A writer from Scotland asks: What’s up with the WSP “portaloos”?

“Portaloos” in front of closed off old restroom building

Received this letter in the InBox yesterday:

Hi!,

I’ m  just back to scotland from a week in new york spending most of my time in greenwich village and therefore a lot of time in washington square park.

I just wanted to comment on how disgusting the portaloos are that are there temporarily while a new comfort station is built.

While portaloos might be a good idea,they should surely be kept cleaner. I used one once but would not go near them again. At least being a guy i didn’t have to sit down while using it.

I am a regular visitor to the city. God knows what first time tourists make of them.

I just wondered what you thought.

John A Learmonth.

I told Mr. Learmonth that I hadn’t used the bathrooms pre-redesign at WSP* (they really were in horrendous condition) and I don’t quite see myself venturing into the “portaloos,” especially now reading this account of how “disgusting” they are and apparently in need of more maintenance (something I’m certain is not fun to do).

Oh, and how about “portaloos?” Is that the perfect word? Apparently what they call them in Scotland. Our U.S. version “Port-o-potties” so pales in comparison.

It was a fight to get the portaloos there; there were no plans for them initially and then the Parks Department agreed to it and three very functional looking units arrived (CallAhead, they beckon). Reading an article recently about the glamourous perhaps overdone new $2 million rest rooms at Elmhurst Park, it was stated that they had “portable toilets” while the “edgy design” was being constructed. It didn’t sound like it had been an issue.

Anyway, has anyone else used them? Comments?

If you’re wondering what the new bathrooms at WSP will look like when Phase III construction is completed, the architectural plans call for an ivy-covered, trellis-topped “pergola.”

*Oh, and a tip of my top choices of nearby restrooms: Think Coffee, Lifethyme Natural Market, and even sometimes Starbucks Sixth Avenue.

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New “Mounds” at Washington Square Park Taking Shape – but in what form?


The somewhat controversial “Mounds” at Washington Square Park are starting to take some shape in the Southwestern mid-section of the park. Originally part of Phase II of the park’s redesign, they were moved into Phase III construction, going on now. I’ve always been a little confused by the Mounds — as I indicated in this post from 2008 — but I also respected the passionate ‘fight’ for them, what they offered and perhaps also represented to people with a longer history at the park.

I suspect, however, that they are becoming “cable-net play” structures and less “the Mounds” (which were also referred to as “the three hills”). There’s not really anyone overseeing what’s going on; the people who had been fighting for them with former Council Member Alan Gerson have long been silent.

What will be the end result be? It will be interesting to see. It would be great if Community Board 2 stepped in and asked for an update now that there is a new Parks Committee chair! (At last! Rich Caccappolo, who I do not know, has replaced Tobi Bergman, who had been Parks Committee chair for way too long.)

The Mounds are supposed to remain six feet high. This photo represents a ‘first look’ but doesn’t really look like they are going in that direction. Also, unfortunately, despite protest, they will be covered in artificial turf.

In the video that’s linked to below, one Mounds’ advocate states, “They are places of spontaneous play which is different from play equipment which sort of mandates play. The Mounds allow spontaneous play, discovery, risk taking, all the things that are part of growing up.”

It seems to me they are being turned into the opposite of this and will be “play equipment.” It would be good if there was some actual tracking of what the final result will be (before it is too late).

Go here to read this refresher on the Mounds; originally published December 16, 2008: What’s Up with the Mounds? Why People Like Them.
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Also, this links to another video of the Mounds being used for sleigh riding a few years back and is very sweet.

Washington Square, Sunday: Mystery Atop the Arch, Phase III Construction Continues, Obscured from View, More

As I wrote earlier, I’d been in San Francisco. Here are some ‘snapshots’ from yesterday. Most perplexing: what is protruding from the top of the Arch?

