Washington Sq Park Task Force to focus on Children’s Playground at Meeting Wed. Jan. 7th

A planned follow-up to the December 3rd Washington Square Park Task Force/Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting focusing on the renovation of the large children’s playground will be held this Wednesday, January 7th. This part of the project is actually a renovation and not a dramatic redesign like the rest of the New York City Parks Department’s three phase plan for Washington Square Park. In a refreshing change of pace that hopefully will continue, the Parks Department is attempting to work with the community, in contrast to the situation – to date – with the other element’s of the park’s redesign.

Details: Wednesday, January 7th, 6:30 p.m. Location: NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Pl. Room 520 (I.D. Required).

The designer working on the playground is Chris Crowley, as opposed to Parks Department landscape designer George Vellonakis who has much different, um, style. Crowley was responsible for a renovation plan of the park drafted in the late ’80’s (never completed) – that allegedly received Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board 2 approval – which worked with the existing design that is favored by so many.

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.

Reportback on NYC Parks Dept. Presentation on Next Phases of WSP Redesign — Part II (of III) 12/3 Meeting

washington sq park as it 'was'

washington sq park as it 'was'

Part II of III (yes, I did say two originally but now it’s three parts!):

My report-back on the New York City Parks Department presentation on the future phases (Phase II and III) of the redesign work at Washington Square Park. This presentation took place at a meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee on Wednesday, December 3rd.

The New York City Parks Department‘s landscape designer George Vellonakis — whose plan informs much of what people are displeased with — was at hand to inform us of the following:

* Teen Plaza / Stage Area … Can you give an inch (or 14)?

The current “Teen Plaza” area (off the Fountain Plaza and near Garibaldi statue) contains the stage which the well-regarded Washington Square Music Festival performs on each summer. Currently, the stage is a standard height of 36″ used for classical music performances and has also worked well for the many uses of this stage throughout the year. The stage in Mr. Vellonakis’ plans was scheduled to be 22″. Although it was requested by the Music Festival and others that the stage be 36″-48″, the Parks Department gave an inch. Well… seven inches, and is scheduled to make the stage 29 inches high, still under a traditional professional stage height.

No Handrails — There is no railing or handrails in the new design around the stage and it was a concern to the director of the Music Festival that the conductor might …well… fall off. When asked, Mr. Vellonakis informed the audience at the meeting that a temporary barrier/rail with rope could be installed for performances. (The current stage has a railing.)

Children’s Tiles — There are numerous tiles on the elevated area of the “Teen Plaza” designed by neighborhood children and installed at some point in the last 30 years. Mr. Vellonakis seemed more than happy to not have to deal with them, informing the audience members that they could be “salvaged” and “reused somewhere else.” (The likely choice, suggested by Mr. Vellonakis, was the renovated playground – not under his jurisdiction – which is being handled by Chris Crowley.)

* Mr. Vellonakis said that people could sit on the steps of the “amphitheater” (apparently part of the design for the stage) “all the time” and that does sound like a nice feature.

* Seating Alcoves — Parks Dept: You like them? Too bad. “So far we’ve decided not to include them.”

If you walk through Washington Square Park, one aspect of the park’s charm is the sweet seating alcoves which grace the edges of the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern borders. People read, perform music, chat together, study in these little nooks of the park. They are not “aligned”… they are not “straight lines” … they are not “symmetrical” … they do not create “viewing corridors” … so one could imagine that they are not viewed by George Vellonakis as pertinent to his design.

However, the community likes them. The WSP Task Force issued a strong recommendation to the Parks Department from the last meeting in July that the seating alcoves be left in the park’s new design. The answer – at the meeting, when asked – to this by Bill Castro (Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner): “So far, the Parks Department has decided not to include them.”

It is essential that these areas be saved or else it’s just another way that this space will become the blandest, most symmetrical, uncharacteristically formal park one could imagine.

* When GreenWashing isn’t a strong enough term

Environmentalists are more than familiar with the term “green washing.” I have done a lot of work on environmental issues, but I also greatly see the value of public space and I don’t think the two — “green space” vs. “public space” — should be pitted against each other. Washington Square Park has a lot of lawn space as it is. If maintained, you might notice it more.

