Volume 75, Number 21 | October 12 - 18, 2005

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

The Parks and Waterfront Committee of Community Board 2 votes to approve a new resolution on the Washington Square renovation.

You gotta have park consensus; board changes course on square

By Lincoln Anderson

Don’t move the fountain. Don’t raise the sunken central plaza. Keep any new fence around the park low.

That’s what many Villagers have been crying out for months now about the hotly debated Washington Square Park renovation project. And that’s just what the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee voted to approve in a resounding resolution it passed at its meeting last Thursday night to grateful cheers and applause from committee members and members of the public alike.

The resolution of the committee, under its new chairperson Arthur Schwartz, represents a dramatic reversal from the committee’s previous resolution under its former chairperson Aubrey Lees, which had essentially given full support to the Parks Department’s redesign and was passed by the full C.B. 2 board in April. At that time, the board approved a new fence around the park of not higher than 4 feet, but did not weigh in on the critical issues of whether the fountain should be moved 23 feet to the east to align with the Washington Square Arch or the central sunken plaza should be raised to ground level, as called for under Parks’s plan.

The Parks and Waterfront Committee’s new resolution notes that “there remains considerable community opposition to the plan, and antipathy on the part of park users to efforts to change the aesthetic of the park,” specifically concerning the fountain, plaza and fence.

The new resolution calls for the park’s fountain not be moved, the sunken central plaza not be raised or decreased in size and that any new fence not be taller than 30 inches measured from the perimeter sidewalk.

The resolution also recommends that the board be notified in advance of “any further namings in the park,” an obvious reference to Parks’s intent to rename the park’s fountain for the Tisch family, which donated $2.5 million to the project for the intention of reconstructing the fountain and central plaza.

In addition, the resolution notes that “C.B. 2 further calls for expeditious completion of the permit process by the Parks Department, the Landmarks Commission and the Art Commission so that construction can begin as soon as possible (no later than spring 2006) so that disruption of community use can be held to the minimum amount of time.”

The new resolution was passed by a unanimous vote of all the committee members, as well as the committee’s public members. Maria Passannante Derr, C.B. 2 chairperson — and as such an ex-officio member of all the board’s committees — sat in on the meeting and also voted in support of the new resolution. The full board of C.B. 2 will vote on the resolution at its Oct. 20 meeting.

The Art Commission also still must vote on the renovation. Parks was set to present the plan in August to the Art Commission, but pulled out at the last minute. Parks subsequently claimed fine-tuning was needed on the designs for a set of urns that were to be restored to the fountain under the plan.

However, Schwartz says there was more to it than that — that Parks backed out of the Art Commission hearing because the Fine Arts Federation of New York issued an opinion opposing relocation of the fountain and demolition of the park’s three play mounds and expressing concern over the plan’s general lack of “historic nostalgia.” Schwartz noted that the mayor appoints seven of the 11 members of the Art Commission from a list submitted to him by the Fine Arts Federation, so the opposition of the latter to any plan up for review before the Art Commission is a pretty good indicator of how the Art Commission will vote.

Schwartz said if the Art Commission approves the revised plan in November, the work could be put out for bid around the New Year and the project could begin in April.

Paving the way for the new committee resolution, Councilmember Alan Gerson recently crafted an agreement with Parks that resulted in modifications to the plan. Councilmember Christine Quinn also signed onto the agreement. Gerson’s district includes the park and the areas bordering it to the north, east and south, while Quinn represents the area on the park’s west side.

Gerson announced the main points in the agreement a few weeks ago: the park’s play mounds will be restored and a new playground for preteens will be built; a permanent raised performance space will be built to replace the current Teen Plaza; there will be no gates at the park’s entrances; the existing children’s playground will be expanded; the park’s two dog runs will be moved to the park’s perimeter but made rounder.

Last Thursday, before the committee voted on the resolution, Gerson mentioned a few additional provisions of the agreement: there will continue to be permanent, nonbench, right-angle-wall, seating areas on the edges of the fountain plaza, which Gerson noted, “the musicians say is important for informal gatherings;” there will be state-of-the-art playground equipment to accommodate children with disabilities; and — last but not least — there will also be an increase in the number of Scrabble tables.

The councilmember added that the agreement provides “a framework” to resolve unresolved issues about the design, one of the biggest of these being the fountain.

