Volume 75, Number 33 | January 4 - 10, 2006

Study finds people like Wash. Sq. the way it is

<< The circular sit wall and trees ringed by low concrete walls around the park’s fountain plaza are major attractions for impromptu music performances. Villager photo

By Lincoln Anderson

A new study commissioned by the group that pushed for the Washington Square renovation project finds the park works amazingly well in its current configuration and that any changes to its layout should only be made with utmost care so as not to destroy the square’s “unique and very special ‘vibe.’ ”

Released last month, the study, “Washington Square Park: A User Analysis and Place Performance Evaluation,” was done by Project for Public Spaces at the behest of the Washington Square Park Council.

In early August, a team of seven P.P.S. observers mapped park use on one weekend and two weekdays, noting how many people used different areas of the park and at what times. The observers also conducted informal observations of activities, as well as surveyed 150 people in the park on two days. An additional 38 people responded to an online survey. The surveyors did not poll people about their opinions on the renovation plan, but rather asked them about what was important to them in the park and to identify uses and activities that could be incorporated into a future design.

P.P.S. also held a Placemaking Workshop on Oct. 22 with 50 stakeholders — ranging from New York University representatives and residents organizations to chess and Scrabble players — who broke up into groups and visited different sections of the park, then came back with recommendations.

“Washington Square Park is one of the best-known and best-loved destinations in New York City,” the report states. “And as a neighborhood park and civic gathering place, it may be one of the great public spaces in the world.”

The study finds that the park has “all the great attributes of a public space,” including people engaged in a wide range of activities and uses; diversity of ages and gender; people in groups as well as alone; and most parts of the park being used (though, the study notes, some parts are not heavily used).

Specifically, the park’s music, performances and protests give it a character hard to match anywhere else, and is what makes it attractive and exciting to users, the study finds.

‘Lightly managed chaos’

Regarding the impromptu performances, the report says the park functions in “a very successful state of lightly managed chaos and this needs to be carefully considered and respected in thinking about the park’s management program in the future.

The majority of people polled said what they liked best about the park was the people and diversity it attracts and its atmosphere; that while they see a need for upgrades of certain facilities (such as pavement and bathrooms), people “like the park the way it is;” that use of the park overall is “very good, if not extraordinary;” that most people tend to stay in the park for one to three hours, rather than passing through; and that it is “a true destination,” drawing people from around the city and region, as well as international tourists.

Asked what they liked best about the park, out of answers falling into 33 different categories, 42 persons surveyed — the top answer — said the park’s people and diversity; 24 said music and performances; 12 said the fountain; seven said green space; six said the dog run; four said chess; two said the arch.

Other findings of the report:

* The fountain, including the surrounding “ring,” or plaza area, is, according to P.P.S., “the heart and soul of the park and the hub of its social life.”

* The concrete sit wall around the outer edge of the fountain is “one of the most versatile park amenities we’ve ever seen,” P.P.S. says. The different elevations of the wall — and whether one is sitting with legs inside or outside or on the walls around the trees or on the bricks around the trees — offer multiple seating orientations and ways to interact. The nooks between the circular sit wall and tree walls are popular spots for performing and socializing.

* The park’s sunken central plaza allows better and more sightlines to the fountain, enabling more people to view any performances that might be happening. The sunken plaza also provides a “visual focus” for those sitting on the circular sit wall and creates an “acoustic space” and a theater space.

* During the morning and afternoons, use is more evenly spread out through the park, while evenings are more social with use focused in the center of the park and around the fountain.

* While some complained about the presence of drug dealers and the seedy bathrooms, the park’s high level of activity made people generally feel safe; sixty-four percent of respondents said they felt safe in Washington Square Park.

* Fifty-seven percent of users surveyed felt the park is in “good” physical condition. Five percent felt it was in “poor” condition.

* During the week, the park is used by students, office workers, parents and regulars who socialize, eat and visit the playgrounds and dog runs; on weekends, there is much more focus on performances and users include more visitors from near and far — as opposed to people from the surrounding neighborhoods — with up to 200 people watching a busker or magic show.

* Some areas are well used, while others are not: the petanque courts get a lot of use, but P.P.S. recommends lowering them to integrate them with the rest of the park. A suggestion from the Oct. 22 Placemaking Workshop is to rent petanque equipment in the park building to get more people playing. The raised Teen Plaza stage, on the other hand, is underused, P.P.S. observers concluded. A Placemaking Workshop participant suggested that Teen Plaza’s railing be removed and some stairs added up to the stage. (P.P.S. notes a park in Detroit has a stage that lowers into the ground when not in use, but feels this might be too high-tech for Washington Square Park.)

* Public bathrooms and water fountains are in bad shape. “Negative activity dominates here,” the report says of the park’s bathrooms.

* The park’s edges are not as successful as its interior. Streets around the square should have traffic calming and textured pavement and park entrances should be clear and inviting.

