A Tale of Two Fences and No One Minding the Store at Washington Sq Park

What is wrong with this Picture? The fence on the bottom right is the 4 foot high fence that the New York City Parks Department has begun installing in the NorthWest Quadrant of Washington Square Park (currently being redesigned) with, I would say, decorative spears on top – in direct defiance of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement.” And much too high overall.

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Washington Sq Park Fence The City hopes to Install

Washington Sq Park Fence The City hopes to Install

This, as you see, changes the welcoming intimate nature of this Park as demonstrated in the photo on the left which depicts Washington Square Park‘s current 3 foot high fence which has worked beautifully for many years.

The existing height is one which everyone likes – except for designer George Vellonakis and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe because it doesn’t work with their vision of pacifying this magnificent public space into a pass-through garden.

Unfortunately, thus far, I have found no one really minding the store (Community Board 2? Washington Square Park Task Force? NY City Council Member Alan Gerson? Community Groups? Is anyone out there?) to make sure the Parks Department is in compliance with the tepid “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” brokered by City Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn. (Yes, it’s tepid in what it ‘won’ on behalf of the Community for the Park’s redesign but at least it’s something. However, apparently the City can’t even adhere to that).

Have you seen the lamps they’ve begun installing? Tragic.

Photo at top: Louis Seigal

Photo bottom: Cathryn / WSP Blog

WSP Blog Presents apparent Conundrum to the NYC Parks Dept with the Question: What is Amount of Public Space around the Washington Square Park Fountain?


In attempting to clarify a simple point of information from the NYC Parks Department Press Office last month, I first received a gracious response — followed by a drop-off in communication.

Did I per chance hit upon something that the Parks Department does not want to admit or state publicly?

It’s basic information contained within Phase I of the redesign work. The same work they state will be completed in November.

My curiously difficult-to-answer question to the NYC Parks Department? … : What will the size of the Plaza area (the public space) surrounding the Washington Square Park Fountain be?

(As regular readers know, due to the Park’s redesign, the famous fountain is now moved 23 feet east of its original location in the center of the Park to “align” with the Washington Square Arch.)

Jane Jacobs and the Fountain’s Importance As a Public Space

Whether the fountain really needed to be moved, that’s a question most people answer NO to. However, perhaps a bigger point of concern is the amount of public space around the Fountain — the Plaza. As Jane Jacobs wrote about the Washington Square Park Fountain in 1971 in her renowned book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “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.”

WSP Blog and Parks Department Press Office Communication

I wrote to Jama Adams, the head of the Parks Department press department at the suggestion of Amy Freitag, #2 to NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe, in early August. Adams assigned Press Officer Cristina DeLuca to assist me.

I wrote the following on August 5th:

Hi Cristina,

Thank you for getting in contact.

I want to know from the Parks Department what the square footage of – what is usually termed – the “interior plaza area” or “inner circle” around the Fountain at Washington Square Park will be with the renovation of the Park.

The figure that I have is that the new interior plaza (which goes from outermost edge of fountain wall to innermost edge of any seating) will be 20,662 square feet.

In addition, the Entire Plaza Area around Fountain (which includes and goes beyond this area) will be 39,419 square feet.

Can you verify this?

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Cathryn.

On August 7th, this interchange occurred:

Hi Cathryn,

Hope to have this confirmed for you soon. Waiting on borough staff to give me the info. Just resubmitted request as a reminder.
Best,
Cristina

Sent: Thursday, August 07, 2008 4:41 PM
To: DeLuca, Cristina
Subject: Re: Washington Square Park

Hi Cristina,

When do you think you might have the information I requested ? It should be within Parks Department documentation for Phase I work of Washington Square Park.

Thanks for your help.

Sincerely,
Cathryn.

Then … what happened?

Nothing. Since then, I’ve sent numerous emails, I’ve called and left messages. No response.

Is the New York City Parks Department is hiding something?

Could it be that this plaza area is going to be less than what was stated and stipulated ? *

Background on the Public Space issue around the Fountain

*The Gerson-Quinn Agreement (drafted October 2005), a mild (but weak) document, written to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe by NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Council Member Alan Gerson, states its goal as: “a framework for resolving the outstanding major issues pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park.” The G-Q Agreement did not in fact even attempt to resolve the major outstanding issues (NOTE: This has made close followers of the redesign question Gerson and Quinn’s intention) but it did stipulate a few things that should nonetheless be adhered to.

One such stipulation: That the Fountain Plaza be no less than 90% of the current area.

