Volume 74, Number 44 | March 09 - 15, 2005

Villagers hit a wall over park fence plan

By Albert Amateau

Defying threats that they would be ejected from the March 2 Community Board 2 parks committee meeting, opponents of plans to renovate Washington Sq. Park shouted at Department of Parks officials attempting to present the first phase of the plan.

They railed against the proposal to surround the entire park with a four-foot eight-inch iron fence. They howled about the redesign of the two dog runs and they raised hell about the plan to eliminate the two mounds in the southwest part of the square as part of a redesign of the park playgrounds.

It was the words, “Now that we have a consensus …” that sparked a burst of shouting and interrupted Manhattan Borough Commissioner Bill Castro. Pleas for common courtesy by Aubrey Lees, head of C.B. 2’s parks committee, had little effect and only after she declared, “If you can’t control yourselves, leave, leave. Go out into the street and scream. This behavior is non-negotiable,” did a semblance of order prevail. But interruptions continued to punctuate the two-hour meeting at New York University’s Silver Building across from the northeast corner of Washington Sq. Park.

On a positive note, Tobi Bergman, a C.B. 2 parks committee member and a former Parks Department staff member, was hopeful that finally the community would be able to reach common ground on the proposed $16 million reconstruction of what he called the most significant public space in the Village.

“We have a unique opportunity that won’t come again for a long time if we lose it,” Bergman said. “There are only a few items – on which there is passionate feeling – that we need to come to a basic agreement,” he pleaded.

Castro indicated that the department would continue to talk to the community about the mounds, the playgrounds and perhaps the dog runs. But the fence, he said, is needed to make it easier to secure the park at night, deter drug dealing and vandalism.

Nevertheless, the fence remained a sticking point. Suspicious Villagers saw it as a device to confine political protest, a danger to the elderly and infirm, and a future threat to public space.

“A fence around the entire park is a psychological entrapment,” said Suzanne Dickerson. “It makes it easier to privatize the park,” she went on. “People who object to the mounds are reacting to the way they look now. They’re ugly. They could look like green hills.”

One Villager suspected that the city wanted to redesign Washington Sq. Park at the same time as it planned to redesign the north end of Union Sq. Park “just to build a platform for Mayor Bloomberg to run on.”

Gary Kahan, who walks with a cane and goes abroad accompanied by a medical assistance dog, called for a dog run that gets sun in the winter and is shaded in the summer.

Castro said the Washington Sq. Park design by George Vellonakis would be made available tfor public viewing in the park house from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The department will also try to get the plans onto the Parks Web site. The dog run, he added, would have trees to provide shade. He also assured chess and scrabble players that the phased construction would not stop their games.

Rosemary McGrath, a long-time C.B. 2 member, said she feared the N.Y.U. contribution of $1 million, plus the $2.5 million from the Tisch family (major benefactors also of N.Y.U.) gives the school “too much influence,” on the park design. Castro, however, insisted that the Tisch donation was not connected to N.Y. U. and that none of the donors have tried to influence the design.

Greg Doroski, representing a group called Coalition for a Better Washington Sq. Park submitted an alternative plan that he said would cost $6.5 million instead of the estimated $16 million. The coalition plan focuses on the bathrooms, paved walkways, the mounds, the young children’s playground in the northeast corner of the park, the central fountain and the dog run. “Virtually all of the park could be kept open during the entire process,” Doroski said.

At the end of the sometime-raucous meeting, the committee did not vote on a recommendation, and Lees said that other forums would follow.

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