Volume 74, Number 54 | May 18 - 24 , 2005

Landmarks approves park plan, but nixes locked gates

By Albert Amateau

The Department of Parks and Recreation’s proposed redesign of Washington Sq. Park, with one modification, received the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday afternoon with only one dissenting vote.

The last-minute modification presented by the Parks Department — eliminating the proposed permanent gates at the Fifth Ave. and other major entrances to the park — did not appease opponents of the design who dominated the audience at the May 17 Landmarks session.

Landmarks Chairperson Robert Tierney and the other commissioners, except for Richard M. Olcott, the lone dissenter, heaped praise on the redesign and all said they were gratified that the permanent gates were eliminated.

Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro personally broke the news about eliminating the gates, noting that the park will be locked at night with movable metal barricades about 4 feet high — the type used by police at parades and rallies. Castro, however, went into detail about the controversial iron fence that would surround the park and replace the existing pipe-rail fence and turkey-wire barrier. The proposed fence, including a 6-inch concrete curb, would be 4 feet 4 inches high — down from an initial proposal for a height of 4 feet 8 inches.

The Manhattan Parks commissioner noted that Jackson Sq. Park at Horatio St. and Eighth Ave. in the Village has a 51/2-foot-tall fence and that Abingdon Sq. Park, also in the in the West Village, and Tompkins Sq. Park in the East Village are also surrounded by fences.

Castro promised that Parks Department staff would build a mockup of a section of the Washington Sq. Park fence and curb in order to work with Landmarks commissioners and staff with the possibility for minor height adjustments.

Parks staff also noted that Washington Sq. Park had been surrounded at various times in the 19th century with fences even taller than the one in the current redesign.

Amy Freitag, deputy commissioner of Parks for capital projects, also justified the repositioning of the central fountain by 23 feet so that it aligns with the Washington Sq. Arch. The fountain has significant plumbing and foundation problems and has to be entirely rebuilt, so repositioning it would be a relatively minor construction issue but an important aesthetic issue, she said.

Commissioner Olcott, however, said, in his dissenting remarks that he did not agree with relocating the fountain, noting that it could interfere with the view through the Arch of Judson Memorial Church. “I don’t think that having to take the fountain apart is a good reason to move it,” he said. He added that he would reserve judgment about the fence until after he has seen the mockup promised by Castro.

Despite Tierney’s caveat that the May 17 meeting was not open to public participation, there were three outbursts from audience members unable to restrain their opposition to the fence. They also snickered in derision when one Landmarks commissioner agreed with the Parks Department that the fence was needed to protect park plantings.

Moreover, Dirk McCall, chief of staff to City Councilmember Alan Jay Gerson, whose district includes Washington Sq. Park, said later that the councilmember still had objections to the design. Gerson opposes the fence, the removal of the Teen Plaza raised performance space and the elimination from the new design of the asphalt play mounds, McCall said.

“Alan can still pull his money from the park, and Margarita could too,” McCall said, referring to Councilmember Margarita Lopez.

The expected $16 million cost of the park reconstruction, including a maintenance endowment, is partially funded by $1.05 million in city funds secured by Gerson and $500,000 secured by Lopez.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a former commissioner of Parks, submitted written testimony to Landmarks on Tuesday opposing the fence and other aspects of the redesign. “To countless New Yorkers the fence represents a betrayal of the spirit of community they associate with Washington Sq. and a return to a time in the 19th century when city parks were considered a playground for the wealthy,” Gotbaum’s statement said.

Opponents also took heart in the knowledge that the city Arts Commission still has to approve the fountain reconstruction and the building for park administration and public restrooms, which has not yet been designed.

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