Two Letters on Washington Sq Park’s New Design

Sharon Woolums’ Letter to the Editor in weekly the Villager (June 3rd, 2009):

To The Editor:

After the initial euphoria of just having the park opened and reveling in the perfect spring day, I reflected on where the $13 million went, and now realize what disturbs me. I miss the sunken fountain, so beautifully set apart from the street. Now the fountain is an extension of the street, instead of the beginning of something completely different. You felt drawn down — invited into the fountain. Now it’s more like the fountain is an object you are supposed to look at instead of being drawn into, to experience.

The redesigned park looks like something imposed on the Village, boring and uneventful: flattened out. The fountain area, bland and generic, instead of exciting and unique, looks more like a corporate plaza than a park. The huge walkway with the gigantic planters in the middle looks like an outdoor mall in Wisconsin. And that poor tree around the fountain, died of a heartache.

Now linear — before idiosyncratic; there was an off-centeredness that was deliberate. It represented people who live in the Village who march to a different drummer. Our park embodied democracy, now transformed undemocratically.

The landscaping is prissy, organized patches of vegetation not unlike that found in the gardening section of any Home Depot. But it all goes so well with N.Y.U.’s Kimmel Center. The park now looks like another N.Y.U. project, with the two telltale plaques on either side of the “Tisch! Fountain.” I can’t bring myself to say that. Too bad the fountain hadn’t been auctioned off to the highest bidder. It seems a $2.5 million advertisement for perpetuity is just dirt cheap.

The walls that surrounded the theater in the round created an acoustical field for the music; sound bounced back out, radiating from behind. Now there is nothing to deflect the music, it all gets meshed together with the competing sound of gushing water.

With the stroke of an architect’s pen, the park was forever stripped of its bohemian character, wiping away decades of history. We hope this sacrifice of comfort and possible clamoring for a conservancy (the privatization of our public park) will not kill the spontaneous creativity that happened naturally here, once upon a time. We hope that glorious time will not die like the tree in the circle.

Sharon Woolums

(WSP Blog note- the letter is slightly shortened for space reasons.)

Photographer Stacy Walsh Rosenstock wrote in to WSP Blog recently about the new design in response to an older post, “Wouldn’t it be ironic if – after everything – the Washington Square Park Fountain was off-center to the Arch?“:

As someone whose dog insists we Washington Square on a daily basis now that the weather’s good, I find that nothing seems to look “right” when we enter from the South.

In the older design, with the fountain to the west and more open space coming up from Thompson Street, there was a more gradual lead-in to the circle. Now the path certainly looks skewed and, in photos, it’s nearly impossible to form a visual grid of major planes.

Sometimes designs that appear so perfect on paper don’t necessarily work out in three dimensional visual space. Or maybe Stanford White and others involved in the park’s major features knew a thing or two about dealing with asymetrical space.

Photo: Cat

Part II: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Sq Park May 28, 2009: ReportBack

Updated

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe last Thursday’s (May 28th) Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Square Park which marked the “official” ceremony celebrating the reopening of the long-under-construction NW Quadrant and Fountain Plaza. It was a well planned event with food and drinks and music and speeches by elected officials and other community and business association members. But … who knew there were Parks Department flags, trucks, suitcases, tents? Parks Department flags lined the entire Plaza around the Fountain. Clearly, NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wanted to make certain without a doubt that, at the end of the day, they were happy with what they accomplished – despite a muddled and often questionable “process” along the way.

I almost titled this blog entry: “Spin. Spin. Spin.” Because the overarching theme of each person’s speech was that everyone in the end worked together and the Fountain Plaza has been consistently packed since the Opening Day the week prior therefore the whole project is … a success! And not that it isn’t … (I think there are good things with the redesign and questionable things..) but there’s so much more to the story that the fact that there was such an intentional emphasis on this one repeated theme felt unnecessary and uncomfortable to me.

Let’s just be honest. At this point, can’t the Parks Department concede a point or two? But that that was not to be was apparent with my reading pre-ceremony of the Parks Department press release titled, “Community Celebrates Re-Opening of Washington Square Park.” Yes, there were community members there but it was really more about the elected officials citing how they and “the community” worked together to help smooth over any disgruntlement (apparently, according to one speaker, to reach “consensus”) and … basically… we were all the better for it.

But back to this notion that a packed Fountain Plaza equates that the “renovation” (i.e., redesign) of Washington Square Park is a success. Other than the gray day that appeared on the day of the ribbon cutting, the previous week had been quite been stunning weather-wiseWhy wouldn’t people want to be gathering on a plaza in Greenwich Village around a (famous) Fountain…? Is that so unusual? (We live in a city with 8 million people and who knows how many tourists coming through at one time…)

I sat there one day the week the Park opened with my computer (no WiFi … but I actually don’t think there should be WiFi in Parks although it would be nice at times and it certainly would make my life easier…) around the Fountain and I really enjoyed sitting there. Do I still have concerns about the design…? Yes.

Some comments made at the ceremony:

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe:

This is a special park and a special celebration today.

George Vellonakis spent a lot of time in the park. The project had to be explained again and again.

Along the way, there were some lawsuits. You don’t do anything in New York without a lawsuit.

The park is 20% greener now… we took a lot of the paving out.

Most of the mail we get isn’t positive. [then reads two positive letters received about the park]

NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn

All the yelling was worthwhile… made the park more beautiful, more usable.

