Volume 75, Number 11 | August 3 - 9, 2005

Redesign needs to ‘urn’ approval; Parks pulls out of square hearing

By Lincoln Anderson

Phone lines were burning up and e-mail boxes were bursting with messages after the Parks Department at the end of last week withdrew its renovation plan for Washington Square Park from a hearing before the Art Commission scheduled for Wed., Aug. 3.

Why was the plan pulled? Was it dead? Speculation ran rampant, at least, in some quarters.

Luther Harris, author of “Around Washington Square,” a history of the square, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed two weeks ago against the project, took the withdrawal of the renovation from the Art Commission’s agenda as a sure sign the commission was planning to reject it and that the much-debated plan was, in fact, killed.

“This was a way for them to avoid giving a city agency a black eye,” Harris said.

The Art Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor from a pool of individuals recommended by the Federation of Fine Arts, a nongovernment organization, reviews issues affecting art and architecture on city property.

In the case of the Washington Square renovation, the commission was to review the plan to disassemble the fountain and shift it 20 feet to the east to line up with the arch and to move the park’s two statues of Garibaldi and Holley to the north edge of their ovals.

Doris Diether, chairperson of the Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee, said, “All the Art Commission is saying is that they weren’t prepared [for the hearing].” She suggested the soonest the hearing would now happen would be September, since it’s unlikely the commission would meet in August.

On Tuesday, an Art Commission spokesperson said, “I can tell you that the Parks Department withdrew the proposal.” Asked if the whole project was kaput, he said, “No, no, no — it’s just being postponed,” referring further questions to Parks.

Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, said, “We’re going to reschedule that hearing for a later time. This is just giving us an opportunity to refine the proposal we’re putting forward for the two statues and fountain.”

Johnston said that during their review of the project with the Art Commission before the scheduled hearing they realized some details of the plan needed work. Specifically, he said, the four urns that will be restored to the fountain under the new design need additional historical research regarding their appearance. According to Johnston, when the fountain was moved from Grand Army Plaza at Fifth Ave. and 59th St. in the 1870s, the four urns that had been on it somehow didn’t make it to the square, and that there are no existing photographs of these lost elements. Instead, Parks had been basing its designs on the urns on Madison Square Park’s fountain. Now, with the help of the Municipal Art Society and New York Public Library, Parks hopes to “strengthen” the design of these urns, which will be planted seasonally, Johnston added.

“Rescheduling an Art Commission hearing is very commonplace,” Johnston assured. He didn’t give a date as to when the hearing might be rescheduled. The $16 million project, which would be done in two, one-year phases on half of the park at a time, cannot start without the commission’s approval.

In related news, the lawsuit filed by the ad-hoc Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square, was withdrawn last Friday. A call to the lead attorney for the suit, Ron Podolsky, was not returned. However, Harris said he called Podolsky, who informed him that the suit had been withdrawn “without prejudice” — meaning it can be easily re-filed quickly — after the Art Commission hearing was postponed. Harris said that, according to Podolsky, the lawsuit was withdrawn because of the possibility Parks may now change its plan, meaning the lawsuit might have to be modified accordingly. Other plaintiffs in the suit include Village Independent Democrats; Washington Place Block Association; Sharon Woolums, a public member of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee; and Village District Leader Keen Berger.

Aubrey Lees, former co-chairperson of the C.B. 2 Washington Square Task Force, said critics of the plan are trying to spin the news and that the project is still alive.

“It’s been put over for a month or two, something like that,” she said. “I’m sure the opponents wish it were dead, but it’s moving forward. It’s not unusual for a hearing to be put over. I mean, this is a very large project. We have Landmarks approval, Community Board 2 approval. We’ve had many, many hearings — and then the last one by the Art Commission and we’ll move forward.”

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