Washington Square Park Task Force To Meet Wednesday, February 4th

On Wednesday, February 4th at 6:30 PM, the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee will meet to review Washington Square Park Redesign Phase 2 including plans for the stage, mounds, and sitting alcoves. Location: St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 W. 12th St. Cronin Auditorium, 10th Floor.

Report-back from Washington Sq Park Task Force Meeting on Phase II of Park’s Redesign (Emphasis: The Playground, But So Much More is Revealed)

Washington Sq Pk in the Snow, Fountain/Arch, 2005

Washington Sq Pk in the Snow, Fountain/Arch, 2005

What was learned from the Washington Square Park Task Force – Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting Wednesday, January 7th held at the NYU Silver Center addressing (more of) Phase II as Phase I of Washington Square Park’s redesign nears completion:

* The large playground (Northeast side) will be done in segments so that the whole playground is never closed at one time. It will remain in its footprint (same size) and will include a spray shower, new lightweight gate, spray area, spray features, a water trench, sand box, swing area, a children’s garden (outside the playground fence), floating benches, new trees (one cherry tree is slated for destruction), and “safety surface” (a sample of which will be provided at some point in the future).

* A Parks Department representative said, of the playground, “only so much needed to be done.” A statement which I find sort of ironic … isn’t that the case for the entire park? (Needed a renovation? … Yes. Some fixin’, some sprucing up, but a massive redesign? No, I think not.)

* Then, there’s the fact that playground received its own separate meeting. I asked CB2 Parks Committee chair and WSP Task Force co-chair Tobi Bergman about this: “Will the other parts of Phase II be getting their own meetings, the seating alcoves, the chess area, the Garibaldi performance area, the dog runs?” He answered no. So why did the playground get special treatment? Mr. Bergman informed me that, for the rest of Washington Square Park, the Task Force just submits its suggestions to the Parks Department and basically accepts whatever the answer is, like it or not. (I stopped writing at this point, so mesmerized was I by this answer, but it’s on film. I can get back to you on the exact words.)

CB2 Chair and WSP Task Force co-chair Brad Hoylman added, to explain the isolated meeting, “There are no parents of young children on the Task Force.” (Its purpose was to outreach to the community. Then, he said, by way of clarification, there are parents but of older children.) Matt Davis, who directed the documentary SQUARE: Straightening Out Washington Square Park,” then asked if there were any “dog owners” on the Task Force. This was not adequately addressed although it seems the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean the dog runs are getting their own meeting.

* So, basically, what is convenient for the New York City Parks Department is discussed by the Washington Square Park Task Force, at this point in time. (I’ve written a number of posts about my concerns with the WSP Task Force, a body which was put into play by local NY City Council Member Alan Gerson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. See WSP Task Force under Categories, column to right.)

* The Parks Department has assigned a designer to work on the playground (Chris Crowley) who is willing to work with the community, contrast this with the landscape designer working on the majority of the park (George Vellonakis) who isn’t.

* And it was the first time I heard someone quote from the Landmarks Preservation Commission‘s ruling in a way that limited what was done. Apparently, the LPC “did not want McDonald’s in the playground” so there will be a limit to big, colorful, plastic fixtures, I gather.

* Wouldn’t it be nice if … high, unwelcoming fences, misplaced lamps, overdone gardens, leveled off plazas, aligned (Tisch) fountains, massive reduction of public space, sterile pathways, suburban plazas, and a close-to-maniacal-emphasis-on-symmetry were off limits in their ruling also?

Reportback on NYC Parks Dept. Presentation on Next Phases of WSP Redesign — Part II (of III) 12/3 Meeting

washington sq park as it 'was'

washington sq park as it 'was'

Part II of III (yes, I did say two originally but now it’s three parts!):

My report-back on the New York City Parks Department presentation on the future phases (Phase II and III) of the redesign work at Washington Square Park. This presentation took place at a meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee on Wednesday, December 3rd.

The New York City Parks Department‘s landscape designer George Vellonakis — whose plan informs much of what people are displeased with — was at hand to inform us of the following:

* Teen Plaza / Stage Area … Can you give an inch (or 14)?