Always designed with the community in mind.

We have to thank NYU who has been a great partner in this.

NY City Council Member Alan Gerson

In my lifetime this is the third renovation I’ve lived through. Striking the right balance is essential. Everyone who argued, everyone who screamed, everyone who took part… [all led to this moment].

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer

Adrian Benepe is a piece of work. … He’s done an amazing job as Parks Commissioner. With community collaboration, great things can happen.

Pennies In The Fountain

Pennies In The Fountain

Village Alliance (local Business Improvement District) President Honi Klein

7 1/2 years ago started planning for the [renovation of the] park.

I was here Tuesday – Opening day. Washington Square Park is iconic … known for everything and anything goes. On Tuesday, there were more people here than you could possibly imagine.

Washington Square Association President Anne-Marie Sumner

There are natural tensions between the Parks Department and the Community [but we have a] magnificent result. A painters’ paradise.

Community Board 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman

I think we reached the best conclusion for the space.

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* Part I: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Phase I Opening in Photos June 1, 2009

Since Parks are being scaled back left and right (according to a story last week in the New York Post) due to budgetary concerns, will Washington Square Park be next?

Photos: Cat

On “New” Version of Washington Square … Reader Comment that Sums it Up…

All in

All in alignment

With a little more time to reflect on the Park changes, I’ll write with some further observations but I wanted to share a comment that was posted last night by a reader here that sums up some of the sentiment.

There was also an interesting observation from a reader who commented over at the New York Times site last week in response to their fluffy, feel good piece about the opening which obscured any real detail about the arguments, cost, changes, or problems that have gone on in relation to the Park to date (and usually I like writer Jennifer 8. Lee’s pieces). He asked… why couldn’t the park have been renovated in stages? Why did a whole half of the Park have to be shut down all at once? Good question. The writer thought it was basically ridiculous in light of the work that was being done. So… stay with me a minute… if that had happened…if the Park had been done in stages, where the NW Quadrant was done first and then opened, and then the Fountain Plaza area worked on and completed, (a) it would not have taken nearly as long to have access to each section and (b) Park users would have had a chance to experience the changes in stages.

Instead, since the Park was closed off for 16 1/2 months, the first reaction anyone has had has been… it’s clean, it’s pretty… it’s OPEN! But once you get past that layer of emotions – and, yes, there are some elements of the design that are lovely and functional (I will go into them at a later date) – there ARE problems.

I know some of the blog readers don’t want to hear that. Some people would like anyone who was opposed to the dramatic changes and the Parks Department’s obfuscations to move on. But that is not appropriate in this situation because that diminishes and obscures real issues. Maybe there’s some way to ‘fix’ what they took away. Although many believe these changes were made purposefully to homogenize this vital public space.

Here is a comment from Mark Milano:

Cathryn,

I agree with your frustration about the awful lack of community input into the renovation.

And while the new Park may look “better than nice,” it is not Washington Square.

The unique sunken performance space invited people to come down and join the fun – you had to make a conscious decision to enter, and once you did you were a part of the action. Now it’s just a wide open space that people walk through on the way to someplace else. The loss of the old trees is particularly tough.

Also, there were places in the original sunken area where you could step back from the activity and just observe – places where you had a sense of privacy in the midst of all the chaos. Those are all gone.

The new space isn’t terrible, it’s not the wonderful, unique space it was. Actually, it feels like a Disneyland recreation of Washington Square, not the real thing.

And the new fence sucks.

The Unveiling of Washington Square Park’s NW Quadrant & Fountain Plaza: Word Is Fencing To Come Down Monday, May 18th

Well, I was close… Word from a reliable source is that the fences that surround the long under construction NorthWest Quadrant of Washington Square Park will start coming down on Monday, May 18th after 16 1/2 months of the area being closed off. The unveiling will be done without much fanfare. Originally, a ceremony with elected officials was also scheduled for Monday; that will now happen at a later date.

Some thoughts: It’s important to note that this Park could have gotten to where we are now without the acrimony if the New York City Parks Department had been upfront and honest and transparent in their statements and their actions.

No one was against a true renovation of Washington Square Park the park had fallen into serious disrepair due to lack of maintenance by the Parks Department. What people were against was the pushing through of a design with a lack of community involvement in the decision-making process.

When you look at the newly completed section, there’s new green lawn and bright flowers, there’s new pathways, there’s new fencing, there’s new lighting, there’s new benches. A true “renovation” of the existing space would have also put forth most of these same changes – except the fence would have been lower and the lighting would have been different (not the stock lighting used at oh so many other George Vellonakis-designed city parks, including City Hall and Abingdon Square). Yeah, the aligning of the Fountain with the Arch seems ridiculous and the leveling off of the sunken plaza unnecessary. That ‘other’ renovated version of Washington Square Park would have looked gorgeous.

Nonetheless, the park is probably opening at the perfect time – people throughout the City are reconsidering their finances and their values. It’s not the same political or cultural climate as it was when the Park’s redesign plans were first presented.

People may look at the newly designed Washington Square Park and have heard of some controversy and mistakenly think “Why were people against this?“. The truth is important here — no one was against a *renovation* of Washington Square Park – it was the process and the design (and lack of input into the design) that people took issue with. (In many ways, the future phases add more dramatic changes than Phase I did.)

The Park will, in the end, be what people make it.

Photo: Cat

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.)