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…”

Highlights from the Landmarks Preservation Commission Public Hearing March 17th on Washington Sq Park

Here are some of the highlights from Tuesday’s (March 17) Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing on Washington Square Park Phase II Redesign:

* Charles McKinney from the New York City Parks Department gave the overview of the City’s retooled plan for Washington Square Park in Phase II focusing on the alcoves and the performance area. (Landmarks was also supposed to look at the pathways but these were not addressed – verbally, at least.) The landscape designer behind the City’s dramatic and oh-so-symmetrical redesign plan for the park, George Vellonakis, was there to assist him with visuals for the presentation.

Seating Alcoves

* Currently there are six seating alcoves at Washington Square Park which exist on the north, northeast, and southeast sides of the Park. The Parks Department’s plan is to eliminate all except for one (which will remain in its entirety on the north side, across from the playground) and to retain a 1/4 or a 1/2 of another (on the eastern side).

… Council Member Gerson: Alcoves are part of the “core Washington Square Park experience”

* New York City Council Member Alan Gerson appeared (!) and made a very important statement to the Commission advocating on behalf of the alcoves and the performance area. Council Member Gerson asked the LPC to hold off on a decision and not approve the plan before them. He remarked that the Washington Square Park Task Force and the Parks Department have “come so far” in their discussions over this and are “almost there” in reaching an agreement. He spoke of how important the alcoves are to “the core Washington Square Park experience” and said the replacement of seven (I count six but hey…) with one “deprives the community.”

* Council Member Gerson also stated that the removal of the majority of the alcoves “violates the spirit and letter between Speaker Quinn and myself on the one hand and the Parks Department on the other” (referring to the Gerson-Quinn Agreement). The Gerson-Quinn Agreement (which Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe doesn’t consider binding) called for keeping the alcoves in the Park’s design.

* Tobi Bergman spoke on behalf of the Washington Square Park Task Force in agreement with Council Member Gerson asking for modifications to the Parks Department’s plan.

... LPC Commissioner: Why can’t the alcoves be included? Parks Department: Here’s why….

* Many other Park users and advocates made compelling statements on behalf of the alcoves as places where people read, study, socialize, perform, eat lunch or just observe the park from a different vantage point to such a degree that by the end of the meeting, one of the Landmarks Commissioners finally asked, “why can’t the alcoves be included?Great question!

So what was Mr. McKinney’s reply to this? According to Mr. McKinney, the Parks Department’s view is that the alcoves …. “attract activities that are undesirable.” Hmmm.

Performance Area

* The current Garibaldi / Teen Plaza area (to east and southeast of the Fountain) acts as a stage for the Washington Square Music Festival and a host of other uses including rallies, protests, traveling high school bands, book festivals, musical performances, food festivals, and more. Mr. McKinney stated that as currently configured the area is “too isolated.” (??) Apparently, the Parks Department’s goal was to create a “centralized” space but truthfully it seems more isolated when you look at the plans.

… Washington Square Music Festival: “stage too small, too low, and without a backstage preparation area.” stage height “creates sight line problems for viewers beyond the first few rows.”

* Peggy Friedman, the executive director of the Washington Square Music Festival made a perplexing statement, first saying to the Landmarks Preservation Commission “with reluctance, I ask you to approve this plan.” She then elaborated on this statement remarking that the stage is too small, there is no appropriate back stage and that the stage height (it is currently an acceptable 36″ tall; in the plan, it is reduced to 28″) creates “sight line problems for viewers beyond the first few rows.” She said the area is “too small, too low and without a backstage preparation area.” (As currently configured, the “backstage” is located to the west and “in clear view of the audience.”)

* Another woman from the Festival spoke and stated that the stage itself is so improperly designed that if they want to present their typical 24 musicians and a conductor they would “not fit on the stage as currently proposed” and the Festival would have to “curtail the scale of some of our programs.” She said that the plan is “sadly inadequate for our needs.” Note: we are talking about a plan that was created fresh, right? It is supposed to work for the community’s needs and yet clearly does not.

Random

* Mr. McKinney stated at the end that the Parks Department believed a “small amount of people” were “somewhat unhappy” with this plan and they’d “prefer not to have a delay.”

* There were about three people who spoke in favor of the design… one who just wanted to see the plan move forward… and including community member Gil Horowitz who referred to it as the “Olmsteadian-inspired Vellonakis design.”

* Susan Goren from local group, ECO (Emergency Coalition Organization to Preserve Washington Square Park), read from a letter she wrote to Parks Commissioner Benepe stating: “Despite promises to the contrary, Washington Square Park’s historic use as a gathering space and as a performance space is being destroyed as the park is turned into Henry James’ Washington Square Park, lovely in the early 1800s, but hardly desirable in our modern world.”

LPC vote in 2005 one of the questionable moments in history of Park’s redesign plan

Another bit of trickery is that when Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the City’s redesign plan in May 2005 (another dodgey moment in the history of this plan), as Mr. McKinney explicitly noted, there were no alcoves and there was no performance area. One of the Landmarks Commissioners asked on Tuesday, “I don’t remember an outcry over the alcoves” (at the time). This is because it was stated – at that time – that this all would be revisited in later phases and yet the Parks Department believes the entire plan was approved without these elements so now anything they add in looks like a bonus. To them.

So… what’s next?

Head LPC Commissioner Robert Tierney said he’d like for the LPC Commissioners to “come back, discuss and then take an action.” He stated that that meeting shouldn’t be too far off in the future. Once that date is set, I will let you know.

New York Times takes in-depth look at Landmarks Preservation Commission

Today’s New York Times has an interesting, in-depth look at the Landmarks Preservation Commission by writer Robin Pogrebin which “reveals an overtaxed agency that has taken years to act on some proposed designations, even as soaring development pressures put historic buildings at risk. Its decision-making is often opaque, and its record-keeping on landmark-designation requests is … spotty.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been under the direction of Robert Tierney for the past five years. The LPC members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg. Only the chairman receives a salary (currently $177,698), the other 11 commissioners are unpaid. The LPC must “include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs.”

On Washington Square Park

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held two days of public hearings on Washington Square Park. It was later ruled by NY Supreme Court Justice Emily Goodman that the City — specifically landscape architect and Parks Department employee George Vellonakis — during its presentation to the LPC had withheld key information. The incomplete and untruthful information is what LPC based its decision on. You can watch footage of the presentation by George Vellonakis at the hearing here.

Other missed opportunities

Then there were the buildings that were demolished before any public hearing was held, such as “the Beekman movie theater on the Upper East Side, a 1952 Streamline Moderne design that was demolished in 2005; Mott House in Rockaway, Queens, an 1800s mansion in the Greek Revival style that was torn down in 2004; the Donnell Library Center on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, which is to be demolished to make way for a hotel; and Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 “lollipop” building at 2 Columbus Circle, which reopened in September as the Museum of Art and Design after a radical alteration that was fiercely opposed by preservationists.”

“No background in architecture, planning or historic preservation”

Mr. Tierney was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to head the Landmarks Preservation Commission despite having “no background in architecture, planning or historic preservation.”

Every city agency always wants their budget increased (one would think, right?). The article states, “Yet, in 2007 Mr. Tierney declined a budget increase of $750,000 approved by the City Council.”

Mr. Tierney told the Times that he was afraid the budget would get cut the next year. However, wouldn’t it be better for the agency to be well staffed for that one year vs. worrying about something that might or might not happen?

One wonders if Mayor Bloomberg wanted the LPC to have no teeth by appointing someone with no appropriate background to head it up, as development soars and the history of our city vanishes at an alarming rate.