at the park’s entrance, by the Arch, there would be a temporary fence, to be removed each morning at 6 a.m.

When Tierney asked if members had any questions on Parks’ presentation, L.P.C. board member Roberta Brandes Gratz piped up, “I have a lot of questions” to cheers from the audience. Asked how the fountain configuration would change, replied, “We’re looking to salvage it as much as posssible.” When Gratz followed up by asking what was wrong with it, there was more applause.

The proposal includes plans to demolish the current park structures and create a single octagonal utility building, which will include a new children’s bathroom in addition to those for adults.

After a few more brief questions from commission members, the audience was finally allowed its say. The first speaker was Gregory Brend, speaking on behalf of Assemblymember Deborah Glick. The statement from Glick noted the impact of the plans on the historic character of the landmarked park. Other speakers included Jim Smith, Community Board 2 chairperson; longtime neighborhood resident Paul Davis, who questioned the wisdom of spending $16 million on the project; and Councilmember Alan Gerson. Gerson began by commending the work of the commission “in preserving our city’s jewels,” then noted, “The best thing the commission can do at this time is postpone consideration of the plan you have before you.” He asked the commissioners to consider resubmissions and amendments to the current design.

The commission will announce a future date for further consideration of the plan and a final vote on the proposal.

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