Volume 75, Number 36 | January 25 - 31, 200

Courtesy of NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

A 1935 photo taken from the Washington Square Arch of neighborhood children playing in the park’s fountain. The fountain had been converted to a water-play feature the year before with water jets installed in the fountain’s eight piers. A central plume was added in 1970. Today, the eight side jets operate at just a dribble and are only used to fill the fountain with water. Under the Parks Department renovation, the side jets will be fixed and fully turned on again for eight months of the year but will be for decorative purposes only.

Gerson may pull funds if fountain is no-play zone

By Lincoln Anderson

A view looking north of what the planned new water display would look like with the fountain centered on the arch. (The urns shown above will not be added to the restored fountain, however, having been rejected earlier this month by the Art Commission.)
There’s a water war brewing. No, it doesn’t involve Bolivia and a greedy multinational corporation, but rather children’s right to frolic in Washington Square Park’s fountain and the Parks Depart-ment’s plans that would say otherwise.

Under its $16 million renovation project for the square, Parks intends to convert the fountain to use recirculating water, as opposed to fresh water, which it has always used until now.

During a year of hearings on the renovation, the water switch was never mentioned publicly until Jan. 9, when the Parks Department presented the plan to the Art Commission, which approved moving the park’s fountain 22 feet to line up with the arch.

(However, two weeks earlier, in an article about a disabled Greenwich Village woman’s threat to sue for wheelchair access to the fountain, The Villager first reported the plan to change the type of water in the fountain and how children, consequently, would no longer be allowed to play in it.)

Now, City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who grew up nearby the park and played in the mid-1800s fountain basin as a child, and the Parks Committee of Community Board 2 are calling on the Parks Department to preserve the fountain’s historic use as a kids’ wading pool by making sure the H2O is safe for them to play in.

Last Thursday, Gerson, in his remarks at the C.B. 2 full board meeting, announced he might even pull City Council funding for the project if Parks doesn’t assure the fountain’s water will be clean enough for kids and others to go into — and that they must be allowed to go into it. He noted the first time he heard about the water issue was only at the Art Commission hearing earlier this month.

“I was distressed to hear at that hearing about a possible impingement to the use of the fountain that could preclude human entrance into the fountain area, which is a historic use of the fountain area,” Gerson told C.B. 2. Gerson said he’s “committed to filtering the water — whatever — so people can continue to sit on the steps, to run into the fountain water and not to have to worry about the health effects of the water.”

Parks also intends to have a water display running in the fountain from April to November, including a 45-foot-high central spouting plume and eight arcing side jets. At the Art Commission hearing earlier this month, Byron Kim, one of the commission’s 11 members, as well as some other commissioners, expressed concern both about noise and spray from the water display and the fact that it was, again, the first they had heard about it.

Gerson also has trepidations about the water display and has warned Parks that the water jets must not blast kids and others right out of the fountain.

“I am adamant in insisting that the Parks Department stick to its word that it would construct the plume and sprays to allow sitting in the fountain and [children] running in the fountain — and I will hold them to that,” Gerson told C.B. 2. He added, “I will deem any change to the historic use of the fountain as contrary to the spirit and letter of the agreement that we reached [with the Parks Department] and would consider pulling Council funding [for the renovation].”

Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn in October of last year negotiated an agreement with Parks that includes assurances that, among other things, Parks will rebuild the park’s dilapidated children’s play mounds, provide a permanent elevated concert space and keep the square footage of the plaza ringing the fountain at no less than 90 percent its current size.

Following the Art Commission’s Jan. 9 vote, Gerson spoke later that night at the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, informing them of the plan to use recirculating water in the fountain.

The Parks Committee unanimously passed a resolution stating that since members of the public, and especially children, enter the fountain, and will probably continue to do so despite any potential new regulations, it would be unhealthy for them to do this if the water is recirculating; the committee’s resolution urges Parks to use fresh water or, if necessary, get a variance from the appropriate agency to allow for use of fresh water.

Under new city code regulations enacted after the last drought, any park fountain using more than 2,000 gallons of water a day must use recirculating water. The Washington Square Park fountain is currently grandfathered allowing use of fresh water.

However, Maria Derr, C.B. 2 chairperson, recommended the committee resolution be tabled and sent back to the committee since George Vellonakis, the renovation’s designer, wasn’t present at the January Parks Committee meeting at which the resolution was approved. The board voted to table the resolution till next month.

Last month, Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, said that after the renovation, parents will be encouraged to have their children play in the park’s water sprinklers instead of the fountain. One sprinkler exists now and another may be added in the renovation.

As for performances in the basin, there will be adjustable controls so the water can be turned down to allow these, but it will mainly be a decorative fountain from now on, Parks says.

“It’s an ornamental fountain. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked very well in recent years,” Johnston said. “The fountain is broken and we have to do repairs constantly, which is part of the reason we are restoring it. It’s the primary reason why we are taking the opportunity to move it 22 feet.”

Johnston said, per city code, the fountain’s recycled water would be chlorinated, but it wouldn’t be checked “every hour” like a city swimming pool is. People will still be allowed to climb over the fountain’s lip and sit on the three inside steps, he said.

“The water itself is only about six inches deep,” Johnston said, “so people will be able to sit on the [fountain’s] inside steps. And as you know, we have complete control of the sprays, so that people will not be splashed by the water. And the water will be safe, though it’s not potable.”

Gerson said he subsequently spoke to Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro two times last week, on Thursday and Friday, and feels he received assurance something will be done to make the water safe for playing, foot dangling and wading.

“It would be totally unacceptable for there to be a prohibition for anyone of any age going into the fountain because of unsafe water,” Gerson told The Villager. “The Parks Department never presented any proposal to change the fountain’s use to the community board or to me. It’s never been discussed and it’s not acceptable. We should get on with the project and not risk delay by proposing any changes to use of the park.”

The Village councilmember said he vaguely but fondly remembers playing in the fountains on sweltering days when he was very young, probably, he thinks, before the park’s playgrounds had sprinklers.

“This is not a swimming pool,” Gerson continued. “It’s not a wading pool. But it’s a historic symbolism of the Village and the park. And freedom to enter the water, splash around and just get wet has been a tradition — but mainly [for] youngsters.”

Gerson said he’s given Parks a couple of more days to tell him how they will work out the water issue. While stressing it’s only a “hypothetical,” he said if what Parks offers doesn’t satisfy him, he’ll look into pulling unexpended Council funds from the project.

Johnston said Parks would have no comment on Gerson’s threat to withdraw unused funding unless kids can still play in the fountain.

Arthur Schwartz, the C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson, also feels strongly that children and others should not be barred from going into the water in the fountain.

“The promise was the fountain’s historic uses wouldn’t be changed,” Schwartz said. “Whether it was allowed or not, people in the fountain were never chased out of there.” Schwartz said he’s also concerned about the noise from the water display.

As to why the water and use of the fountain are only becoming issues now, Schwartz said, “People were so focused on the location [of the fountain] and [preserving] the sunken area [around the fountain] that they weren’t focused on the fountain.”

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