In August 2007, The Washington Square Park Task Force issued a Report. It addressed the Plaza area and stated that: it “did not have enough information from the Parks Department to draw a clear conclusion on the size of the inner circle of the fountain plaza in the Plan. Rough calculations made by Task Force members of the total square footage of the inner circle ranged from 88% to 77% of the current area.”

When I questioned WSP Task Force co-chair Brad Hoylman last month if this question was ever answered, he directed me to lawsuit documents* from which I obtained the figures above that I queried the Parks Department about.

(*If you hadn’t heard, there were numerous lawsuits around Washington Square Park trying to stop the project from going forward and calling the Parks Department on its lack of transparency and accountability. They ultimately failed to stop the project from going forward.)

What is the Parks Department hiding?

It appears that the NYC Parks Department does not want to answer this basic – but important question – which impacts our public space. The Press Office is caught in the middle.

Perhaps the bigger question is…

Who is minding the store?



**************************************************************

Hint: Is it Community Board 2? The Washington Square Park Task Force? Community Groups? Alan Gerson? Christine Quinn? None of the above?

The Villager – at last! – Reports on WSP Task Force meeting – and future WSP “plans”

The Villager at last reports on the July 17th Washington Square Park Task Force meeting (while omitting the date of the meeting, I gather, to not to call attention to the late reporting?).

There’s some interesting information in there (although right this minute, the story has the wrong title, something about a “mystery hotel”) and interviews with some of the key players from the Community Board, the Task Force, the Parks Department*, and community members.  (*A Parks Department spokesperson says — contrary to what was stated at the meeting — a conservancy is not ruled out, citing the benefits of working with “community groups.” Right.)

WSP Blog covered this, beginning last month, in a series (in 8 parts): Update on New York City’s Redesign of Washington Square Park. If you missed it, begin here.

Part VI Update on NYC’s Redesign Of Washington Square Park — The Corner “plazas” and … Conservancy?

Danger Construction Area

Washington Sq Park: Danger Construction Area

This photo captures a portion of the redesign of the North West corner of Washington Square Park with its “historic plaza” in the background.

The problem with the Plazas (which will inhabit each corner of the Park) is that they are a decent size but not that large and then the re-designer places a huge flower bed in the middle. What happens then? It changes the whole flow and interactions of people within the park. Plus a considerable reduction in the public space.

This is an issue I raised at the Washington Square Park Task Force meeting of Community Board 2 and local elected officials such as Council Member Alan Gerson, Speaker Christine Quinn and Assembly Member Deborah Glick, among others, who sent “representatives.” The Task Force then submits meeting notes to the New York City Parks Department with their questions and concerns and awaits feedback.

My concern with the Task Force is they have not been strong or vocal enough with their questions and concerns and mandates. The WSPTF can weigh in on the size of the flower beds, the plantings, the size and location of the pathways, the design, the amount of public space – significant items.

Conservancy ?

A big question in relation to Washington Square Park is whether — in order to upkeep the extensive redesign work being done and pay for future Phases — New York City will install a Conservancy for the Park.

The Conservancy model is another one of the City’s (and Mayor Bloomberg‘s) favored public-private partnerships. In reality the Conservancy becomes the arbiter of the space. These are our public parks and they need to remain public. Especially Washington Square Park.

At the meeting, the question was asked: “Will there be a conservancy which will have NYU and other corporate interests on the board?” Rebecca Ferguson, Washington Square Park administrator and Parks Department spokesperson stated, “There are no plans for a Conservancy.”

Hmmm.

Stay tuned… there’s more!

See Parts I-V if you are just catching up(go to Key Posts on right sidebar).

Click here for Part VII.

Part III: Update on NYC’s Redesign Of Washington Square Park – The Bathrooms

See Parts I and II if you’re catching up.

…Continued…

4. THE BATHROOMS

There are a few items identified as imperative to the community in relation to freshening up Washington Square Park‘s current state and fast-tracking its maintenance, mainly: (1) the bathrooms’ renovation and (2) repairing the walkways. (It’s been so long since any basic maintenance that the paths are cracked and uneven in many places.) I’ll come back to the walkways another entry.

At the presentation at the July 17th Washington Square Park Task Force meeting, WSP Park Administrator and Parks Department employee Rebecca Ferguson tried to put a positive spin on when the bathrooms (in Parks Department lingo : comfort stations) would be up to speed. That part of the project, she explained, is in “Phase 2b.” Which means Phase III. (The work is presently in Phase I.)

The reality is that it is the very last thing being done.