And yet Mr. Vellonakis insists on reducing the public space in order to add MORE lawn, thereby ignoring and eliminating what is great about Washington Square Park. So he speaks of the “great big green space we created,” “trying to get more green,” adding “sweeping plantings” and “sweeping of perennials.” In this case, greenery is being used to pacify the space.

Part III will cover dog runs, the Mounds, the playground, Conservancy, bathrooms, the Plazas, and anything else I haven’t covered thus far!

NYC Parks Department Presentation on Next Phases of WSP Redesign — Reportback from December 3rd Meeting (Part I of II)

Last Washington Square Park Task Force Meeting that occurred (in July), I reported back with an 8 part series. I’m going to stick to the most important and pressing points in reporting back on this meeting which occurred Wednesday, December 3rd.

This meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee was chaired by Community Board 2 Chair (and WSP Task Force co-chair) Brad Hoylman.

Featuring a Parks Department presentation by George Vellonakis (the landscape designer responsible for the “plan” for WSP being put forward), it also included a few words interspersed from Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, WSP Administrator Rebecca Ferguson, and Chris Crowley (whose title I am not certain of) who is overseeing the playground renovation.

The most important aspects revealed were:

* Cost of Project

The projected cost of the Washington Square Park Redesign project is now nowhere near its initial budgeted $16 Million but is looming large at $27 Million.

Phase I (currently being completed) is costing $14 Million (originally projected at $6 Million); Phase II is now projected at $8 Million, and Phase III (sometimes referred as Phase IIB which contains the bathrooms and Parks offices) is now projected at $5 Million. Of course, the future phases II and II are most likely under-estimated at this point so it’s likely we can expect the total project to be at least $35 Million.

* “Gerson-Quinn” Agreement … Not really An Agreement

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Council Member Alan Gerson (WSP falls in his district) like to talk about an “agreement” (the so-called “Gerson-Quinn Agreement) they have with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe which allegedly resolves “the outstanding major issues” the community had with the Washington Square Park redesign plan. (Note: it never really did but it’s nice to have some illusion of someone working to resolve the issues and it seemingly made a few gains.)

But, that bubble was burst when the Parks Department admitted at the meeting that it thinks no such agreement exists.

Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro informed me when I asked why the new fencing contains “decorative spears” in direct violation of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” (which stipulated that there BE no decorative spears), that “there is no agreement.”

News to anyone who has listened to Gerson and Quinn’s rhetoric about this in the context of all the gains they “won” for the community. Representatives for Council Members Gerson and Quinn – present at the meeting – were silent.

* Artificial Turf Appears Anywhere Commissioner Benepe can find a spot for it

Parks Commissioner Benepe continues to sadly advocate for artificial turf (more on that tomorrow).

* Grand Reduction in Public Space No Myth

The public space is being dramatically reduced and not just around the fountain which gets a 25% reduction but around the chess tables… around the north east corner and, on the edges of the park, with the removal (currently planned but which hopefully will be reversed) of the wonderful seating alcoves currently on the north east, eastern, and southeast sides. (Note: I am advocating for all of the above to be reversed.)

* When Will Phase I (NorthWest Quadrant) Open?

The redesigned northwest quadrant — which includes the Fountain area — will open “sometime in the new year” – fairly vague.

More on this tomorrow when Part II appears.

It’s not just a Task Force Meeting, it’s a Parks Department “Presentation” on Next Phase of its WSP Redesign – Tonite, December 3rd

I reported last week that the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee were meeting Wednesday, December 3rd. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this meeting would also include an NYC Parks Department “presentation” on Phase II of the Washington Square Park redesign. This should be rich. I mean, of course, worth seeing.

According to the Community Board 2 web site, the meeting will include: “Public comment on a presentation by the Parks Dept. of design elements for Washington Square Park Reconstruction Phase II, including paths and seating and the ‘mounds’.”

Details:

Wednesday, December 3rd @ 6:30 PM (Tonite!)