“My personal preference would be to keep it where it is,” Gerson said of the fountain. Yet, he then seemed to hedge that moving it might not be so horrible, noting, “The Parks Department is proposing shifting the fountain a few feet.”

“Twenty-three! — Twenty-three feet!” people in the audience indignantly shouted out.

Other audience members stressed the need to preserve the feel and size of the central fountain plaza area.

Mark Johnson, a guitarist who performs in the park, said, “Washington Square is a magical place…. I just want people to understand and cherish that.”

“If you make that plaza any smaller, you’re going to diminish that magic,” added one woman. “That’s where it all happens. We have to protect that.”

Adding a twist to the fountain debate, Sharon Woolums, a public member of the Parks and Waterfront Committee and a member of the Emergency Coalition Organization to Save Washington Square Park — the group that in July filed a lawsuit over the renovation plan — gave a report on what ECO is dubbing “Watergate.” The group claims to have found subsurface diagrams showing that shifting the fountain 23 feet to the east would put it dangerously near three major water mains that run under the arch and along the east side of the plaza area.

However, Bill Castro, Parks Manhattan borough commissioner, who attended the meeting, said, if the fountain basin was relocated, it would be at least 20 feet away from the mains and only 1 to 2 feet below the surface, and so would not pose any risk to the water mains.

Castro also clarified the status of the park’s dilapidated play mounds, a hot-button issue that erupted frequently throughout the redesign process.

“They will be in virtually the same location,” Castro said. “They will be in a similar form — but with some kind of safety surface. Substantial — three mounds. You should feel happy with them,” he reassured anxious mounds advocates at the meeting.
However, while the mounds issue may be settled, if Parks is reconsidering the idea of moving the fountain, Castro didn’t let on.

Luther Harris, an author who has written a book on the square’s history, said Stanford White intentionally sited the arch so it would not align with the fountain.

“That should be a very good reason for not moving it,” he said of the fountain.

“I disagree,” Castro said.

Before they voted, Gerson urged the committee to approve the general renovation plan, conditioned on his agreement. He said he felt there was “nothing inconsistent” between his agreement with Parks and the committee’s resolution.

Clearly Gerson wants the project to move forward. And so does Schwartz. Schwartz said he did the new resolution because he doesn’t want to see the renovation delayed. That’s the same reason he said he believes even two strong backers of the original redesign plan, public members of the committee Honi Klein of the Village Alliance business improvement district, and Bob Cohen of New York University community relations, backed the latest committee resolution.

“Honi looked happy,” Schwartz said. “They’re going to go ahead with it,” Schwartz said of the Parks Department. “There was this notion that if the community board changed anything that the Parks Department wouldn’t go ahead with the project. You can do a renovation without changing the location of things,” he said, adding that this would mean new benches, lawns and flowerbeds and fixing cracked pavement and adding new paths.

Assuming the full board passes the committee’s resolution, it will give C.B. 2 the ability to really help shape the plan’s final form into something more in line with what the board feels the community wants, Schwartz said.

“We still have to negotiate with Parks,” he said. “And the Art Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission still have to weigh in. Before, the community board couldn’t go before those agencies and take any other position than what Parks was saying.”

Gerson said he expected the redesign would have to go back to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for its approval once more.

However, while the mood was high after the resolution passed, Woolums said ECO is still ready to refile its lawsuit if necessary. The group pulled their lawsuit when Parks backed out of the August Art Commission hearing, but is set to activate it again if Parks’s final plan doesn’t adhere to Board 2’s resolution and Gerson’s conditions or otherwise is unacceptable to them.

“Everything depends on the final decision by the Parks Department,” Woolums cautioned. “The community board is just an advisory body.”

However, there are ways that advisory body should function, and it is functioning properly now, Schwartz said.

Bashing his predecessor, Schwartz said, the way the plan was approved previously under Aubrey Lees as committee chairperson was “to bring a finished project to the community and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’

On the contrary, Schwartz said, “I think the way we did it is the way the community board is supposed to work — reflect public sentiment responsibly.” Referring to the late longtime C.B. 2 Parks chairperson, Schwartz said, “That was the way Tony Dapolito would do it.”

No revised plans have been made public yet, Schwartz said, though adding if and when they are he will post them on the board’s Web site and display them at meetings.

“I absolutely commit myself to making everything as public as possible,” he said.

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