Volume 74, Number 38 | Jan. 26 - Feb. 1, 2005

TALKING POINT

Washington Sq. needs quick fixes, not long renovation

By Jonathan Greenberg

As I witness the Washington Sq. Park redesign plan steamroll into our community, I feel as though we Villagers are helpless train passengers heading for a major wreck.

When exactly did our community decide that the best thing we could do with scarce park resources was to gut-redesign the largest, most unique public space in Downtown by raising its central plaza to street level, moving statues around and closing down, for the first time in memory, entire sections of the park over a period of two years or more?

As a lifelong Downtowner who played in Washington Sq. Park as a child and now brings my infant son to its toddler playground, I feel, as many of us do, that the park is the heart of the Village. It is beautiful, historic, colorful and more vibrant than perhaps any public space anywhere in the world.

We all know that the park is in need of rehabilitation. The pavement is horribly cracked — I cannot even get my son’s baby stroller across the gaping holes at the northwest entrance. The abandoned asphalt mounds are an eyesore of wasted space. And the public restrooms are public embarrassments to anyone forced to use them, with no diaper-changing tables and conditions that few people would ever choose to subject their children — or themselves — to.
Ironically, there is more than ample money immediately available for fixing all of the above conditions, without having to change any utilized area of the park (except the restrooms) for more than a week. All of this could be accomplished with existing funds, and an adequate endowment would remain for upkeep and better security. There might even be enough left over to touch up the children’s playgrounds.

Instead, the powers that are controlling this process, largely in secret, have decided on a radically different redesign “program” for us. They are targeting more than $16 million to fix what I have never heard, from any member of our community, expressed as broken, while not even responding to the need to deal with the mounds or renovate the restrooms.

This would be absurd enough if they were not jeopardizing the unique open space at the heart of the Village that surrounds the Washington Sq. Park fountain. Worse, they don’t even have half of the $16 million they need to renovate the park as they, the Master Builder wannabees,” believe is necessary. And they want to close entire portions of our busy park gem over a period of AT LEAST two years, beginning this June.

Like Mayor Bloomberg and his West Side stadium plan, the Washington Sq. Park planners suffer from an “edifice complex,” an egocentric desire to “leave their mark” on our precious park.

I challenge the Parks Department and the City Council to spend one-tenth of 1 percent of the monies they are planning to spend on the park redesign to professionally poll Downtowners on what program WE want for the renovated park.

I am not talking about a loaded “should we renovate it or not?” question. Instead, respect us enough to offer the real options: “Would we prefer waiting for any improvements until twice as much money as is currently available has been raised, and then closing sections of the park for a year or more in order to redesign and bring to street level the central circle of Washington Sq. Park?” Or, “Would we prefer to use the money we already have to immediately begin rehabilitation of the restrooms, the pavement, the playgrounds and the mounds, without any significant closures?”

Community Board 2’s Parks Committee will be debating the redesign of Washington Sq. Park for the first time on Feb. 2. I encourage them, and my neighbors, to engage in an open, fundamental debate on the renovation program. Let’s proceed responsively, before the train wreck that seems inevitable becomes reality.

Greenberg is an investigative journalist and author of the novel “America 2014: An Orwellian Tale.” He was policy director of Lower Manhattan redevelopment for Councilmember Alan Gerson in 2002, and was a public member of Community Board 2’s design committee on Hudson River Park’s Greenwich Village section.

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