Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Washington Sq. redesign to go public; some think it’s too late

By Lincoln Anderson

As plans for the refurbishment of Washington Sq. Park are set for a public unveiling early next month, The Villager has learned essential details of the project’s design.

At the same time, after getting his first look at the design on Jan. 6, Clay Bushong, a co-chairperson of the Washington Sq. Park Council and a member of the Community Board 2 task force that has been discussing the project in private meetings for the past year, abruptly resigned in frustration from the Council. Bushong said he felt the redesign process has not been public enough and specifically expressed dissatisfaction with plans for the park’s dog run and two playgrounds.

The design will be presented at C.B. 2’s Parks Committee on Feb. 2 at a location — probably somewhere in New York University — to be determined.

The Villager spoke to Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks Department commissioner; Bushong and the other two co-chairpersons of the Washington Sq. Park Council; Aubrey Lees, C.B. 2’s Parks Committee chairperson; and Michael Haberman, N.Y.U. director of government and community relations, regarding the details of the plan. Lees and Haberman are co-chairpersons of the C.B. 2 Washington Sq. Task Force.

A main feature of the plan for the 11-acre, landmarked park is to raise its sunken central plaza to grade. Also, as currently configured, the park’s two dog runs — one for regular-sized dogs and one for small dogs — will be put next to each other and relocated to the park’s southern perimeter across from Judson Church. The Teen Plaza, a raised area in the park’s southeastern area near LaGuardia Pl., on which the Washington Sq. Music Festival performs, will be replaced with a lawn. The statues of Garibaldi and Holley in the centers of the two ovals to the east and west of the central plaza will be moved to the ovals’ north edges, opening sightlines and creating potential small performance spaces. The plan currently has no provision for restoring the mounds — the dilapidated children’s climbing hills that are subject of periodic eruptions by parents who want them renovated. Under the design, the mounds would become another grassy lawn. In addition, the plan calls for a waist-high, wrought-iron fence to replace the current pipe railing around the park’s perimeter. The Parks Department is also considering reducing the number of chess tables in the park to cut down on “chess hustling” and also because it’s felt some of the park’s drug-dealing scene is mixed in among the chess tables. Some trees could potentially be removed to open up sightlines, but this has not been determined yet.

A Parks spokesperson said the department is not making the plan available prior to the Feb. 2 C.B. 2 Parks Committee meeting.

Bushong, who is also vice president of the Washington Sq. Park dog run, said, while Parks is saying the dog runs won’t lose any square footage, he’s upset at the space’s shape, which he likened to a narrow racetrack with “nooks and crannies” where dogs will be hidden from owners’ view. He assured that the dog run group will turn out in force at the Parks Committee meeting. The dog run was originally planned for the park’s southeast corner, but was moved — as Haberman confirmed to The Villager — because N.Y.U. feels it’s inappropriate to have a dog run near its Bobst Library.

Bushong and the other two co-chairpersons of the Washington Sq. Park Council, Sara Goodman and Matt Bardin, also are concerned whether the park’s two playgrounds will get renovated as part of the park’s refurbishment. Bushong said Parks told him the Washington Sq. Park Council will have to raise the funds separately for the playgrounds. So far, the Council has raised $250,000 for the park’s redesign.

All of them parents with young children, Bushong, Goodman and Bardin got involved with the Washington Sq. Park Council after attending a meeting on the park’s redesign last December. Bushong said he had been told that helping fundraise for the park would get him a “seat at the table” in the redesign, but he now feels cheated.

For her part, Goodman says the redesign is good and thinks people will like it. Bardin’s opinion is somewhere in the middle of Bushong and Goodman, with Bushong clearly the most disillusioned at the results so far.

Lees said she favors the idea of opening up the park and creating more green space. She said she is not sorry that the mounds — which she called “huge, old, falling-apart tar pits — or tar mounds” — are not being renovated. She said she feels the process has been public and that the upcoming board meetings in February will give the community a chance to weigh in on the plan. Asked if there would be any more meetings than those in February, she said it’s possible. Asked if Board 2 would sponsor a special public hearing — as the board often does for important or contentious issues — devoted to Washington Sq. Park, Lees said the upcoming Parks Committee meeting will be exactly such a public hearing.

“The emphasis is on refurbishing and making repairs to the park — it’s nothing drastic,” Lees said. “Nothing’s been etched in stone. It reflects what a park should be, which is green and open and fixed up, with places to sit and not falling apart.”

However, Lees did stress an urgency to get moving, noting that a delay could possibly cause the loss of money that has been allocated for the project.

Haberman similarly said he felt the process has been going very well and is ongoing and there will be chance for public input. He stressed that the current design is a “master plan” that can be elaborated on.

Castro said he plans to meet with both the dog run group and the Washington Sq. Park Council about the playgrounds as early as next week. As for the playgrounds, he said they may well be included in the park’s rehab, but that this is still being worked out. Castro said he’s not unsympathetic to the chess tables, either, noting that his uncle, Tony Ribando, a former president of the famed Marshall Chess Club on W. 10th St., is a daily regular at the tables.

Castro said the park project will be done in two phases, so as to keep half the park open at any given time. The intent is to start the first phase in June, five months from now, finishing in nine months to a year, Castro said. The next phase would start immediately after and take about as long. The project currently is budgeted at $16 million, with a $4 million maintenance endowment. Castro said about $6.5 million has been raised so far between private and government monies.

Bushong, who attended almost all the task force meetings, claims there was frequently talk of the need to keep “the crazies” and “the mounds people” out of the process, so that it would not get derailed.

“Every meeting we had there was a reference to ‘the mounds people,’ that they controlled too much [park area],” he noted.

He said at one point, someone on the task force referred to the more involved community process for designing the Hudson River Park, derisively noting how there had even been a “Screw Committee” to select which screws would be used in the park.

Castro and Haberman said they didn’t recall any talk about “crazies,” “mounds people” or a “Screw Committee” at the meetings.

Mounds advocate Eliza Nichols, associate provost of New School University, whose father, landscape architect Robert Nichols, was a part of the community-led redesign of the park in 1970, said she was “not surprised” to hear the mounds were not in the current plan. She said she hopes Castro and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe are “men of their word” and fulfill earlier promises to restore the mounds.

Bushong and the Washington Sq. Park Council had wanted to have the Project for Public Spaces get involved in the redesign, but as of now, P.P.S. will only conduct a forum on programming in the park. Yet, Castro said the idea was always to have P.P.S. only deal with programming.

Lees is sure people will support the plan once they see it.

“People should look at it before they have a nervous breakdown,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who would object to more grass in Washington Sq. Park.”

Similarly, to Bushong and others who are already starting to worry, Castro urged calm. “Everyone should just take a chill pill and relax,” he said. “We want to move the project along, but we want to make sure there is consensus among everyone as we move this project forward.”

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