Volume 78, Number 52 | June 3 - 9, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos courtesy Department of Parks and Recreation

Pitching pennies into the restored and centered fountain, from left, Anne-Marie Sumner, of the Washington Square Association; Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner; restaurateur Mario Batali (face obscured, but orange Crocs visible); Councilmember Alan Gerson; Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and Brad Hoylman, Community Board 2 chairperson. Videotaping them in background is Matt Davis, who documented the renovation’s entire long and tortured process.

It’s official: Park’s phase one is formally opened

By Albert Amateau

A jazz band played funky old tunes and the crowd cheered as water shot into the air at the formal opening of Washington Square Park’s phase-one renovation last Thursday. The sky was cloudy but the mood was sunny under the tent that the Department of Parks and Recreation erected near the restored fountain.

The revelers came from near and far. Davidson, 70, a Soho resident who gave only one name, recalled that he first saw Washington Square Park when he was 20 years old and had come to New York to be the youngest man on the sports desk of United Press International.

Gil Horowitz, a resident of Fifth Ave. just north of the park, said, “I’ve waited for this for 20 years. I was a member of the Community Board 2 Parks Committee and we tried to get some restoration, but to no avail — so we accepted it. Adrian Benepe finally brought it home for us.”

“Everybody’s here!” declared Parks Commissioner Benepe in his opening remarks. “I’ve lived to see the day,” he added, recalling the often-contentious redesign process that began seven and a half years ago. “Along the way there were legal challenges — five lawsuits, five victories,” Benepe noted.

Everyone got a mention and some said a few words or even more. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Councilmember Alan Gerson spoke.

Extreme ballroom dancers from New Orleans, right, performed with the Baby Soda jazz band at the official opening of the park’s phase-one renovation.

“It took longer than anyone anticipated. But when we see Washington Square Park packed with people, it’s clear all the yelling was worthwhile,” Quinn said. Gerson, born, raised and still residing three blocks from the park, said it was a great day for Washington Square Park and the Village community. “This is the third renovation that I lived through,” Gerson said, and recalled that he successfully fought for a restored play area and for no spikes on the fence around the park in the new renovation.

Benepe hailed Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, as a peacemaker among the contending factions.

“If we can solve issues in Greenwich Village, we can have peace in the world. I’m nominating Brad for the Nobel Peace Prize — maybe he can share it with Tobi Bergman,” said Benepe, referring to the C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson.

Former community board chairpersons Jim Smith and Maria Passannante Derr were also among the notables. Henry Stern, the Parks commissioner who preceded Benepe, came in for special mention.

The restaurateur Mario Batali, who lives a few steps from the park, was on hand and provided free Italian ices at the event. Cake and cookies were from Crumbs, Amy’s Bread, Le Pain Quotidien, Fat Witch Bakery and Otto.

Neighbors and supporters Ric Bell, of the American Institute of Architects, and Adelaide Polsinelli, of the Lower Fifth Ave. Washington Square Block Association, were also honored guests.

Benepe thanked George Vellonakis, who designed the new Washington Square Park.

“You took a lot of criticism but you stood tall,” said Benepe.

The commissioner paid tribute to New York University and Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president, for the university’s financial support of the park. The Tisch family, whose $2.5 million donation four years ago helped fund the conservation and rebuilding of the fountain, was also honored.

Anne-Marie Sumner, president of the Washington Square Association, the oldest civic association in the city, said that the Vellonakis design was magnificent.

“Passion and participation brought us a stunning park. …. Yet with this fabulous public resource comes increased responsibility to maintain its beauty,” Sumner said.

Honi Klein, president of the Village Alliance business improvement district, who raised significant funds for the Washington Square Park renovation, declared the phase-one completion a resounding success.

But traces of bitterness from the past lingered. Elizabeth Ely, a stalwart supporter of the redesign, wondered where the opponents were.

“It was the same 20 people, over and over, who got all the attention. They were the only people who protested,” Ely observed.

On the other side, Robert Reiss, a die-hard opponent of the redesign, said, “Vellonakis is a wannabe Baron Haussmann, who paved over half of Paris in the 19th century. Here, he’s paved over democracy.”

But good feeling and a retro vibe of another sort prevailed in Washington Square Park. The eight-piece Baby Soda jazz band called the tunes. Chance Bushman and Amy Johnson, extreme ballroom dancers from New Orleans who perform with Baby Soda, did the Charleston, Lindy and tango.

The phase-one renovation covering the northwest quadrant and the central plaza of the 9.75-acre Washington Square Park cost $13 million.

Phase two, which will begin soon, will cover the other three quadrants, including an upgraded playground in the northeast corner and a new play area in the southwest quadrant, incorporating the mounds, which will be covered with synthetic turf. Phase two will also have a new performance stage, relocated and expanded dog runs, a restored and relocated Garibaldi monument and the restoration of the two petanque courts.

Phase three will include a new park house with space for the park maintenance staff and new public restrooms.

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