The current “Teen Plaza” area (off the Fountain Plaza and near Garibaldi statue) contains the stage which the well-regarded Washington Square Music Festival performs on each summer. Currently, the stage is a standard height of 36″ used for classical music performances and has also worked well for the many uses of this stage throughout the year. The stage in Mr. Vellonakis’ plans was scheduled to be 22″. Although it was requested by the Music Festival and others that the stage be 36″-48″, the Parks Department gave an inch. Well… seven inches, and is scheduled to make the stage 29 inches high, still under a traditional professional stage height.

No Handrails — There is no railing or handrails in the new design around the stage and it was a concern to the director of the Music Festival that the conductor might …well… fall off. When asked, Mr. Vellonakis informed the audience at the meeting that a temporary barrier/rail with rope could be installed for performances. (The current stage has a railing.)

Children’s Tiles — There are numerous tiles on the elevated area of the “Teen Plaza” designed by neighborhood children and installed at some point in the last 30 years. Mr. Vellonakis seemed more than happy to not have to deal with them, informing the audience members that they could be “salvaged” and “reused somewhere else.” (The likely choice, suggested by Mr. Vellonakis, was the renovated playground – not under his jurisdiction – which is being handled by Chris Crowley.)

* Mr. Vellonakis said that people could sit on the steps of the “amphitheater” (apparently part of the design for the stage) “all the time” and that does sound like a nice feature.

* Seating Alcoves — Parks Dept: You like them? Too bad. “So far we’ve decided not to include them.”

If you walk through Washington Square Park, one aspect of the park’s charm is the sweet seating alcoves which grace the edges of the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern borders. People read, perform music, chat together, study in these little nooks of the park. They are not “aligned”… they are not “straight lines” … they are not “symmetrical” … they do not create “viewing corridors” … so one could imagine that they are not viewed by George Vellonakis as pertinent to his design.

However, the community likes them. The WSP Task Force issued a strong recommendation to the Parks Department from the last meeting in July that the seating alcoves be left in the park’s new design. The answer – at the meeting, when asked – to this by Bill Castro (Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner): “So far, the Parks Department has decided not to include them.”

It is essential that these areas be saved or else it’s just another way that this space will become the blandest, most symmetrical, uncharacteristically formal park one could imagine.

* When GreenWashing isn’t a strong enough term

Environmentalists are more than familiar with the term “green washing.” I have done a lot of work on environmental issues, but I also greatly see the value of public space and I don’t think the two — “green space” vs. “public space” — should be pitted against each other. Washington Square Park has a lot of lawn space as it is. If maintained, you might notice it more.

And yet Mr. Vellonakis insists on reducing the public space in order to add MORE lawn, thereby ignoring and eliminating what is great about Washington Square Park. So he speaks of the “great big green space we created,” “trying to get more green,” adding “sweeping plantings” and “sweeping of perennials.” In this case, greenery is being used to pacify the space.

Part III will cover dog runs, the Mounds, the playground, Conservancy, bathrooms, the Plazas, and anything else I haven’t covered thus far!

NYC Parks Department Presentation on Next Phases of WSP Redesign — Reportback from December 3rd Meeting (Part I of II)

Last Washington Square Park Task Force Meeting that occurred (in July), I reported back with an 8 part series. I’m going to stick to the most important and pressing points in reporting back on this meeting which occurred Wednesday, December 3rd.

This meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force and Community Board 2 Parks Committee was chaired by Community Board 2 Chair (and WSP Task Force co-chair) Brad Hoylman.

Featuring a Parks Department presentation by George Vellonakis (the landscape designer responsible for the “plan” for WSP being put forward), it also included a few words interspersed from Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, WSP Administrator Rebecca Ferguson, and Chris Crowley (whose title I am not certain of) who is overseeing the playground renovation.

The most important aspects revealed were:

* Cost of Project

The projected cost of the Washington Square Park Redesign project is now nowhere near its initial budgeted $16 Million but is looming large at $27 Million.

Phase I (currently being completed) is costing $14 Million (originally projected at $6 Million); Phase II is now projected at $8 Million, and Phase III (sometimes referred as Phase IIB which contains the bathrooms and Parks offices) is now projected at $5 Million. Of course, the future phases II and II are most likely under-estimated at this point so it’s likely we can expect the total project to be at least $35 Million.