Church of Our Lady of Pompeii (Father Demo Hall), 25 Carmine Street, between Bedford and Bleecker, Manhattan.

Trains: A,B,C,D,E,F to West 4th Street/Washington Square (exit at West 3rd)

** Note: Here is what I think can still be done (changed) in the next phase; here are the main points:

1. No Conservancy

2. Preserve the Seating Alcoves Along the Northern, Eastern and Southeastern Edges of the Park.

3. Increase back the Public Space around the Fountain coming in from the East Side.

4. Save the Park’s Trees – Work them into the design.

5. Get rid of the “decorative speared” fencing and (while at it) bring back the lower height.

6. Save the “Teen Plaza” and maintain (don’t reduce – the reduction makes no sense for performers) the height of the performance stage.

It’s time for the Parks Department to be fiscally responsible and, as a City agency, accountable to New Yorkers.

Oh, and I’d love to see the Washington Square Park Task Force meet just to meet on its own and not based on the New York City Parks Department’s call to order.

Washington Square Park Task Force to Meet ! Wednesday, Dec. 3rd

WSP Blog readers know that I’ve had some critique of the Washington Square Park Task Force, a body presently under the aegis of Community Board 2 which is also comprised of members of the public, the Community Board, and representatives of elected officials.

The elected officials represented on the Task Force are: Congressman Jerold Nadler, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Alan Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick.

The WSP Task Force is supposed to be the body that follows up on the (admittedly tepid) Gerson-Quinn Agreement and the “stipulations” put forth in that letter dated October 6, 2005 from Gerson and Quinn to NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe which mildly attempts to monitor some aspects of the Washingon Square Park redesign allegedly in the interest of the community.

The WSPTF meets infrequently. Understandably, to some degree, no one feels they have true license to monitor the NYC Parks Department since it is almost a rogue operation at this point. However, there are some great people on the Task Force who would like to push the envelope a bit and defend this dynamic, historic public space and this should only be encouraged.

An example of the NYC Parks Department’s non-compliance with the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement:” the 4 foot fence currently being installed with “decorative spears” on top does not comply with the “Agreement” and yet this has apparently not been addressed by anyone, either on Speaker Quinn’s or Council Member Gerson’s staff or by anyone on the Washington Square Park Task Force.

Nonetheless, the fact that they are meeting is a good thing.

Here are the details:

Washington Sq Park Task Force and Community Bd. 2 Parks Committee Meeting

Wednesday, December 3rd, 6:30 p.m.

Our Lady of Pompeii Church (Father Demo Hall). 25 Carmine Street @ Bleecker Street, Manhattan

* To read the purported goals of the WSP Task Force, go here.

Part II: What Needs to be Done to Have a Functioning Washington Sq Park Task Force? #1: Separate from Community Bd 2

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

I’ve been grappling with how to tackle addressing the Washington Square Park Task Force following Part I last week in which I listed its purported “goals” and the NY elected officials who have actual representatives on it. I listened to audio tape of a meeting from July 2007. I attended the July 2008 meeting. I’ve spoken to members of the Task Force. The Task Force has a lot of good people on it who from the beginning wanted to have an impact but as Fusun Ateser, a member of the Task Force, told me recently, “we were not allowed to do anything.”‘

Task Force Linkage to Community Board 2

Part of the problem I believe is the close linkage of the WSP Task Force to Community Board 2. Presently, Brad Hoylman, Community Board 2 Chair is the co-chair of the Task Force with CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman. There are many capable people on the WSP Task Force – it does not need to be led by the Community Board.

Community Board 2 has already made its own share of mistakes around Washington Square Park — notably, approving the Parks Department’s redesign plan twice with insufficient data and despite widespread community disapproval. They ultimately rescinded their approvalalbeit on the third try.

There needs to be an independent body monitoring what’s happening at this Park and – barring some other organization appearing – that ought to be the Washington Square Park Task Force but not in its present incarnation.