A first look

the thing atop the Arch… another view

Wider view…

another view… (there’s a small bird there checking it out)

fenced off construction area

Interesting. The fence cordoning off Phase III construction has been draped with green plastic sheeting to obscure public view. Was this a decision of the contractor? the Parks Department? This was not the case during Phase II or Phase I. It’s not a terrible idea but it makes me wonder. Also there are no official signs indicating what is being done (as is traditionally the case).

southern end encased fencing

inside the construction zone

A last look at park buildings before demolition

A pigeon tried to land on this light and diverted his course and that’s when I noticed..

this…

shattered light, fountain plaza

Rain, the Fountain Plaza


(This post was amended from an earlier version.)

At the Park: There WILL be bathrooms while Phase III is under way, NY Dosas is here, and more

“port-o-potties” have arrived in front of ‘old’ bathroom location

In the wake of the news that there would be no replacement bathrooms while the existing rest rooms were under renovation during Phase III, the Community and park goers’ reaction was outrage. Well, kudos to the Parks Department (and I don’t get to say that often enough)– in this instance, they listened and responded. It’s hard to get too excited about portable toilets (although it was also hard to be enthusiastic about the state of the bathrooms as they were*) and I’m not sure if there could have been a better solution but … hey… it’s something. Three “port-o-potties” have appeared outside the location of the previous building.

Relocated park favorite NY Dosas

Vegan – and everyone’s – favorite cart vendor NY Dosas, featuring “South Indian Food,” has moved out a bit further on Washington Square South but he’s still there, construction and all! People were patiently waiting in line for his vegetarian crepes and $1 bottled water.

Vibrant flowers, eastern side.

Lone pigeon amidst the bustling fountain plaza.

* The rest rooms were the phase of the park that pretty much everyone in the community lobbied to be done first – they were in such dire state and falling apart. Now in year four of the redesign construction, they are now being replaced. The Parks Department almost purposefully left them for the very last.

WSP Redesign Phase III begins! No Restrooms for one Year? Asbestos Removal from Old Buildings, “Pergola” and New Mounds on the Way

Securing the new fence

Restrooms off limits for one year…

Tree protection remains inadequate…

At last, Phase III (well, technically IV) of Washington Square Park‘s dramatic, lavish redesign began last week! I’ve been working on updating the site so that’s taken some priority lately. Two park activists informed me on the same day that there will be no use of the park’s bathrooms for ONE YEAR while Phase III is ongoing (strange, eh? that replacement temporary units would not be put into play? Not that the WSP bathrooms have ever been a great priority to the Parks Department). The Villager finally began covering the redesign at this late stage and discovered that there is asbestos being removed from the three buildings that are being replaced. Those three small buildings – the men’s and women’s bathrooms and park administrative office – will all become one housed within a “pergola.” (Envision an upscale suburban train station.) As you can imagine, I attended more than a few meetings about Phase III and the new buildings and strangely (?) no one ever mentioned asbestos.

More to come…

Overview of Phase III

In Jeopardy: Washington Square’s 330 Year Old “Hangman’s” English Elm — Is Improper and Inadequate protection during Park’s recent construction the cause?

The “Hangman’s Elm” — Oldest Living Tree in Manhattan

Branches Cut at Top of Tree

An English Elm is the species of the tree which resides in the NorthWest Quadrant of Washington Square Park, the tree that is largely (and ironically, somewhat fondly) referred to as the “Hangman’s Elm.” Although there are no records of an actual hanging from the tree, at some point, it was given this name and it stuck. Perhaps because it looks so old, so majestic, and so strong, you can certainly imagine a hanging occurring from the tree in the 1800s, a century the tree lived through. In 1989, the Parks Department determined the age of the tree to be 310 years old, making it now 333. It is the oldest known living tree in Manhattan.

I contacted Bronx-based arborist Ralph Padilla to find out more about the English Elm in general, why healthy trees might get stressed, and if the Parks Department’s plan to trim branches of this tree ultimately made sense.

Padilla says that a healthy English Elm has wood so strong that “ordinarily you could hang a school bus from it,” the exception being when it is under stress or has “a defect or hole.”

