Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Parks commissioner appreciates ‘vigorous debate’ on renovation

By Lincoln Anderson

As crunch time for the Washington Square renovation project nears, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, in a recent interview with The Villager, reiterated why the department feels the plan will vastly improve the park.

The Art Commission is set to hear the Parks Department’s presentation on Mon. Jan. 9 bright and early at 8:45 a.m. on the second floor of City Hall. At the hearing, the proposed restoration and movement of the park’s two statues and fountain — the latter the linchpin of the plan in the view of Parks — will be considered.

Benepe confided there’s no telling how the hearing will go.

“You never know with the Art Commission,” he said. “They’re a body of distinguished professionals in their fields. They have strong opinions, a tradition of independent thinking…. We’re going to make sure we have all our proverbial ducks in a row.”

Benepe said the fact that the Fine Arts Federation of New York — from which seven of the Art Commission’s 11 members are selected by the mayor — wrote the Art Commission’s president in August expressing opposition to moving the fountain, is inconclusive. In the same letter, the federation also expressed general support of the overall renovation.

“I’m not sure where the Fine Arts Federation stands on this,” Benepe said. “And I’m not sure the final chapter has been written.”

Asked would the renovation go forward in some form if the Art Commission nixes the fountain move, Benepe sounded reluctant to consider the possibility.

“If the Art Commission had different ideas, I think we’d have to reassess things,” he said. “The Art Commission vote is binding. We’d have to go back to the drawing board and come back with different plans.”

The current fountain, designed by Jacob Mould Wray, lead architect and designer of Central Park — who designed the park’s bridges, arches and Bethesda Terrace — was moved from Grand Army Plaza to its current spot in Washington Square Park in the 1870s, replacing another fountain that had been there since the 1850s, according to Benepe. Under the Parks plan, the fountain would be moved 22 feet east, lining it up with the arch and Fifth Ave. — but that’s not why it’s being done, Benepe noted.

“The main reason for moving the fountain is to increase the area of high-quality green space,” the commissioner explained. “The best lawns are on the west side of the park.” The western lawns are better since there are fewer mature trees in that area to block the sun, Benepe said. Moving the fountain and relocating the two dog runs to the park’s south edge will allow the lawn to be expanded, he said. The renovation would increase the park’s green space by 20 percent, he noted.

“That’s the main motivation for this plan,” Benepe said. “Everything else is subservient to that.”

However, opponents protest that the plaza’s total area would shrink somewhat under the renovation.

An “ancillary benefit” of moving the fountain, Benepe said, is that the sunken plaza will be brought up to grade. The plaza was excavated during the 1970 renovation to create drainage, he said. Yet, for most of the park’s history — including in the 1960s during its heyday as a favorite venue for folk singers — the plaza was at grade level.

On adding a more substantial fence, another contentious aspect of the project, Benepe said it’s a must.

“You have to have a fence — you won’t find too many parks in busy neighborhoods that don’t have a fence.” The proposed fence would be “a height at which the average person walking by can see over it.”

As for the heated public forums and back-and-forth community board resolutions on the project, Benepe said he finds it encouraging. He said he’s glad Community Board 2 has now twice given its support to the plan.

“I’m heartened by the vigorous debate,” he said. “It means people care about parks. You don’t normally get this kind of discussion over the building of bridges, roads or sewage treatment plants.

“There was a great deal of rancor about Abingdon Square,” he recalled of another hotly contested Greenwich Village park renovation. “People line up to go there now in the morning.”

Similarly, he said of Washington Square’s planned renovation, “It will be greener, paths will flow better and the central plaza will be restored as a great public space.

“The greater risk is if you do nothing, the Village will be stuck with a second-rate park while the rest of the city has had its parks improved,” Benepe warned. “Virtually every park in Lower Manhattan has been restored over the past two decades or is being restored. Most people in the Village are anxious not to miss this particular train. It will be a great and living park but it will be even greater. There’s always a fear of change. I think the most difficult part will be when it’s under reconstruction, people will have to be patient.”

Now is a golden age of park construction and renovation, according to Benepe.

“This is the period of greatest and most fertile park reconstruction and new construction since the Depression and the W.P.A. when Robert Moses did his park work,” he said. The former Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island is being transformed into a 2,000-acre park, two and a half times the size of Central Park. Huge landfill mounds, some rising more than 20 stories high, from which one can see all of Manhattan and the Ramapo Mountains, will be hills in the park. Brooklyn Bridge Park is taking shape, the East River Park seawall is being completely rebuilt.

Said Benepe, “There’s a lot of muffins in the oven getting ready to come out.”

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