Volume 78 - Number 29 / December 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Courtesy NYC Parks Department

A diagram of the three rebuilt mounds (A) with elevations in feet, measured from sea level. There will also be a bridge (B) connecting two of the mounds, plus climbing nets (C).

Mounds of talk about mounds and park renovation’s phase 2

By Lincoln Anderson

They may be only about 5 feet tall, not to mention totally dilapidated, but the Washington Square Park mounds loomed large in the discussion about the park renovation’s phase 2 at a recent community meeting in the West Village.

While the park’s most famous landmarks are its arch and fountain, the trio of mini mounds are treasured and vociferously defended by a core group of Villagers who see them as a vitally important play space for young children, as well Downtown’s only hills for sledding.

Other issues at the Dec. 3 meeting — at which the Parks Department presented the phase 2 plans — were the renovation of the park’s playground and the need for both more space in the large-dog dog run and seating nooks that are favored by seniors. The meeting was hosted jointly by the Community Board 2 Parks Committee and the Washington Square Task Force.

But it was the plans for the mounds’ renovation that drew the greatest scrutiny. The smallish bumps have been fenced off for years, and have always been an unwanted eyesore in the view of Parks. But community pressure forced the department to ensure the asphalt-covered knolls would be reincarnated in some form as part of the plan.

In an important piece of news, Becky Ferguson, Washington Square Park administrator, assured everyone that the park — including the mounds, formerly a rampant residence for rats — is now virtually rat free.

“There have been almost no rats,” she said. “I haven’t seen a rat in the park in 10 months.”

The new mounds will be just as tall as the old mounds, according to George Vellonakis, the renovation plan’s designer. However, he said, they will be slightly depressed — as in a sunken living-room effect — so that they won’t be fully visible from elsewhere in the park. The mounds will also be covered with artificial grass — the kind with short blades of fake grass, not the long kind, as in FieldTurf playing fields with rubber-pellet infill.

“The artificial grass is safe,” Vellonakis assured. “This is not the type that has the recycled, infill rubber that kids were eating or maybe getting on their hands.”

Concern was voiced about “rug burn,” or the way artificial turf can rub knees and elbows raw.

“How do you prevent abrasion from the artificial turf when kids are rolling down or tumbling?” asked Lois Rakoff, a C.B. 2 member.

“I don’t think it’ll be an issue,” Vellonakis responded. “You don’t get the velocity that you do on a soccer field.”

To requests that the mounds be covered with real grass, Ferguson later explained, “You can’t have grass on a mound. If you do, it’s going to erode.”

“Is there going to be a ‘No Skateboarding’ sign?” Rakoff continued.

Vellonakis said skateboarding on the mounds won’t be possible, since “It’s not a hard surface.”

But will these humps be handicap accessible?

“A child in a wheelchair can go to their tops,” the designer promised.

“Will the mounds be on their original footprint?” asked Gil Horowitz, a Fifth Ave. resident. Vellonakis said they will be built in a slightly different spot because of nearby tree roots.

“So basically they’re a shifted version of the old mounds — but at a lower grade,” said Horowitz.

“Correct,” confirmed Vellonakis.

The new mounds will have some advantages, according to the Parks officials. For one, in winter, snow will last longer on top of the plastic-grass surface, as opposed to the current, rubber-covered asphalt, Vellonakis said.

Although, at this point, the mounds are firmly a part of the phase 2 plan, the Paul family, who own and operate the Washington Square Hotel across from the park, continued to hammer the small hills, asking why they can’t, well, just go away.

“It just wasn’t used,” Daniel Paul said of the mounds. “I don’t understand what the fuss is about.”

“Why should we be the only park in the city with mounds?” lamented his wife, Rita Paul.

“We’ve already crossed that mound,” quipped Brad Hoylman, chairperson of both C.B. 2 and the Washington Square Task Force.

Anne-Marie Sumner, of the Washington Square Association, also piled on the peculiar piles, saying, “The mounds, in my view, have no real play value. My considered opinion is that the mounds are unwanted except by a few vociferous individuals.”

Hoylman pointed out, though, that both C.B. 2 and Councilmember Alan Gerson support the mounds.

Although saving the mounds is all supposedly being done for young children’s sake, at least one person seemed to imply that it was more about the adults themselves.

“I’m getting concerned that there is not a single parent with young children here — it’s the same community activists,” said Susan Goren.

Earlier in the meeting, landscape architect Chris Crowley described the plans for renovating the children’s playground. Parks is considering whether to designate a parking spot for baby carriages, either inside or outside the playground, since it gets so crowded inside, he said.

“It’s a good point — congestion pricing for baby strollers,” Hoylman observed.

“I’ve seen a 100 percent increase of kids in this neighborhood,” Rakoff said, speaking in favor of the pram parking plan. “You’ve got to make a choice — strollers or kids.”

Crowley added they will try to use a lighter-color rubber safety mat, as opposed to the black ones that have been giving kids major burns because they get so hot in the sun.

More shade will also be created naturally in the playground, he said.

“We have a cherry tree here that’s like a stump on a branch,” he said. “It’s probably reached its potential. We’d like to replace that with a shade tree, and we’ll look into planting more trees.”

A playground water feature will be centered in a sunny area, not under trees, he said, since, “I dunno…sun and water — that’s what summer’s about.”