In the end, the new building will be “green” as in LEED-certified with possibly a “green roof.” There will be a men’s room, a women’s room, a family unisex bathroom, and a staff bathroom!

Causes for concern:

The current bathrooms are grungy and have been for years. They are in need of repair. They are not accessible to the disabled. The men’s room stalls have no doors. Instead of fixing these problems over the last four to five years while talking about and then implementing the redesign , the Parks Department places this issue at the very last spot on their redesign agenda.

The Washington Square Park Task Force in August ’07 came out and said that the Parks Department and City Council should pony up the funds NOW and not later.

Nothing changed.

What did district New York City Council Members Gerson and Quinn say?

In the Gerson-Quinn Agreement, the 2005 document with the stated mission of “resolving the outstanding major issues [between the community and the Parks Department] pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park,” Gerson-Quinn weighed in on the bathrooms, an item designated as important to the community. (It was already known at that point that the City intended to place the bathroom renovation at the end of their agenda – despite widespread disapproval.)

Gerson-Quinn write:

Public Restrooms: “The [Parks] Department shall make this a priority item to be undertaken as soon as finances permit.”

So. Apparently, there are finances to: dig up the fountain and shift it 23 feet east, transfer virtually every piece of the Park into new positions, move the two dog run locations, change the construction of the pathways, remove trees unnecessarily, and reduce and reconfigure the public spaces. And yet, the most City Council Members Gerson and Quinn could argue for, in support of their community’s needs from the New York City Parks Department on the subject of the public restrooms at Washington Square Park, is “as soon as finances permit.”

Okay.

Stay tuned… there’s more!

(Next installment: Wednesday, August 6th) Here’s Part IV.

Part II: Update on NYC Parks Department Redesign of Washington Sq Park – Performance Space

washington sq park under construction

washington sq park under construction

Following up on yesterday’s up-to-the-minute-facts on New York City redesign of Washington Square Park which included the Status of Phase I and work on the Fountain thus far.

Here is Part II:

The Washington Square Park Task Force Meeting also included discussion of work in the next two Phases of the redesign of this historic Park:

3. PERFORMANCE SPACE :

Taking the place of the “Teen Playground,” as well known for its teen activities as its stage platform — host to many historic performances and activities, including 50 years of the Washington Square Music Festival — will be a new “Elevated Concert Space” (minus the Teen Playground). This is in the southern area of the Park (to the east of the Fountain). The stage will be the same size of 600 square feet. It will be 21-22″ tall with stairs on one side; a ramp on the other leading to the landscaped grass.

Cause for concern:

HEIGHT OF STAGE REDUCED ALMOST IN HALF; NO RAILING

The current height of the stage is 36″ which is a standard for most classical music stages. This height works for the Washington Sq Music Festival and other performances. At 22″, the performers are barely separated from the audience.

When the Park was last redesigned in 1969-1970, 46 groups were consulted on the stage and asked about their needs for performances including NYU, church and political groups. Consensus was reached on the design.

Not so, this time. It’s George Vellonakis all the time.

What the Community wants, needs, or even what makes logical sense does not seem to factor much into the redesigner’s plan.

There is also no RAILING on the current design. The representative at the meeting from the Washington Sq Music Festival pointed out that a railing around the stage is “theatrically necessary,” and very important for safety so that the conductor “doesn’t fall off.”

Sounds fairly significant, eh?

… Stay tuned… there’s more!

Read Part I here.

Moving forward? Here’s Part III.

Part I: Update On NYC Parks Department Redesign Work on Washington Square Park — Status and the Fountain

"working to improve your park"

"working to improve your park"

The Washington Square Park Task Force, convened by Community Board 2 and local elected officials to give some community oversight over the Parks Department “renovation” (redesign) of Washington Square Park, gathered recently for a public meeting in the NYU Silver Building on Waverly Place. This was the first meeting of the Task Force after a long hiatus.

Rebecca Ferguson, Washington Square Park Administrator, gave a presentation about the status of Phase I work on the Park, some future details and took questions. The meeting was presided over by Community Board 2 Washington Sq Park Task Force(WSPTF) co-chairs Brad Hoylman (also CB2 chair) and Tobi Bergman. Also present were Steve Simon, Manhattan Borough Parks Department Chief of Staff, and representatives from the offices of local elected officials, including Council Members Alan Gerson, Christine Quinn, and Rosie Mendez as well as from Assembly Member Deborah Glick’s office.