At meetings, Mr. Hoylman and Mr. Bergman are adamant that the Task Force was only created to uphold the Gerson-Quinn “letter.” While others on the Task Force seem ready to go further, they are continually reined in by (Community Board 2 co-chairs) Hoylman and Bergman. In July ’07, when people tried to make resolutions, Mr. Hoylman stated that he “wanted to be sure it doesn’t resemble a Community Board resolution.” Therefore, resolutions were not allowed.

What would a Functioning Body look like?

I’ve seen how groups can function well – and also not function well. I believe the Task Force needs to be taken out of the hands of Community Board 2. We need people to continue fighting for this park. The people who comprise the WSP Task Force feel they have no power. This is a historic park. It is a landmark in New York City. It is a dynamic public space. It deserves to have people fighting for it – who will fight for it.

Problems with Washington Square Park Re-Design not caught by WSP Task Force

Example: The lamps in the park. I asked Ms. Atessur if the Task Force was ever shown two different lamps (which was supposed to be done – the Task Force has oversight on design “details”) and asked for their approval on them. She replied no. When I asked Brad Hoylman if they approved the choice of the lamps, he told me he thought so but never got back to me with a confirmation. The lamps being installed presently do not fit the character of the park. If they were not approved by the Washington Square Park Task Force, then what is the Task Force doing? This is part of their charge. Clearly, either the two co-chairs have too much on their plate or cannot give this proper attention. Control of the WSP Task Force needs to be removed from their hands.

Example: The fence. The fence (coming in is 4 feet high, as opposed to the more welcoming 3 feet that exists currently) is not supposed to have decorative spears or points on top (this is actually stated in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement). And yet – it does. (See photo above.) Is anyone looking after this? Isn’t this important?

There needs to be a point person from the Washington Square Park Task Force walking through that park regularly and monitoring each aspect. There needs to be a point person talking to the Parks Department. Now, unfortunately, if Council Member Alan Gerson is the designated elected official you go to if you are not getting answers from the Parks Department, then you may be in trouble because he will not rock the boat. But at least get the boat in the water!

Note: I am going to send this information to every elected official listed as involved with the Washington Square Park Task Force.

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Top photo (fence being installed): Cathryn/WSP Blog
Bottom photo (girl with guitar sitting on fence): Louis Seigal

Part I on The Washington Square Park Task Force – What is it and what are its stated “goals?”

The Washington Square Park Task Force was put into play by NY City Council Member Alan Gerson and NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (both of whom, if you weren’t aware, voted to extend their own terms in the whole term limits fiasco).

The WSP Task Force is supposed to be the body that follows up on the tepid Gerson-Quinn Agreement and the “stipulations” put forth in that letter dated October 6, 2005 from Gerson-Quinn to NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

The WSPTF is run presently under the aegis of Community Board 2 but it is also comprised of members of the public, the Community Board, and representatives of elected officials.

The elected officials represented on the Task Force are: Congressman Jerold Nadler, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Council Member Alan Gerson, State Senator Tom Duane, and Assembly Member Deborah Glick.

Co-chaired by Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman and CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman, the Washington Square Park Task Force meets infrequently and it is unclear how and when certain decisions are made. Yet it is the only body that has been given some jurisdiction (in theory) over the Parks Department and the outcome of the redesigned Washington Square Park.

Therefore, the hope would be that it would have some teeth and it would be in there fighting for this dynamic and historic public space. But is it?

Goals of the Washington Square Park Task Force:

I have an undated document which stipulates the goals as such:

1. Make sure all points of Quinn-Gerson agreement are adhered to.

2. All bid documents, all changes of plans, and all design details should be run by task force.

3. Enable the community to have input on design details.

4. Maintain the sense of informality of the park which is so central to its charm and character.

5. Maintain Washington Square Park as a well maintained, diverse, plural park where all sorts of people feel welcome.

6. Maintain as much green space as open to the public as possible while keeping it alive.

7. Maintain as many of the trees as possible.

8. Create conditions which allow funding of bathroom renovation.

9. Step up maintenance pending the resolution of the legal issues.

10. Oppose the establish of a conservancy without a good deal of public vetting.

So how has the WSP Task Force done thus far on these stated “goals” and what are the inherent problems with it?

Part II will explore this next.