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

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Disabled advocates want to have cool fun in the Washington Square Park fountain, like the young people above on a boiling hot day last summer. But the Parks Department says that actually no one should be going in the water.

Wheelchair user may sue; wants to go amphibious in the fountain

By Lincoln Anderson

With the key hearing only two weeks away that could make or break the embattled Washington Square Park renovation project, another clash has opened up in the ongoing conflict over the park’s centerpiece, its fountain.

The Parks Department’s proposed plans to move the square’s fountain just under two dozen feet to the east to center it on the arch and to raise the central sunken plaza around the fountain to grade level have been widely criticized by hundreds of community members and park users at public meetings.

Yet, the Parks Department says a major reason it wants to raise the park’s sunken plaza is to make it handicapped accessible.

Villager file photo
Margie Rubin protesting at Abingdon Square a year and a half ago.

Now an advocate for the disabled is threatening that her organization will sue if a permanent ramp isn’t added to allow the disabled to go into the fountain itself.

Margie Rubin, a resident of the Westbeth artists complex and a member of Disabled in Action — the group that forced New York City buses to add wheelchair lifts — says people in wheelchairs, like herself, or otherwise disabled, have the right to go into the fountain.

“Just say I had a child — and I had a child in the fountain and I wanted to be near them” she said.

However, Rubin says, when she discussed making the fountain accessible at a recent meeting of the Disability Network of New York — an umbrella organization for local disabled groups — George Vellonakis, the renovation’s designer, who attended the meeting seeking the group’s support for the plan, said the fountain would be off-limits to everyone and so didn’t need to be accessible. Rubin says the organization has Vellonakis’s comments on tape because the discussion of the park issue was of interest and was going to be reviewed carefully by them.

But Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, said it’s not true that there will be no access to the fountain. Similarly, at community board meetings at which the plan has been presented and discussed, Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, and Vellonakis have said that the use of the fountain as a theater in the round for performers and musicians will not change.

“When we move the fountain, we’re going to be rebuilding it. And we are going to explore the use of temporary ramps when the fountain is off,” Johnston said. “It is used as a performance space when it’s not turned on — which is 60 percent of the time.”

When the fountain is on, though, people are not supposed to go into it, Johnston stressed.

“It is not intended as a wading pool,” he said. “People do use it that way — but it is not intended as a wading pool. It’s a decorative fountain. We would advise the public to adhere to the Parks Department’s rules and not use it as a wading pool.”

The fountain’s water, like that in all city park fountains, constantly recirculates through the fountain and is only replenished when it runs low.

“It’s recycled water — it’s not clean,” he said.

Asked if Park Enforcement Patrol officers will issue tickets to parents whose children play in the water, Johnston said each situation will be handled on “a case-by-case basis” but that parents would be told to use the sprinklers in the park, which will be added under the renovation.

Even if Parks is saying the fountain is off-limits when it’s on, Rubin — who has used a wheelchair the last four years because of degenerative joint disease and a botched knee operation — said she and fellow disabled advocates won’t accept a temporary ramp the rest of the time.

The Tisch family, who are among New York University’s largest donors, have contributed $2.5 million to the $16 million renovation project, specifically earmarking their funds for the fountain and plaza work, in return for which the fountain is to be renamed for them.

“Temporary is not acceptable — not with that kind of money,” Rubin said. “When you have money and you have enough space, there’s no excuse not to put [a permanent ramp in] in.”

She said a lawsuit could be brought easily enough under Title II of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which applies to accommodations in public places.

On Dec. 1, Carr Massi, president of Disabled in Action, wrote Joyce Frank Menschel, president of the Art Commission, stating that DIA objects to Parks using handicapped accessibility as a justification for the renovation plan:

“At its Oct. 30 and Nov. 20 monthly meetings, DIA members unanimously opposed using the A.D.A. disability access regulations as the rationale to level and move the plaza’s fountain to line up with the arch. We disagree with the notion that A.D.A. compliance necessitates the redesign of the plaza to make it more accessible to and usable by seniors, children and persons with disabilities.”

Speaking to The Villager on Tuesday, Massi said the DIA board will decide if they file a lawsuit. But she said, “I think we’re really upset for the A.D.A. community to be used as a pawn. We think the park needs a facelift. But, yeah, we have a right to be down in that fountain.”

Massi feels New York University is driving the plan to level the plaza “for more space for their commencement.” “They’re very powerful. They get what they want,” she said.

Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president, when asked recently by The Villager for the university’s position on leveling the plaza and centering the fountain, said she wouldn’t get into specifics but N.Y.U. just wants the project to start soon and get done.

Rubin says Massi told her she would support a lawsuit by DIA, which has a successful track record of forcing high-profile locations — such as the Empire State Building observation deck and St. Patrick’s Cathedral — to add ramps and lifts. To win lifts on New York City buses, the group took direct action by blocking buses with their wheelchairs. When Vellonakis redesigned City Hall Park a few years ago, DIA also fought to add a permanent ramp up to the City Hall plaza, but the city begrudged them only a temporary ramp, Rubin said.

Johnston of Parks said the ramp is permanent but is movable because sometimes trucks need to come into the plaza.

Rubin personally supports keeping Washington Square Park’s layout as is, because she likes the view with the fountain at an angle to the arch, respects the park’s “history” and opposes felling the trees around the plaza, which is called for under the plan — though new trees would be replanted.

A year and a half ago, Rubin clashed with Vellonakis over his renovation of Abingdon Square Park, charging, among other things, that it reduced the park’s accessible space by increasing lawns and plantings and that the fancy new slate walkways would eventually become cracked and uneven. She denies she has a vendetta against the designer, but says he doesn’t consider the needs of the disabled enough in his park designs.

Vellonakis did not return a call for comment.

However, Parks’ Johnston said Vellonakis’s designs are sensitive to the disabled.

“It’s absolutely untrue,” he said of Rubin’s accusation. “As with all of our projects, those with Mr. Vellonakis have all exceeded all A.D.A. requirements.”

Doris Diether, chairperson of the Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee, for her part, can’t fathom why Rubin is so adamant about going amphibious.

“I think going into the water with a wheelchair would not be very good for the wheelchair,” Diether said. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea for the mechanics of the wheelchair.”

Luther Harris, author of a definitive book on the square’s history and a plaintiff on a community lawsuit to stop the renovation, said that the fountain had long been used as a wading pool.

“There are a lot of pictures of it,” he noted.

However, told that Parks opposes this use because the water is recycled, he sounded a bit grossed out.

“That may be a valid reason,” Harris said. “You don’t drink recycled water. If it’s unsafe for kids…. Kids will put anything in their mouths. And what if someone splashes water in their mouths when its open? And you know the other things kids do in fountains — pee.”

But while Harris, for one, may be keeping a safe distance from the water from now on, Rubin isn’t put off by the fact that the fountain isn’t spouting Perrier. And, she added, it would be fine with her if the ramp is called the Tisch Ramp.

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