Here is Part I of Up-to-the-minute Facts about NYC Parks Department’s Redesign Plans for/Work On Washington Square Park:

Part I : Status of Redesign and the Fountain

1. STATUS : Presently, the Parks Department is at work on “Phase I,” the North West Quadrant of the Park, which includes the “scrabble plaza,” the Alexander Holley Plaza, and the Fountain and its Plaza. According to Rebecca Ferguson, the project is “100% on time” and “60% complete.” The contract for the work is up in November and the Parks Department has every expectation that it will be done on time.

2. FOUNTAIN : Piping and drainage are 70% done. The stones from the original fountain are in Long Island City and being rehoned. They will be placed in the new fountain. The Diameter of the Fountain will be the same. There will be benches around the fountain which will be 16″ high with no backs. (For those who haven’t been by the Park recently, a large hole has been dug in the new location which aligns the fountain with the Arch – after 137 years unaligned – and the structure is being built.)

Causes for concern:

THE WATER PLUME/JETS OF THE FOUNTAIN: When on, when off, who decides?

Jane Jacobs said about the famous Washington Square Park fountain, “In effect, this 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.”

The jets on the new fountain will be adjustable but it is unclear just who will determine how they are regulated. (Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps?) It’ll be nice for those tourists coming down Fifth Avenue viewing the Fountain through the Arch (per the wishes of redesigner George Vellonakis) to see the large water plume from their taxis. However that was never really the point of this fountain, used for politics, music, art, juggling, shout outs, etc., as Jane Jacobs so admirably expressed.

REDUCTION IN PUBLIC SPACE AROUND THE FOUNTAIN:

“Inner Circle” Around Fountain

An issue that the WSPTF did not address at this meeting is the square footage of what is deemed “the inner circle” around the fountain — from the outermost edge of the fountain wall to the innermost edge of any seating. The WSP Task Force wishes expressed in an August ’07 document to the Parks Department allowed for it to be “no less than 90% of the current area,” allowing for a 10% reduction (why?… I could not tell you).

This report stated: “The fountain plaza appears to be smaller than 90% of the current area, and thus does not comply with the Gerson-Quinn Agreement*. The question is, however, by how much. The Task Force did not have enough information from the Parks Department to draw a clear conclusion on the size of the inner circle in the Plan. Rough calculations made by Task Force members of the total square footage of the inner circle ranged from 88% to 77% of the current area.”

There was no indication at the meeting that this question was ever answered. It was not addressed. (I did not have this August ’07 document: “Report of the Washington Square Park Task Force,” which CB2 chair Brad Hoylman provided to me at the meeting, so I did not ask.)

Entire Plaza

And what about the entire Plaza, extending outward from the “innermost circle?” This is certainly well utilized by the public and is part of the experience of being in Washington Square Park. Presently, there is a 23% reduction planned – a significant amount – something the WSPTF, to my knowledge, never addressed.

What is the Gerson-Quinn Agreement?

*“The Gerson-Quinn Agreement” is a somewhat dubious document, drafted by Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn, dated October 6, 2005, and sent to Parks Commissioner Benepe. In the document, the Council Members put forth a framework for “resolving the outstanding major issues pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park.” The only problem is that the outstanding major issues were: the reconfiguration of the entire park, the loss of public space, the aligning of the fountain, and the moving of the dog runs, among others. These issues are not addressed in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement in any substantive fashion. Nonetheless, it contains guidelines within it that they ask the Parks Department to adhere to. (I’ll report back on that another day.)

Basically, the Gerson-Quinn Agreement followed the principle of ‘ask what you think you can get, vs. what you want.’ (Many would argue they just stayed cozily in line with what Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wanted.)

************************************************************

I think the Community Board could get some traction on this issue of the public space around the Fountain.

… Stay tuned… there’s more!

*This WSPTF meeting took place July 17th, 2008.

**Go to Part II here.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Park” — City’s Plans call for 23 percent reduction in “public space” around Washington Sq Park Fountain


Figures don’t lie. But a lot of liars figure.

The NYC Parks Department figures that the “new and improved” Washington Square Park will have just as much public space as the old one. But let’s check the figures:

* The EXISTING entire plaza is currently 51,223 square feet.

* The PROPOSED plaza area will be 39,419 square feet.

That’s an 11,804 square foot reduction, right in their official plans.

* The old and expansive interior plaza was 27,650 square feet.

* The PROPOSED interior plaza will be 20,662 square feet.

Who’s lying? Who’s figuring?

It was a lie when George Vellonakis, the new plan’s “designer,” told the Community that the reduction in public space would be five percent.

