More from the NYC Parks Commissioner! — On Washington Sq Park and WSP Blog Concerns

A follow-up letter from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to me in response to my letter of February 13th. We’ve had a bit of a back-and-forth. It’s true that the Parks Commissioner and I are most likely never going to agree on many aspects of the redesign – and the history of the redesign – of Washington Square Park. I have a few thoughts in response to this, but first, his letter which I’ve posted below:

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

April 7, 2009

Dear Ms. Swan:

Thank you again for your correspondence about the renovation of Washington Square Park. It seems there are a number of points where we will have to agree to disagree. We may never come to an understanding on what is or is not public space (I would argue the entire park is public space), how to define a renovation versus a “spruce up,” a spear versus a ball and whether or not the Parks Department has been responsive to community concerns.

Many aspects of the renovation you wish to “come to an agreement” on were settled long ago. In fact, your request to change aspects of the renovation that have already been completed or that are currently under construction is nearly impossible to grant at this point. The fountain plaza is very close to completion and the fence is already installed. After the February 4th Washington Square Park Task Force meeting, the Parks Department made additional changes.

When Washington Square Park is completed I am confident that it will continue to be a vibrant, eclectic gathering and performance space for Villagers, students and visitors and I truly believe you will enjoy the restored park.

Thank you for your support and interest in Parks.

Sincerely,

Adrian Benepe

On the Performance Area in Phase II Redesign – “Garibaldi Plaza”

(Updated)

WSP Blog reader Elton wrote in yesterday with the following comment in relation to my post on the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing last week. He raises some good points:

“Praise be to Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz for her stand in redirecting the Phase II design proposals toward stated community needs. Another community need I feel is getting very short shrift in Phase II is the PERFORMANCE STAGE. Its design and location should be restudied, especially in the light of potentially expanding long-range uses of the park, and in line with the recommendations envisioned by many park-use evaluations. For instance, in past seasons, attending musical performances at Teen Plaza, one must contend with competition from being seated in the middle of a crossroads, limited stage area, no accoustical baffles or wind (or even slight, provisional weather) protection, etc., and Phase II envisions even more compromised conditions. Why can’t a STATE OF THE ART PERFORMANCE STAGE be insisted on as a FOCUS and (geometric, if that’s the winning buzzword) FEATURE of that axis of the park, not a badly-served and watered-down afterthought? Wouldn’t this be an essential part of a long-range plan to underscore the park’s continued and expanding viability as a performance venue?”

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

Thoughts?

WSP Blog Note: I can’t say I have a clear idea of what exactly is happening to the performance area, the here-to-fore (oops. I mean from here on) renamed Garibaldi Plaza, but I do know the Washington Square Music Festival stated that they were worried about sight lines, the size of the stage, the height of the stage, the fact that there is no railing, and no real back stage. While I think they could have argued more forcefully for what they want, the other side of this is, that, though they are well regarded and historically connected to the space, they only use the stage about five times a year. I’ve heard that other performers, such as “street” performers, may not want a railing although, for any body’s usage, the stage does seem too low. I gather people will be able to just sit on the stage and use that as a “public space.”

So… what is the “every day” use of this space? Will there be more professional performances – and which should the Park be oriented to? … Although I’m sure no matter how you slice it, this area’s design should be reconsidered.

Coming Monday: More Dialogue with NYC’s Parks Commissioner Re: Washington Sq Park and More on the Park’s Opening!

Check back Monday for more dialogue between WSP Blog and the NYC Parks Commissioner. Plus … more on the re-opening of Washington Square Park‘s long-under-construction (over a year) NorthWest Quadrant, including the Fountain and Plaza!

Landmarks Preservation Commission Approves Phase II of WSP Redesign; NYC Parks Department agrees to increase # of alcoves

What follows are some of the highlights from yesterday’s (April 14) Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, a continuation of the
March 17th public hearing
, scheduled to determine what the future holds for Phase II of Washington Square Park’s redesign by New York City’s Parks Department. So here goes…

* The number of seating alcoves in the Park

There’s actually some good news. Which is that the New York City Parks Department, responding to the calls from Council Member Alan Gerson, Community Board 2, and impassioned park goers to keep their hands off Washington Square Park‘s popular seating alcoves, increased the number in their plan from two to four. The Park currently has six. So, that’s … something.