Recently, Community Board 2 was alerted by the city’s Parks Department about concerns around the state of the tree and a plan to remove some of the majestic Elm’s branches. Community members were greatly concerned. The Parks Department provided this statement as far as their course of action and why:

Parks Department statement on the status of the Washington Square English Elm:

A ground based visual tree inspection and a subsequent aerial climbing inspection of the Washington Square Park English Elm found evidence of decay and strength loss. Approximately 20% of its crown will be removed in stages to reduce the mechanical stress experienced by its stems and branches and avoid the complete removal of the tree. The tree will also be treated against Dutch Elm Disease in the next few weeks.

When I read Padilla the statement the Parks Department gave in relation to the Hangman’s Elm, he said that it sounded “pretty reasonable.” He said if there is concern about “the vulnerability of the branch” which could break off, instead of removing the entire branch, “the strategy is to reduce weight … to prune away a bit. Now, it definitely won’t break.” Given the concerns, he said the way the city agency was proceeding sounded “very good.” As we spoke, he shed light on what might cause the stress the tree was under and that “decay and strength loss.”

Recent Criticism of City’s Parks Department over Maintenance of Trees

Recently, the Parks Department has been heavily criticized for its oversight of the health of the city’s trees resulting in deaths and injuries. On the one hand, great that they caught the problem with the Hangman’s Elm before something serious happened, but, on the other, is something else being ignored? That something is inadequate protection of our city trees during construction projects.

Padilla said, “Ordinarily with an overly mature tree, you never remove any green parts. There is barely enough food to power the entire system.” He said “the real plant food comes from the leaves which convert sunlight and energy into sugars. These sugars are the only real plant food.” (Fascinating!) He didn’t think, given the assessment, that there was much other option than the route they were taking. But I wonder why is the tree in this precarious state?

Protection around park trees during construction “a joke”

When I mentioned the park’s continuous construction and that the branches that were recently removed were at the top of the tree, he said, “When the branches at the top of a tree die off, the problem is in the root area; a disturbance of the root zone. The root zone of this tree would be far reaching – possibly half way across the park.

He continued, “Construction and trees almost never work out because the protection is so half ass. I didn’t see the protection they took but the right protection for this tree would be a chain link fence 30 feet out from the trunk.”

When I explained that the protection consisted of four rickety wood slats right around the trunk of the tree, he said “that’s a joke.”

This is what the “protection” around all the park’s trees during construction has looked like over the last four years, including the Hangman’s Elm:

WSP Tree "Protection" Could Certainly be Improved

WSP Tree “Protection” Could Certainly be Improved (October 2009)

Basically what happens, according to Padilla: “When the roots get damaged, the tree will sacrifice the tippy top to direct energy into the root system in order to make repairs where the roots were damaged.” (Also fascinating!)

Padilla did say that treating the elm for Dutch Elm disease is smart since the insect that is the vector for Dutch Elm Disease is attracted to holes and the cutting of the branches could make the Elm susceptible.

Can we change the city’s practices and prompt appropriate care of our city’s trees?

So, we have to send some good energy to the Hangman’s Elm. Perhaps it can be a lesson. NYC needs to make necessary and major changes in the way our trees are being protected during construction.

The Bloomberg Administration has made much of its “Million Trees” Initiative while not providing funds for the necessary maintenance of these new trees as well as existing ones. It becomes difficult not to believe it’s all a p.r. ploy. Now, we have the situation before us with the 333 year old “Hangman’s Elm” and its decline and it’s impossible not to point to the construction and the fact that necessary precautions have not been taken.

Will the Bloomberg’s Administration’s dramatic redesign of Washington Square Park be the cause of the demise of the oldest known living tree in Manhattan?

