Volume 78 / Number 13, August 27 - September 2, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

After 3 years, mystery hotel project keeps ’em guessing

By Gabriel Zucker

The Parks Department was widely accused of withholding information and being evasive — if not outright deceitful — in presenting its plans for Washington Square Park’s renovation several years ago. Now, as the department begins to lay out ideas for phase two of the renovations, things seem not to have changed much.

“What was presented was very much generalities,” said Tobi Bergman, co-chairperson of Community Board 2’s Washington Square Task Force, referring to the group’s most recent meeting late last month. “People felt like they couldn’t comment because they hadn’t seen a draft proposal.”

“I expressed concern that we still have no idea what the building, bathrooms, etc. will look like,” said Sharon Woolums, a W. Eighth St. resident and public member of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee who attended the meeting. “They were evasive about what trees were to be chopped down. … Basically, it seemed this was less an informational meeting than a meeting for taking comments.”

Parks Department spokesperson Cristina DeLuca declined to answer questions seeking more information about the phase two designs, saying only, “Parks is currently reviewing the input we received at the recent task force meeting and will be returning to the community with our plans.”

The approach left task force co-chairperson Brad Hoylman little choice but to focus on the future for the plans.

“The takeaway is that we want to make certain that Parks comes back to us,” he said.

Phase two, which includes the parts of the park not being renovated now, will begin when phase one finishes. According to Parks, phase one is on schedule and should finish in early 2009.

Some who attended the meeting also raised the question of a Washington Square Park conservancy — which the plan’s opponents have been concerned about for years. They note that an appendix to the park’s environmental assessment statement, or E.A.S., even provided some details of what such a conservancy would look like, although that appendix has since been removed from the document on Parks’s Web site.

While Parks representatives at the task force meeting vehemently denied plans for a conservancy, DeLuca suggested, however, that the idea was not off the table.

“We are always open to partnerships with community groups to help us support programming and administration, but nothing has been formally decided upon,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Stage fright about height
Foremost among the changes mentioned by the Parks Department was a plan to create a performance space to replace the stage at the Teen Plaza, which is set to be destroyed. The plans for a stage were introduced because of opposition to the original redesign, which lacked any stage at all.

Under the current preliminary design, the new stage would be a small, semicircular, south-facing loop jutting off a circular plaza to the fountain’s east — near the current location of the Garibaldi statue. The large, asphalt surfaced audience area, however, would be replaced by a lawn that would be “more gracefully contoured” and would not “intrude on the landscape,” as the E.A.S. puts it.

Opposition emerged to the stage at the recent meeting, however, because the preliminary designs put it at a height of 22 inches, significantly shorter than its current 36, in order to accommodate a wheelchair-accessibility ramp.

“The one element that people were annoyed about in terms of what they saw in the plan was the height of the stage,” said Bergman. Some community members suggested additions to the stage, like the creation of a band shell.

Peggy Friedman, director of the 50-year-old Washington Square Music Festival, which uses the stage, says she cannot lose the extra 14 inches.

“I’m unhappy that the stage is going to be so low,” she said. A W.S.M.F. representative also told Parks that the height was “absolutely unacceptable.” Friedman pointed out that the music festival is not the only group using that stage, mentioning a New York University dance series, Orthodox Simchat Torah celebrations, choirs and fundamentalist preachers, among its other users.

“There’s 200 different events there every year,” she said.

Bergman noted that the stage’s low height was a “difficult problem,” because “you can’t just stick a big, long ramp out into the middle of the park.” Still, according to Hoylman, Parks is considering raising the structure. A higher stage would allow for a shorter ramp.

If the stage remains at 22 inches tall, Friedman is not sure whether it will still figure into the music festival’s plans.

“I would have to see it,” she said.

Also on the to-be-destroyed Teen Plaza are petanque courts and a mosaic surface dating back to the 1960s. Parks’ presentation included plans to re-create the petanque courts in a loop cutting into the lawn south of the proposed stage, but the mosaic surface was not addressed.

“We’re going to ask that that be preserved in some fashion,” Hoylman said of the artwork.

A cement tile on the student-created Teen Plaza tells a tale of its time, referring to the bloody Attica Prison riot.

Dogged advocates
Also presented were plans to move the park’s two dog runs. The large dog run will be located on the park’s southern edge, just west of the fountain — now aligned with Fifth Ave. — while its smaller cousin will sit on the south edge to the east, just below the new petanque courts.

