What Makes a Great Public Space?

A study of Washington Square Park in 2005 by the Project for Public Spaces concluded:

“Washington Square Park is one of the best known and best-loved destinations in New York City. And as a neighborhood park and civic gathering place, it may be one of the great public spaces in the world. Anyone who visits the park and who looks at how people use it can confirm in just a few minutes that it has nearly all of the key attributes of a great public space. … Its success can also be measured by other indicators such as the amount of affection that is being displayed, its overall comfort and feeling of being safe, the level of stewardship, and the way that people engage in different activities at very close range and interact with each other easily.”

In addition, Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities wrote of the park’s famous fountain, “In effect, this [fountain] is a circular arena, a theater in the round, and that is how it is used, with complete confusion as to who are spectators and who are the show.”

About Washington Square Park overall, she stated, “The city officials regularly concoct improvement schemes by which this center within the park would be sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence. The invariable phrase is ‘restoring the land to park use.’ That is a different form of park use, legitimate in places. But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people.”

This leads to one question : Why is New York City putting forth a radical redesign of Washington Square Park, a great public space?

New York Times takes in-depth look at Landmarks Preservation Commission

Today’s New York Times has an interesting, in-depth look at the Landmarks Preservation Commission by writer Robin Pogrebin which “reveals an overtaxed agency that has taken years to act on some proposed designations, even as soaring development pressures put historic buildings at risk. Its decision-making is often opaque, and its record-keeping on landmark-designation requests is … spotty.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been under the direction of Robert Tierney for the past five years. The LPC members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg. Only the chairman receives a salary (currently $177,698), the other 11 commissioners are unpaid. The LPC must “include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs.”

On Washington Square Park

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held two days of public hearings on Washington Square Park. It was later ruled by NY Supreme Court Justice Emily Goodman that the City — specifically landscape architect and Parks Department employee George Vellonakis — during its presentation to the LPC had withheld key information. The incomplete and untruthful information is what LPC based its decision on. You can watch footage of the presentation by George Vellonakis at the hearing here.

Other missed opportunities

Then there were the buildings that were demolished before any public hearing was held, such as “the Beekman movie theater on the Upper East Side, a 1952 Streamline Moderne design that was demolished in 2005; Mott House in Rockaway, Queens, an 1800s mansion in the Greek Revival style that was torn down in 2004; the Donnell Library Center on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, which is to be demolished to make way for a hotel; and Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 “lollipop” building at 2 Columbus Circle, which reopened in September as the Museum of Art and Design after a radical alteration that was fiercely opposed by preservationists.”

“No background in architecture, planning or historic preservation”

Mr. Tierney was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to head the Landmarks Preservation Commission despite having “no background in architecture, planning or historic preservation.”

Every city agency always wants their budget increased (one would think, right?). The article states, “Yet, in 2007 Mr. Tierney declined a budget increase of $750,000 approved by the City Council.”

Mr. Tierney told the Times that he was afraid the budget would get cut the next year. However, wouldn’t it be better for the agency to be well staffed for that one year vs. worrying about something that might or might not happen?

One wonders if Mayor Bloomberg wanted the LPC to have no teeth by appointing someone with no appropriate background to head it up, as development soars and the history of our city vanishes at an alarming rate.