The Parks Department, represented by Charles McKinney and designer George Vellonakis, started out stating that they were prepared to add one or two more alcoves to the originally proposed two. However, they preferred three. George Vellonakis said that ideally a fourth would be omitted because its location inside the Park lawn on the (south) east side “distracts the view and expansion of the lawn.” The other reasons given by Mr. Vellonakis for omitting that fourth alcove were possible damage to surrounding tree roots and that that area in the new design undergoes a “geometry change.”

At first, Robert Tierney, LPC chair, advocated for the 3 alcoves as he believed that was the Parks Department’s “preference.” The Parks Department stated that the fourth alcove would be very small and “intimate” but how small I’m not sure.

Thankfully, the heroine of the meeting, Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz, stood her ground and argued repeatedly for the fourth. She said, “There was a lot of controversy about the redesign – for many legitimate reasons. This park evolved with many layers of change and use which took it away from the original more pristine design. This park is not like Gramercy Park. The park evolved with the neighborhood.” She also said, “I’m not concerned if a piece of lawn is taken away. It’s about how the park is used and the weight of its importance and use outweighs the difficulty of it intruding on [tree] roots.”

It was Ms. Brandes Gratz’s persistence and unwavering that convinced the rest of the Commissioners of the importance of the four (vs. three) alcoves. The inclusion of these four adds to (and maintains) the Park’s charm and uniqueness and gives us a bit of a break from all the symmetry of Phase I.

* Increased seating? Depends what year within the Park’s history you base this on

The Parks Department claims that seating is being “increased by 37%.” George Vellonakis stated that there are currently 355 benches and there will be 487 benches in the newly designed version. (These numbers do not include benches being added into the new alcoves.) However, Park advocate Jonathan Greenberg walked with me around the park recently and he informed me that the Parks Department has been consistently removing benches over the years. (Why…? I don’t know.)

So, to truly determine what the increase would be, you’d have to calculate from an older number of existing benches from a previous year (1970 perhaps?).

In fact, if you walk around each alcove as well as the Northeast corner where the picnic tables are, you will see iron or metal ‘holders’ on the ground that indicate where the benches previously were located that have been removed. (I’m going to write a separate post on this.)

* The Stage – Garibaldi Plaza – Shrunken, Relocated, No Guardrail but Approved

The performance area – the newly named Garibaldi Plaza (previously “Teen Plaza”) – was very quickly discussed at the meeting and it’s unclear to me if any changes were made from the previous version shown. The stage is moving and shrinking and has no guardrails and basically no backstage, if it’s the same version last presented.

Again, Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz asked pointed questions such as “you moved the stage because…?” and “Is it better than the old stage?” and “Will you have a backstage?” To this last question, George Vellonakis said that the “[performance] groups will assemble in this pathway” and pointed to an area that I could not see from where I was. (I left Mr. Vellonakis a message to clarify and will update if I receive the answer.)

I think there may be a plan for a temporary railing to prevent the conductor or performers from, um, falling off the stage.

The Washington Square Music Festival testified at the last meeting calling for approval of the plan while simultaneously expressing their disapproval. Although this group only uses the area about five times a year, they are considered sort of the arbiter of the space, so their lukewarm “support” in a sense sealed the deal.

* The Vote – Plan Approved

Before the vote, another LPC Commissioner Christopher Moore referred to the testimony given at the March 17th hearing as “heartfelt and passionate” and intimated that that testimony should be respected. He also said he liked the addition of the fourth alcove because it added to the Park’s “idiosyncratic quality.”

The plan was approved unanimously with the intention that the lights, fence, and pathways will be restored in keeping with Phase I’s work, the stage will be moved and reconfigured, and that there will be four seating alcoves retained within the Park.

* The Past is Our Future

But, of course, it was the first set of Landmarks Preservation Commission hearings in May 2005 where the crucial decisions were made to approve the sweeping changes proposed by the Parks Department to reconfigure Washington Square Park.

It is widely alleged, that, at that time, the Commissioners were pressured by Mayor Bloomberg’s office to go along with an approval and information was leaked to the New York Times in advance that they were going to do so. An article appeared in the Times the morning of the critical vote signaling the Commission would be going along with the Parks Department’s plan.

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

* Video here of Q&A from the original Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing – May 10, 2005 by Matt Davis (who directed the work-in-progress documentary “SQUARE: Straightening Out Washington Square Park”). New York State Supreme Court Judge Emily Jane Goodman later ruled that “essential elements of the Parks Department’s plans … were not adequately revealed to Community Board 2 or the Landmarks Commission…”

Washington Square Park Redesigned Quadrant Set to Open In May?

Curbed reports that Washington Square Park’s Northwest Quadrant – which includes the Fountain Plaza, under construction for oh-so-long, after much aligning – will reopen the second week of May! Can it be? Seems possible.