At the meeting, dog owners lobbied to expand the large run, a heavily used facility in a neighborhood sorely lacking space for dogs. The dog owners proposed adding 2,300 square feet to the current 7,100-square-foot design by incorporating some small, oddly shaped green spaces that flank the new location.

“We’re looking ahead to the future,” said Stephanie Bargas, a member of the Washington Square Park Dog Run Association and a dog owner for the past seven months. “It has to happen now; it will never happen in 10 years.”

For Claudia Schwalb, another dog-run regular, expanding the run was more than a quality-of-life issue.

“It’s a cleanliness issue,” she argued. “Dogs need to migrate from one side to the other in order to let it clean.”

Currently, the dog run takes up 1.7 percent of the park’s space; after this expansion, it would take up 2.1 percent. A 9,400-square-foot Washington Square run would still be less than half the size of its 20,000-square-foot counterpart in Tompkins Square Park.

Parks has not decided on the issue yet, but Hoylman felt the owners would likely get their way.

“It seems to be reasonable,” he said.

“The infrastructure of the park, the draining — it’s all there,” noted Bargas. “Twenty-three hundred square feet is going to be pretty easy to add.” She thought Parks should look at the issue as one not of dogs, but of people.

“Recreational space for me as a taxpayer is a dog run, because now I can’t go to a restaurant, I can’t got to a store anymore,” she said. “This is my space.”

Bench press
Many at the task force meeting were more concerned with the park’s common spaces — the benches in the square’s eastern half. Although these seating areas were not included in the department’s presentation, they figured prominently at the meeting.

“We still want to see the Parks Department plans for the layout of the paths and some of the sitting areas that people are very fond of on the eastern side,” said Bergman.

Jessie McNabb, a staunch opponent of the park’s renovation, said she counted a total of 200 seating spaces currently on the eastern benches. Many of those spots are located in circular seating nooks that do not appear to be part of Parks’ preliminary plans, although Bergman said that the seating plans seem to be far from finalized.

Serious play issues
Parents at last month’s meeting also expressed worries about the renovation of the playground, one of the few in the neighborhood.

“There were some concerns that it’s going to be closed for a year, given the shortage of playground space,” said Hoylman.

On a recent Wednesday in the park, parents and babysitters identified strongly with these concerns.

“I think it will be chaos,” said Roxanne, who declined to give her last name, but not her opinions.

“I think it will be very bad for this community,” said another man at the park.

Attendees at the task force meeting suggested renovating the playground one half at a time.

The playground has not yet been designed, nor has a “new play area for older children” to be placed near “the mounds” — which will be preserved, according to Hoylman. Some proposals included “cable play structures” and fitness installations.

The presentation also described the new field house and comfort station, which will move slightly to the north and be housed in environmentally friendly buildings.

Though the park’s transformation is already old news in the community, the new round of discussions with Parks still sparked some grieving from the renovation’s opponents.

“Every time I go around the park, people are sad and mourning,” said Woolums. So, she decided to express that disappointment creatively. “Since at the present time there is no fountain to sing my protest,” Woolums said, she posted a music video of an original song on her Web site:

Well they’re chopping down the big old trees. Getting rid of the birds and bees. Because the architect said so Because the architect said.

McNabb, who fought the renovations with Woolums, was similarly distraught, referring to the “shocking, shocking, shocking disuse of a great American square.”

“The new design is dreadful — pretty, but dreadful,” she said. “I have a broken heart for the Village and what they’re doing to Washington Square. … It’s going to be a pass-through park.”

Even those who generally support the renovations say they have found reason to be disappointed with Parks over its handling of the Washington Square project.

“They were fairly arrogant over there,” said Garrett Rosso, manager of the Tompkins Square dog run, of Parks’ handling of Washington Square. By contrast, he said the Tompkins Square dog run upgrade was an excellent, bottom-up renovation. “Basically, I support what they’re doing, but you have to be careful.”

Friedman, in her fight over stage height, took the department’s autocratic methods as a given.

“You can’t argue with the Parks Department because the department has the final word on this,” she said, somewhat resigned.

Of mounds and moles?
McNabb was less cautious with her critique, saying the task force meeting was “typical because not enough people know about it” and even accusing the department of “infiltrating groups” that oppose its plans.

According to Hoylman, the task force will be drafting a response to Parks’ proposal and will request a formal response from the department, which C.B. 2 hopes to receive sometime in the fall.

Although the fountain has now been precisely aligned with Fifth Ave., the renovation’s opponents remain bent out of shape over the project.

“My position has always been for necessary repairs of the park,” said Woolums, “but not for redesign of a highly functioning historic, beloved park.”

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