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Very cool Time Lapse video from 7:19 p.m. to 9:35 p.m. of the Hangman’s Elm one day in April 2012 from Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel:

* Wikipedia Hangman’s Elm
How to Prevent Additional Trees at Washington Square Park from Dying – Questions Abound WSP Blog, August 23, 2011
* Training to spot Tree Decay is Urged for Parks Workers New York Times, May 31, 2012
* Kristin Jones’ “Behold,” Slated for Arbor Day 2013, Has Eye on Hangmen’s Elm at Washington Square WSP Blog, December 19, 2011

Washington Square News, NYU’s Daily Newspaper, on Chess Plaza Opening

For readers of this blog who are looking for more “positivity” here, here you go.

Washington Square News, NYU’s daily newspaper, reports on the opening of the SouthWest Quadrant,”Fences Come Down at Washington Square Park,” online today. The writer, Emily Yang, interviewed me — she wrote a well done, comprehensive piece and my viewpoint sounds quite positive. (Tho’, I must admit, my more in-depth comments on the project taking so long or about reduction in size of chess plaza were pretty much left out — another park user fills some of that in.)

I’d never really thought about the difference in dynamic the SW entrance to the park offers until I sat down at a chess table the day the plaza opened at last. The writer asked me what I thought this section opening meant to people who visit the park. Here is an excerpt of the piece:

Our goal was to create a renewed sense of space, with a design that restored and upgraded the significant features that make Washington Square Park an iconic destination for New Yorkers and visitors alike,” [Parks Department spokesperson Phil] Abramson said.

Phase III was expected to be completed by winter 2011. But Abramson said the next phase will begin this spring and last for one year. When completed, it will include a large, renovated dog run and park house with a public restroom and space for the maintenance staff.

Cathryn Swan, creator of the Washington Square Park Blog, said the opening of the new area will bring positive results to the community. But she said this phase is long overdue.

Even though the central plaza where the chess tables are has been reduced a lot in size, this section is an important part of the park,” Swan said.

“The southern end has a different feeling, maybe because people are coming from Bleecker and MacDougal where there is a lot going on,” she added. “So it’ll be nice to have a flow again through the park from there.”

Long-time WSP visitor Vince Marchese, 70, said the fences took away from the beauty of the park for too long.

“I would say it looks like an improvement of about 50 percent,” Marchese said. “It’s a nice place to go to, where things happen all the time.”

He said other aspects of the park, including the cleanliness of the existing public restrooms and how often the fountain is turned on, have room for improvement.

Full story at Washington Square News: Fences Come Down at Washington Square Park

Chess Plaza Opened Today!

Remaining Fences Down!

Among the first Chess Players at newly open Chess Plaza

Path looking South

Well, it took 29 months, but, at last, the Chess Plaza and SW Quadrant – Phase II-B of construction at the Park – has opened today!

It feels smaller and a bit less cozy than before. Well, it IS smaller. The Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and I had a bit of a back-and-forth back in February of 2009 about a # of issues related to WSP, including the Chess Plaza being reduced, and he stated the following:

While the overall size of the plaza is being reduced somewhat, the most critical area of the chess plaza is the chess tables, not the center which is generally empty. The renovation will include the same number of tables, but they will be new, better designed and more welcoming to more chess players – and they will be accessible to people with disabilities. There will be plenty of space for onlookers to stand and watch the games. As with the rest of the park, the renovation of the chess area will likely result in greater use, not less.

The difference is that before it didn’t feel so much like a space you just ‘passed through’ which is the feeling now. Things happened in the center which the Parks Commissioner felt was “generally empty” — a space which is now occupied by a flower bed. Perhaps that space that the Parks Commissioner thought was basically useless served a purpose after all?

(Note: Will add in a photo to illustrate!)

At least Phase II is now officially complete! (Of course, parts of the original Phase II moved into Phase III.)

Previously at WSP Blog:

* Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II

* After 29 Months, Will the Final ‘Piece’ of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II Construction – Chess Plaza – Open Tomorrow? March 1, 2012

Almost All Fences Come Down and Yet … Chess Plaza/SW Quadrant Not Open

Fence Remains at Entrance SW Corner

Looking South .. Fence Free

Work on Fixing Blacktop Halted?

