Volume 76, Number 42 | March 14 - 20, 2007

Talking Point

Forward and united on Washington Square renovation

By Alan Jay Gerson

Now is the time for all sectors of the Washington Square Park community to come together. We need to unite to insist that the Parks Department move forward in accordance with the City Council (“Gerson-Quinn”) agreement. We need to engage the department through the process, established by the agreement, to work out remaining design details in ways that protect and preserve the character of this park we all love. The recent unanimous decision by the Appellate Division, allowing the Parks Department to proceed without going back to the Community Board 2, Landmarks Preservation Commission or Art Commission, was predictable. The City Charter clearly gives the mayor and the Parks Department, and not the City Council or community board, discretion and control over park designs, explicitly granting them great leeway in the process.

Our agreement makes some compromises with the other party — in this case, the Parks Department — as does any agreement. Those compromises were necessary precisely because the City Charter gives the Parks Department full authority over park designs and redesigns. However, after extensive community input, we were able to use the Council’s limited budget leverage to obtain an unprecedented amount of park protections and improvements. At the same time, the agreement preserves the park’s historic, open and bohemian character.

Community Board 2 has repeatedly endorsed the department’s design with the changes required by the Gerson-Quinn City Council agreement. Both the Art Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission have made clear their positions on the limited issues within their legal purviews. At best, lawsuits will, by the delay they cause, drive up the repair and reconstruction costs, while more and more segments of the park fall into disrepair and join the mounds in being fenced off from use. Additionally, because of the state of the plumbing in the fountain, we need to move quickly to preserve a working fountain.

Highlights of the Gerson-Quinn agreement include:

• Guarantees that at least half the park will remain open during the construction period, and no construction will take place on weekends or holidays;

• Preservation of the elevated concert stage, which the Parks Department had wanted to level, and guarantees of its availability for nonpermitted free-speech events;

• Irrigation, seating, shading and other improvements in both dog runs;

• More usable green space, more trees and more planting — including a children’s garden and restoration of the historic tulip patch;

• Presentation of at least 90 percent of the inner circle, open free performing area, surrounding the fountain with cluster seating — which the department had wanted to decimate;

• A cap on the park fence’s height of 3 feet 6 inches as measured from the ground on the inside of the park, and with the requirement of a delicate design without “spear tips” on top;

• Guarantees that the department will not attempt to put gates on the fence;

• Preservation of all three mounds that the department was going to eliminate, plus the creation of a new, very much-needed preteen play area of at least 8,000 to 10,000 square feet;

• Expanded and improved, more comfortable seating;

• A requirement for the time of identification of a public art location and appropriate markers that celebrate the park’s rich history, going back to pre-Civil War days;

• Unprecedented protections against commercialization and privatization of the park (which no other New York City park currently enjoys);

• New protections against amplified noise;

• Best efforts to exceed legal requirements for making the park as fully accessible as possible to all persons with disabilities;

• An unprecedented task force process for community input on remaining, all-important details on the park design and park furniture.

Unfortunately, the Parks Department remains stubborn in its insistence on slightly realigning the fountain 23 feet to be centered with the arch. Alas, since the department has now received the O.K. for this from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Art Commission and the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, the City Charter grants the department the prerogative to proceed with the move.

The Gerson-Quinn agreement imposes, however, the condition that the department make its proposed change in the fountain’s location only if engineers verify that the plumbing requires total reconstruction and that the change will not add to costs. In any event, the fountain must retain its current size and form, with no change in the public’s historic access to get wet in the interior. On the east-west axis, the fountain must remain aligned with Waverly Pl. Thus, even if the department proceeds with its fountain proposal, there will be no real change in the feel and character of Washington Square Park.

Perhaps we should change the Charter. Until that time, I am developing legislation that would give the public a greater say over public parks. However, right now, the Gerson-Quinn agreement offers good prospects to all Washington Square Park users and lovers. Washington Square Park’s history is one of repeated reincarnation, Greenwich Village style.

When I first played in the park as an elementary school kid, buses rolled through the arch into the central area, until the community chased the buses out. When I was in intermediate school, the community spearheaded a total renovation, which brought several changes and improvements, including the now-fabled mounds. The current agreement reached, based on community input, continues this tradition. The improvements preserve what we have long enjoyed about our beloved park and expands community enjoyment of the park’s special historic character.

I call on all sectors of the Washington Square Park community to work with the Design Task Force to make sure this happens. Now is the time to move forward.

Gerson is city councilmember for the First District.

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