Founded in 1975, P.P.S. — with offices on Broadway in Noho just east of Washington Square — is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities. P.P.S. has worked in 1,500 communities in the United States and in 24 countries.

Although the purpose of P.P.S.’s report wasn’t to weigh in on the Parks Department’s Washington Square renovation project, it’s clear, both from the report and from the nonprofit organization’s members themselves, that P.P.S. essentially supports keeping the park in the main as is.

Parks’ $16 million renovation plan would move the fountain 22 feet to the east, raise the sunken plaza to grade level and add a wrought-iron fence around the park’s perimeter. In a key hearing, the Art Commission on Mon. Jan. 9 will consider the issue of moving the historic fountain.

‘People love this park’

“People basically just love this park to death,” said Kathy Madden, P.P.S. senior vice president. “They like the different levels and they like the configuration and they like the trees [around the fountain plaza]. It was sort of a functional thing. I would say that is the biggest difference between the proposed [Parks Department] plan and what the community came up with. The main area of difference was that fountain area. What they liked was that it’s a functional area with a raised area and a lower area and that the ring around the trees went in and out [creating nooks]. The fountain really functions as a social place. There’s really nothing like it in the United States. We tried to think of something like it, and we couldn’t.

“The way that it functions now is quite good,” Madden said of the park’s current layout. “The floor surface is in really poor shape. But the configuration — I would be very, very hesitant to change that, because of how well it functions.”

Added Nick Grossman, P.P.S. project director, “From our observation, the configuration of the way it is now supports a lot of the uses that people say they like about the park.”

Madden said P.P.S. usually gets involved with a redesign at the start, but in this case the plan, by George Vellonakis, was already basically done when they were called in.

“We generally start out not knowing what we’re going to end up with. By the time we were asked to get involved, that plan was there,” she said.

Indeed, the renovation plan was mostly set by the time Vellonakis and Parks presented it to the public, as well. “The community was being asked what they thought about the plan,” Madden said, “rather than what they thought about the park.”

Shirley Secunda, a member of Community Board 2 who formerly worked for P.P.S., co-authored the Greenwich Village board’s latest resolution on the park renovation essentially supporting the Parks Department plan.

“I don’t feel like commenting on it,” she said of the P.P.S. park analysis. “I worked for Project for Public Spaces for many, many years. But I’m not going to comment.”

The Washington Square Park Council commissioned the report, and recently met with the Parks Department to present it and the discuss project, in general.

Matt Bardin, a member of W.S.P.C., said that the council above all wants the renovation to proceed, but doesn’t want the park to lose its special spontaneous feeling. They don’t oppose moving the fountain, but are concerned about raising the plaza.

“As far as moving the fountain, I haven’t heard anyone in our group saying the fountain should not be moved, and we are not opposed to moving it,” he said. “We have concerns that the sunken plaza is very successful and important to the use of the park.” Bardin said they have asked Parks how the renovation will preserve this feeling of the park given by the sunken plaza, and that some possible ideas might be different types seating and the use of “different levels.”

“We’re not telling you how to design the park,” Bardin said of W.S.P.C.’s approach to the Parks Department renovation. “We’re saying the community has concerns about this. We see a park that is run-down and in disrepair and we see a park that is extremely successfully used. That’s a combination you don’t often find. There’s consensus that people want it renovated.”

At this point, Bardin said the Art Commission may only have a say on whether or not to move the fountain laterally or the Parks Department’s plan to add urns to it. Raising the plaza was already approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, he said. If W.S.P.C. had commissioned the P.P.S. study earlier, Bardin admitted, “It might have been a very different experience.” Yet, he said, “Phase two [of the renovation] is wide open — we may be able to have a lot of input on details there.”

A short history of Washington Square Park by Luther Harris is appended at the end of the P.P.S. study. Harris, who is a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the renovation, said the P.P.S. analysis, in his view, strongly supports retaining the park’s existing design.

“This report, to me, is a cry against changing the square’s basic features,” he said.

Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, issued the following statement on behalf of the department: “We have carefully reviewed the Project for Public Spaces User Analysis, and it is inaccurate to suggest that the majority of those surveyed agree that the park should not be modified. Only 28 people of the 169 surveyed said they feel no need for modification, while the other 141 brought up specific areas where they feel change is necessary, the majority of which we have addressed in our restoration plans. Among the needs cited by the respondents were increased green space, better lawns, more plantings at entrances and an improved dog run, all of which are at the heart of our design.

“It is also critical to emphasize that the P.P.S. study is a user analysis, not a comparison study of the current and future park design. After two years of work and the most extensive community outreach of any recent project, the Parks Department is gratified to have the support of the community board, Landmarks Preservation Commission, local elected officials and civic groups and residents for its plan to restore Washington Square Park."

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