Part III Report-back on NYC Parks Dept. Presentation of Future Phase Redesign Work on Washington Sq Park

Part III, the final installment, of my report-back from the NYC Parks Department presentation of the future Phase (II and III) redesign work at Washington Square Park based on information presented at a joint meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Bd 2 Parks Committee held December 3rd.

* The Plazas – Reduction in public space seems excessive

Phase I’s NorthWest quadrant’s “plaza” is basically finished. It is a circular pattern with a large circular flower bed in the midst of it with a walkway around it and benches at its edges. I personally don’t like how large the flower bed is in the center — I think it interferes with the flow of how people interact with one another which is my critique of much of the park’s design — but it doesn’t change dramatically what was there prior. So, fine.

— What happens to Washington Square Park’s other “quadrants” in the next Phase?

Each quadrant of the park has a “plaza” and, as George Vellonakis explained, they each have different designs. (A break from symmetry. Imagine.) The Southwest quadrant and the NorthEast quadrant — these areas are addressed in the next Phase — currently are quite large. The Southwest quadrant holds the chess tables and the Northeast quadrant is a large gathering spot prone to spontaneous performances; it also has picnic tables, which people utilize. So… what did George Vellonakis reveal about his plans for these two areas? Firstly, they are both being greatly reduced in size (same # of chess tables, smaller area to congregate). It sounded fairly significant although, unfortunately, he had no numbers or percentages to share.

The question is … Why? Why does the chess area have to be reduced? Why do the picnic tables have to go or at least why does that area have to be so greatly reduced?

* The Mounds / Artificial Turf

I’ll do another post on the Mounds one day this week but they are three “hills” on the southwestern side of the Park that children use as informal and spontaneous play structures and also are used in the winter for sledding. The Mounds have their fans and they have some opponents.

The Mounds are scheduled to be recreated in Phase II. However, the two words associated with the recreation of the Mounds area that got people alarmed were “artificial turf” which the Parks Department hopes to use on the ground surrounding the Mounds.  (Note: this is a clarification which did not appear in the original version of this post.)

Although Mr. Vellonakis tried to assure people that what the Parks Department planned to use was some better version of synthetic turf and “not infill rubber,” (a) can it really be that much better ? and (b) is it really necessary to use in this area? Mr. Vellonakis tried to make an aesthetic argument for using the artificial turf stating that it would “blend into the landscape” and therefore “make [it] more attractive.” Mr. Vellonakis also stated that the artificial turf would “hold snow better.” Hmmm.

I’ve written some posts on artificial turf here and here. (Links to be added in later.) It gets very hot (although Mr. Vellonakis said that the area is shaded so that’s less likely) and the pieces separate and kids have come home with it in their shoes. What if kids eat it? We still have no idea how it affects wildlife or the environment at large.

* The Playground

The large playground on the north east side will be completed in stages so as not to close off the entire area for an extended period of time – this is in response to parents’ wishes in the community. It will remain the same size within the same footprint. Chris Crowley from the Parks Department is in charge of the playground and does seem dedicated to working with the neighborhood users on this effort. The playground will also contain a children’s garden.

— “Safety Surface”?

Another controversial item — mentioned in relation to the playground — was the use of “safety surface” which is basically black rubber mats, ya know, the ones kids have burned their feet on.

— Interesting about the Fence…

The fence around the playground is currently 7 feet high and there was talk about perhaps putting a new, lower fence in around the area but there are (first we’ve heard of this…) concerns about the cost. When the fence was put in, Washington Square Park, interestingly enough, did not have a perimeter fence (the one that was put in is the current 3 feet high fence, the one being installed is 4 feet).

There will be a meeting on January 7th to discuss the playground in more depth.

* Dog Runs

The two dog runs – small dog run and large dog run – are being moved from within the park to the southern edge of the park. They will have multiple gates to hopefully prevent dogs from getting out into the street. The dog run advocates are still hoping that the dog runs will be enlarged. Although the large dog run is being expanded by 500 square feet, it is not considered large enough. Where the dog runs are being installed, there are some large trees which Mr. Vellonakis said would not be disturbed.

* Conservancy? — No, They Say

Bill Castro, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner, stated that there is “no plan to have a conservancy” at Washington Square Park. There are concerns amongst community members that because the Park’s budget is so high at this point and maintenance of the park will be costly that a private conservancy will be formed including NYU, the Tisches, the local BID(Business Improvement District), and real estate interests in the area. For reasons why, Conservancies spell trouble (they are basically BIDs), see here. (Link added later.)

There will however be more park enforcement rangers.

Bathrooms

Although the Washington Square Park Task Force and community members have stressed again and again that the bathroom repairs and upgrading are a priority and therefore should have been tackled in the first or maybe even the second phase, they have been relegated by the Parks Department to phase III. When asked again about this, the Parks Department response to this “high priority” was “we will get back to you on that.” There was this strained silence but also covert smiles amongst Bill Castro and George Vellonakis and it is clearly not taken seriously – at all.

* A comment that seemed to sum it all up:

Mary seemed to sum up the underlying community sentiment:

“Washington Square Park keeps being compared [by the Parks Department] with [what’s done at] other parks. It is important to keep its character intact. A cookie cutter idea is not acceptable.”

Exactly.

New York Times calls for “Improving the Landmarks Process”

If you missed it, Saturday December 6th’s New York Times featured an editorial, “Improving the Landmarks Process,” on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the focus of a series of articles.

The Times wrote:

Judge Marilyn Shafer of the New York State Supreme Court ruled last month that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission habitually acted in a manner that was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the commission to conduct its business in a more timely manner. Her conclusions are welcome and frustratingly familiar to New Yorkers.

Of course, as is the City’s tendency, The Times writes: “The City plans to appeal. Instead…”

it should reform the commission, which is all that stands between the enormous pressures for development in this city and its priceless architectural heritage.

In addition:

Part of the trouble is that the commission enjoys little political independence. The chairman serves at the mayor’s pleasure; the 11 unpaid commissioners see only the cases the chairman recommends. These are attributes that a pro-development mayor is not likely to want to change.

It was alarming to read that Robert Tierney, the present chairman, was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg five years ago to head the Landmarks Preservation Commission despite having “no background in architecture, planning or historic preservation.”

To read more about some of the Times‘ reporting on this as well as about Washington Square Park and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (actually, I did not even go into the full story which is far murkier than this post reveals), and a chance to see George Vellonakis’s tarnished testimony on the Park’s redesign plan before LPC, see this previous entry.