There was also a call for doubling the size of the dog run for large dogs by adding an additional 500 square feet, if not more.

“I’m willing to chain myself to a fence and go on a starvation diet,” said Stephanie Bargas, of the Washington Square Park Dog Run Association. “This is very important for the future of animals in New York City.”

Rita Lee, an aide to Gerson and a former district manager of C.B. 2, chimed in, “We have a growing population in Lower Manhattan. Where are these dogs going to go? I would urge the Parks Department to think about enlarging the run.”

However, Vellonakis flatly said it can’t happen because “large trees and tree roots” are in the way.

C.B. 2 is also on record supporting a larger dog run, Hoylman said.

Vellonakis said the dog run will be state of the art, with an irrigation system cleansing it nightly and a smell-resistant surface.

“This will be the best dog run in the city,” he vowed.

Another issue was the stage to be re-created where the Teen Plaza raised stage area is now. Vellonakis reported the new, 600-squre-foot stage’s height has been raised 7 inches from earlier designs, to 28 inches. Lee asked what will happen with the historic tiles that students created on Teen Plaza in the early 1970s.

They will be “salvaged” and “possibly reused somewhere” — perhaps in the playground — the designer said.

There were also calls from Lee and others for Parks to reinstall protected seating-nook areas, where seniors and others like to congregate. Margie Rubin, of Disabled in Action, said people in wheelchairs also prefer the nooks.

“We need these alcoves for people with disabilities,” Rubin stressed. Vellonakis said Parks had gotten the message that the alcoves were important to the community. This Monday, The Villager was told that Lee, in Gerson’s office, had been informed that seating alcoves had been restored to the plan.

At the meeting, the Parks officials revealed that a contract has been issued to rebuild the park’s rundown bathrooms, which the community has long requested. Ferguson said the work on the bathrooms would “happen concurrently with phase 2.”

“Our goal is to have the [bathroom] building started while we’re in 2,” Vellonakis clarified.

“But you’ve heard loud and clear from us that this is a priority,” Hoylman stressed, to which Vellonakis replied, “Absolutely.”

“When will it be done? I want it done,” urged Democratic District Leader Keen Berger, regarding the restrooms.

Cristina DeLuca, a Parks spokesperson, later said: “Construction on phase 2 will begin in spring 2009 and we expect it to be complete in spring 2010. Phase 2b (comfort station) has no scheduled start date. We are waiting for the consultant contract to be registered so we can begin on the design phase on phase 2b.”

Jessie McNab and others complained that Parks had moved a path too close to the park’s historic Hanging Tree, endangering its roots. But Vellonakis and Ferguson said the tree is doing fine.

Horowitz said “drug dealers are ensconced in the park, particularly by the area by the N.Y.U. Law School” near the park’s southwest corner.

Manhattan Borough Parks Com-missioner Bill Castro replied that authorities are trying to address the issue, but are limited in what they can do.

“Police make a lot of arrests,” he said. “But for these offenses, penalties are not stiff.” Castro noted the dealers make their initial contacts in the park, then steer their buyers out of the park — and out of view of the police cameras dotting the park — to make the sales.

Castro said when a park reopens after a renovation, it experiences heavy use, which makes drug dealers uncomfortable, which is a good time to try to push them out permanently.

“We’re planning to have staff there from the moment the park opens till the moment it closes,” he said. However, he added, “It’s a tricky spot. You have a lot of students — and the drug dealers know that.”

Castro said the park’s renovated phase 1, including the northwest quadrant and renovated fountain, will open “sometime in the new year — soon.”

He added that Parks isn’t planning to encourage formation of a private conservancy to maintain and operate Washington Square Park.

“A lot of successful parks have a conservancy, Madison Square Park, for example,” he said. “It’s rare; it’s not something you do with every park. But there’s no plan to have a conservancy, like Central Park,” for Washington Square, he assured.

Cathryn Swan, who edits a blog on the park renovation project, charged that the new 4-foot-high fence has “spears” on top of it, a violation of the so-called Gerson-Quinn Agreement with Parks.

Castro denied the fence flouts the agreement, to which, he said, Parks is trying to adhere as best it can.

As for the project’s hefty price tag, the Parks Department has spent about $14 million on the renovation so far. Parks spokesperson DeLuca said, “We have allocated $8.3 million in the budget for phase 2, but we won’t know the exact cost until we review all proposed bids for the project and the contractor is selected.”

Asked whether Parks is trying to “hide” the mounds by putting them in a sunken area, DeLuca said, the restored mounds will be “built slightly below grade to minimize their impact on the park landscape and improve sightlines.”

During the meeting, Doris Diether, a veteran C.B. 2 member, noted the park’s new lights emit a “kind of blue light — like you have on cars.”

Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, later said the park’s new halide lights are better than the traditional, high-pressure sodium lights, which shine a yellow light, because they bring out the green of the leaves. The sodium lights “make everything look gloomy,” he said. Also, the halide lights — which have no visible light bulb, but instead project light up and then reflect it out — lack a focal point, or “hot spot,” so they don’t force the eye to adjust, he said.

“It’s called ‘diffused lighting,’” Bergman said. “The fact you see a glow rather than a hot spot is a good thing.”

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