Part 2 – Update on Washington Square Park Phase II from Community Board 2 Meeting Last Week

– Updated –

* Washington Square Park Seating alcoves reduced in size contrary to agreement?

* A Look back at Landmarks Preservation 2 Hearings On WSP Phase II in 2009

* Has Community Board 2 Colluded with the Parks Department to Keep Phase II Under Wraps?

* & More!

As I reported in Part 1 of my report back from the April 6th Community Board 2 meeting, Phase II construction at Washington Square Park (parts, of course, that weren’t moved into Phase III) on the Eastern side will be finished and open sometime “around Memorial Day” with the Chess Plaza opening in June.

At the meeting, Community member Margie Rubin asked about the seating alcove in the Northeastern section of the park – across from the playground – which was promised to be the “exact same size.” She said that this alcove is now “1/2 the size. Why was it cut down?

The community fought to keep the seating alcoves in the park; the Parks Department wanted to remove most of them. At the Landmarks Preservation Commission two hearings addressing Phase II in 2009, the Parks Department agreed to increase the proposed number of seating alcoves from 1 1/2 to four. (Previously, there were six, or seven, depending who you ask.)

Brad Romaker from Capital Projects division — who was sent to the meeting by the Parks Department to give the status report on Phase II and was unfamiliar with the finer points of the park’s plan — said he did not know what happened but would find out. (A woman involved with another Parks project at the meeting told me that Romaker can be quite helpful and can get things done.)

This led to discussion in which Tobi Bergman (CB2 Parks Committee chair) said post-Landmarks Preservation Commission hearings that the seating alcoves were never supposed to be the same size.

My understanding was that three of the alcoves remained the same size except for one on the southeast side (which also endured a change of location to the southern side of the park at some point after the LPC meeting). I will revisit the alcoves; nonetheless, it was clearly stated that the alcove on the northeastern side would retain its size.

See highlights from previous blog posts below from the two Landmarks Preservation Commission meetings in 2009 addressing Phase II:

* Highlights from LPC Public Hearing March 17th on WSP (posted March 20,2009):

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).

* Landmarks Preservation Commission Approves Phase II of WSP Redesign; NYC Parks Department agrees to increase # of alcoves (posted April 15th, 2009):

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.”

The Parks Department stated that the fourth alcove would be very small and “intimate” but how small I’m not sure.

Mr. Bergman then said that this was due to “different memories” and stated that everyone had a chance to “look at the blueprints.” Actually, that is not true specifically because of his collusion with the city Parks Department. The CB2 Parks Committee chair has prevented any substantive look at or discussion of Phase II designs.

A Parks Department long-awaited presentation on Phase II that was supposed to happen in February 2010 (after the Department admitted being unprepared at a meeting in December 2009) never happened. The blueprints were dropped off at this February 2010 meeting (over one year ago) and left on a table with no opportunity for discussion or review – this was five months after the work had already started. Mr. Bergman does not have a lot of credibility when it comes to the issue of Washington Square Park, Phase II and blueprints.

When asked about the tiles which previously lay in Teen Plaza that children in the ’70’s had created; some of which were supposed to be moved into the newly designed Children’s Playground, Mr. Romaker did not know if this had happened but also that he would find out. I was also curious about the historical markers which are in Phase III — Mr. Romaker did not know about these and again said he would get the answer.

There’s more! Part 3 from the meeting coming on the other parks.

* In 2008, I wrote an 8 part report after a Washington Square Park Task Force meeting so I certainly can find things to write about after attending these meetings!

WSP Phase II Media Curiosity; Smaller Seating Alcoves?; 24 Hour Dog Run

Fall 2010? Well, that's not going to happen...

Updated 1/25 & 31*

Reporters are asking questions about Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II, but has anything much changed since my update in September 2010? (Re-posted below.)

There’s been great progress in the park’s construction on the Eastern side but the project as a whole is still lagging behind and far from completion. Continued Parks Department miscommunication, mishaps and errors. And there’s still NO community or City Council oversight of the project.

*Cost of the project is at $35 $30 million + counting. The initial budget for the entire 3 Phases? $16 Million. (WSP Blog ed.: The $30 Million figure is an estimate for all three phases. I am fairly certain the cost will reach $35 million but it will definitely reach $30 million so I am revising my figure – for now.)

Community Board 2 held a meeting in October last year at which there was a request to the Parks Department to add reconfigured seating, an improvement on what was illustrated on the design for the new alcoves (which some community members finally got a hold of). The request was for seating which would be more conducive to interacting with your neighbors if you chose to do so and viewing what was going on in the rest of the park itself – part of the charm of these spots. (There will be four seating alcoves, previously six, in the eastern quadrants of the park.)

Sounds like a good idea. Small concession, right?

Word on the street is that this got vetoed, likely by designer George Vellonakis — the landscape designer who created the controversial redesign of this historic park — who has a tremendous pull within the city’s Parks Department.

The seating alcoves — which were eliminated in Vellonakis’s original design for the park — were only added back in after the community, former Council Member Alan Gerson and the Landmarks Preservation Commission all strongly protested their removal. (We might have had issues with Alan Gerson but he was involved, unlike current Council Member Margaret Chin.)

In addition, although it was promised that the seating alcoves would retain their original size, it is also believed that they are much smaller in the actual design and implementation. (*1/31 — WSP Blog note: This is unclear tho’ it would not surprise me. Will try to find out — )

The Villager is reporting this week that the large dog run will be 24 hours as if this is news. Way, way back at meetings that perhaps the Villager did not attend (no offense, Villager folks!) it was revealed that the entrance to the newly placed large dog run on the Park’s southern side would be accessible at all hours. (Not sure honestly how that will work but we’ll see!)

Phase II has been split into two pieces with a large portion – including the dog run – moved into Phase III.

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.