Chess Plaza Ready for Action ...

Friday (March 2nd), as I anticipated, many of the fences came down on the SouthWest Quadrant (part of WSP Redesign: Phase II-B); work was being done at the park with the opening seeming imminent … but now, everything appears to have halted – again.

Update: Word is this section may open tomorrow!

After 29 Months, Will the Final ‘Piece’ of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II Construction – Chess Plaza – Open Tomorrow?

WSP SW entrance -- will these fences really be coming down at last?

Completion date on sign: "Summer 2011" (Formerly Fall 2010)

The Lonely Chess Plaza




Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase IIB — the Chess Plaza and Southwestern Quadrant — under construction for 29 months (that’s 2 years and 5 months) is more than 17 months behind schedule (that’s one year and five months) from the original scheduled completion date and 9 months behind Phase IIA’s opening (June 2011) at which point it seemed likely it would be finished shortly thereafter.

It is now scheduled to be opened to the public at any moment – perhaps even tomorrow, Friday, March 2nd. At this point, we’ll believe it when we see it!

Depending on whom you ask, it was either the Parks Department’s stalling the project, a lack of any oversight by any governing body, or a problem between the contractor and the Parks Department which led to the monumental delay. Or some combination of all three.

This is what I wrote on June 2nd 2011 when Phase IIA – the eastern side of the Park – opened:

Phase II was scheduled for completion by Fall 2010; then we heard the end of the year (tho’ doubted it), then “Spring 2011,” then “by Memorial Day,” but park goers looked happy to be finally able to stream through the eastern end of the park.

Of course, this isn’t all of Phase II, since, for one, part of it (The Mounds and the Large Dog Run) was moved into Phase III. And Chess Plaza, technically still in Phase II, now Phase II-B, won’t be finished til the end of the month. At least, at last, it’s something!

WSP Blog chronicled the problems back in September 2010 outlining how the city’s parks department caused numerous delays in getting the job done, how the project was over-budget, and the fact that no governmental agencies were providing oversight.

Washington Square Park’s entire redesign – Phases I, II, and III – was budgeted and approved for $16 Million at the onset. Phase I alone — which moved the fountain to align with the Arch, reduced the public space around the fountain, and re-landscaped the NorthWest Quadrant, opened in May of 2009 — cost $13 Million.

Phase II was budgeted at $9 Million but will likely be $8 Million and that’s without the Large Dog Run and Mounds (included in the original figure).

Phase III (rest rooms and administrative building – the new “pergola”) had been budgeted at $9 Million (note – that’s before the cost of the Mounds and Dog Run are added in). Got all that?

Since the Parks Department’s projects continue to be seriously over-budget with no apparent oversight by any governing body, the project by the end will have more than doubled from its approved budget and is now projected for $30-$35 Million in cost.

A review of the finances:

Phase I cost: $13 Million (budgeted at $6 Million)
Phase II cost: $9.1 Million (budgeted at $9 Million but that figure was including the Dog Run and Mounds — both of which have been moved into Phase III)
Phase III: bid came in at “approximately 5.4 Million” according to the Parks Department
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Total projected thus far: $27.5 Million but there is no way Phase III will come in at $5.4 Million so we are at least $30 Million for a project which was approved at $16 Million at the onset.

It should be noted that Phase III contains the piece that the surrounding community and park users wanted completed first – the much neglected and deteriorating rest rooms. The Parks Department refused to accommodate this request; the city agency practically went out of its way to make sure this was completed last in the 3 phases of the project.

Work is presently scheduled to begin on Phase III — which now includes the Large Dog Run, the Mounds, Administrative Building, Rest Rooms and possibly perimeter sidewalks (much in need of repair!) — in April of this year.

At least, at last, the Chess Plaza will finally be opening! Will it be tomorrow? We’ll see…