The shrinking of the public space in Washington Square Park has a tremendous impact on how it will be used, which in turn impacts on the character of the park. Who gathers there? HOW will they gather? And how will the new, constricted space be regulated?

Will musicians need official approval? Will performers and political speak-outs be required to obtain a permit? Will the free spirit of the Park be shredded and destroyed?

Maybe that’s Mayor Bloomberg’s whole point.

* Recycled Entry * Originally Published March 17th, 2008 *

*********************************************************************

WSP Blog NOTE:The reduction of public space at Washington Square Park – and a mandate to increase it – is something the Community Board could still address as well as NYC Council Member Alan Gerson and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

Community Board 2 Washington Sq Park Task Force Meets Thurs. July 17th

After a long hiatus, Community Board 2’s Washington Square Park Task Force meets this coming Thursday, July 17th, at 6:30 p.m. NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, Room 520 (ID Required). I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that it’s being held in an NYU Building (although it would be more reassuring if it was in a different location).

This is the agenda, as posted on Community Board 2’s web site:

1. Status report on phase 1 construction.
2. Status report on phase 2 planning and design, including initial report on dog run design.
3. Status report on comfort station and maintenance building planning.

4. Design of playgrounds including “mounds” area.

When I encountered Council Member Alan Gerson at the City Council Parks Department Budget Hearing in May, he alerted me that the Task Force could weigh in on the pathways and design elements (planters, benches, etc.) which are clearly already underway at the Park. And not just the playgrounds and the “mounds.” (I would call Council Member Gerson’s office to clarify this but, as his office does not return my phone calls, I have no way of getting his take on this.)

Is that not so? None of the items on this agenda seem to have any empowering aspects to them or any regulation over the look or design of the park. (For those who have been entrenched in this issue for the long haul, I realize that may sound naive.) It’s not the playgrounds that are going to change the entire character of the Park.

What do we want this Task Force to be doing? What should the Community Improvement District be asking for? The Community Board has a tendency to shirk back and then attribute this to their “advisory” status (which is also used as an excuse for not taking stronger positions), now it’s time for them to step forward.

What is up with Community Board 2? Approves NYU’s demolition plans for 133-139 MacDougal Street / Provincetown Playhouse despite widespread community disapproval

Manhattan Community Board 2 voted 37-1 (with 2 abstentions) to approve NYU’s proposal to demolish 133-139 MacDougal Street, the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments.

Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation(GVSHP) noted, at last week’s general meeting(June 19), speaker after speaker spoke out against NYU’s demolition plans and ONLY NYU and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer‘s office spoke in favor of demolishing the Provincetown Playhouse and yet the Community Board voted with them.

Who exactly does the Community Board represent?

After NYU’s initial plans to totally demolish the historic Playhouse were revealed, heated protest caused the University to back down – somewhat. According to GVSHP, NYU “did agree to preserve the four walls and entry facade of the theater portion of the building, although NYU originally claimed there was nothing worth preserving about the theater.”

The Real Deal, a real estate blog, wrote about the history of the building:

“The building, originally four separate townhouses, was combined in the early 1940s. In 1916, the Provincetown Players, including playwright Eugene O’Neill, called 139 Macdougal Street home, and two years later moved three houses down to its current home at 133 Macdougal. The Players, famous for experimental theater, book-ended the four houses with fellow radicals living in between them.

In the early 1900s, the Washington Square Bookshop promoted modern literature at 135 Macdougal. Next door at 137 Macdougal stood the Liberal Club, the self-proclaimed ‘Meeting Place for Those Interested in New Ideas,’ whose famous members included Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Margaret Sanger.”

The article notes that, “… the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation deemed [the location] eligible for historic preservation this week.” NYU’s plans include a new building “with two extra floors to be used by its School of Law.”

Andrew Berman, head of GVSHP, commented: “Unfortunately there seem to be a little too much eagerness [by the Community Board] to accommodate NYU at the expense of our neighborhood’s history and character.”

Then, if you look at their track record on Washington Square Park, Community Board 2 voted twice in favor of the “renovation” of Washington Square Park again despite widespread community disapproval.

The Board eventually rescinded their approval when the New York City Parks Department’s lack of transparency and withholding of information became impossible to ignore.

That being said, neither Community Board Chair Brad Hoylman, nor NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, seem to remember that the “approval” was rescinded. The Community Board chairs are often seen featured in photos with Commissioner Benepe and the BID (Business Improvement District) members holding checks towards the Park’s redesign.

So, who exactly does the Community Board represent?