(Oh, and if you feel like commenting over there, I don’t know who those people are but they just don’t get it. I still love Curbed! Just some pieces really bring out the worst tendencies in people.)

Landmarks Preservation Commission Resumes Discussion on Phase II of NYC’s Redesign Plans for Washington Square Park on Tuesday, April 14th

Updated…

On Tuesday, April 14th, 11:15 a.m., the Landmarks Preservation Commission resumes discussion on Washington Square Park and whether to approve Phase II of the NYC Park’s Department’s Plans.

For a recap of what happened at the public hearing on March 17th at which the LPC decided they needed to schedule another meeting to discuss and review the Parks Department’s controversial plans, see previous WSP Blog entry here.

If you’d like to attend, they suggest arriving 10:30 a.m. Update: there will be no public testimony this time around. (I’m not sure if it’s necessary to be there so early if there is no public testimony.)

Location: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1 Centre Street @ Chambers, 9th floor, Manhattan

Trains: 2, 3, 4, 5, N, R, J, M, Z (Centre-Chambers Streets, City Hall-Brooklyn Bridge stops)

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

Some other news: I heard from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe again. More on that in the next few days.

Landmarks Preservation Commission Public Hearing on Washington Square Park on Tuesday, February 17th * How will City’s presentation to LPC differ from bare bones presentation given to Community Board 2?

Strawberry Fields, Central Park (Designated Scenic Landmark 1974)

Strawberry Fields, Central Park (Designated Scenic Landmark 1974)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing Tuesday, February 17th around the Parks’ Department’s plans for Phase II of Washington Square Park redesign. If you’d like to see the plans, they are available as of today (February 12th) at the LPC.

The New York City Parks Department via landscape designer George Vellonakis showed some minimal “before-and-after” drawings of the plan to the Washington Square Park Task Force/Community Board 2 Parks Committee at their meeting last week (February 4).

Of course, it is nothing new for the Parks Department to try to ‘get away’ with presenting the bare minimum (and obscuring certain facts and figures) but will the Community Board or Task Force at last object?

The aspects of the park being altered in Phase II include:

– “Teen Plaza”/Garibaldi Plaza – reworking of the area and new stage (reduced in height and size)

– Removal of a number of the seating alcoves (one and a half is being preserved out of six)

-Reworking of the pathways in the park

-Reconfiguring (reduction) of the Northeast and Southwest “Plazas”

* According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission web site:

How does the Community Board participate in the Public Hearing Process?

[Applicant – in this case City of New York-Parks Department] must present your proposal to your local Community Board before the LPC public hearing. Typically you will appear before the Community Board’s Landmarks Committee; your presentation should be the same one that you use for the LPC. The Committee will then make a recommendation to the full Board, which will send a letter to the LPC stating that the Board supports, opposes or recommends modifications to the application. Failure to appear before the Community Board may result in a negative recommendation from the Board, and can delay the LPC’s final decision on your proposal.

Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman says the Community Board is working on a resolution which will be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday. It is unclear if that will be a resolution from : the Washington Square Park Task Force? Community Board 2 as a whole? the Parks Committee of CB2? the Landmarks Committee of CB2 ? All of the above?

Mr. Hoylman also informed me that although the Landmarks Committee did not have its own presentation of the plan (it was on the committee’s agenda, and then subsequently removed) – and was not included in the February 4th meeting – that the committee has members who are also part of the Parks Committee (who will give input). I am unclear if that suffices. I was told by a member of the Landmarks Committee that typically when an applicant comes before the committee, the committee is shown: architectural renderings, examples of materials to be used, example of railings and how they are going to join, etc.

In other words, much more detail.

Since the Parks Department only showed minimal information at the Washington Square Park Task Force meeting on February 4th, will they be showing additional information to the Landmarks Preservation Commission? If so, is that acceptable to the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2?

If you plan to speak at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, please consider orienting your comments to the historical, cultural, and aesthetic aspects of the park’s design plan.

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

Details: Tuesday, February 17th, time tbd(to be announced Friday, February 13th), Landmarks Preservation Commission Public Hearing on Washington Square Park Next Phase Redesign, 1 Centre Street (at Chambers), 9th floor, Manhattan

Materials available for Public Viewing in advance as of today, Thursday, February 12th.

Trains: 2, 3, 4, 5, N, R, J, M, Z (Centre-Chambers Streets, City Hall-Brooklyn Bridge stops)

I will update with the time once announced.

Photo: Wally G