* “Gerson-Quinn” Agreement … Not really An Agreement

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Council Member Alan Gerson (WSP falls in his district) like to talk about an “agreement” (the so-called “Gerson-Quinn Agreement) they have with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe which allegedly resolves “the outstanding major issues” the community had with the Washington Square Park redesign plan. (Note: it never really did but it’s nice to have some illusion of someone working to resolve the issues and it seemingly made a few gains.)

But, that bubble was burst when the Parks Department admitted at the meeting that it thinks no such agreement exists.

Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro informed me when I asked why the new fencing contains “decorative spears” in direct violation of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” (which stipulated that there BE no decorative spears), that “there is no agreement.”

News to anyone who has listened to Gerson and Quinn’s rhetoric about this in the context of all the gains they “won” for the community. Representatives for Council Members Gerson and Quinn – present at the meeting – were silent.

* Artificial Turf Appears Anywhere Commissioner Benepe can find a spot for it

Parks Commissioner Benepe continues to sadly advocate for artificial turf (more on that tomorrow).

* Grand Reduction in Public Space No Myth

The public space is being dramatically reduced and not just around the fountain which gets a 25% reduction but around the chess tables… around the north east corner and, on the edges of the park, with the removal (currently planned but which hopefully will be reversed) of the wonderful seating alcoves currently on the north east, eastern, and southeast sides. (Note: I am advocating for all of the above to be reversed.)

* When Will Phase I (NorthWest Quadrant) Open?

The redesigned northwest quadrant — which includes the Fountain area — will open “sometime in the new year” – fairly vague.

More on this tomorrow when Part II appears.

Part II: What Needs to be Done to Have a Functioning Washington Sq Park Task Force? #1: Separate from Community Bd 2

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

Washington Sq Park Fence Being Installed

I’ve been grappling with how to tackle addressing the Washington Square Park Task Force following Part I last week in which I listed its purported “goals” and the NY elected officials who have actual representatives on it. I listened to audio tape of a meeting from July 2007. I attended the July 2008 meeting. I’ve spoken to members of the Task Force. The Task Force has a lot of good people on it who from the beginning wanted to have an impact but as Fusun Ateser, a member of the Task Force, told me recently, “we were not allowed to do anything.”‘

Task Force Linkage to Community Board 2

Part of the problem I believe is the close linkage of the WSP Task Force to Community Board 2. Presently, Brad Hoylman, Community Board 2 Chair is the co-chair of the Task Force with CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman. There are many capable people on the WSP Task Force – it does not need to be led by the Community Board.

Community Board 2 has already made its own share of mistakes around Washington Square Park — notably, approving the Parks Department’s redesign plan twice with insufficient data and despite widespread community disapproval. They ultimately rescinded their approvalalbeit on the third try.

There needs to be an independent body monitoring what’s happening at this Park and – barring some other organization appearing – that ought to be the Washington Square Park Task Force but not in its present incarnation.

At meetings, Mr. Hoylman and Mr. Bergman are adamant that the Task Force was only created to uphold the Gerson-Quinn “letter.” While others on the Task Force seem ready to go further, they are continually reined in by (Community Board 2 co-chairs) Hoylman and Bergman. In July ’07, when people tried to make resolutions, Mr. Hoylman stated that he “wanted to be sure it doesn’t resemble a Community Board resolution.” Therefore, resolutions were not allowed.

What would a Functioning Body look like?

I’ve seen how groups can function well – and also not function well. I believe the Task Force needs to be taken out of the hands of Community Board 2. We need people to continue fighting for this park. The people who comprise the WSP Task Force feel they have no power. This is a historic park. It is a landmark in New York City. It is a dynamic public space. It deserves to have people fighting for it – who will fight for it.

Problems with Washington Square Park Re-Design not caught by WSP Task Force

Example: The lamps in the park. I asked Ms. Atessur if the Task Force was ever shown two different lamps (which was supposed to be done – the Task Force has oversight on design “details”) and asked for their approval on them. She replied no. When I asked Brad Hoylman if they approved the choice of the lamps, he told me he thought so but never got back to me with a confirmation. The lamps being installed presently do not fit the character of the park. If they were not approved by the Washington Square Park Task Force, then what is the Task Force doing? This is part of their charge. Clearly, either the two co-chairs have too much on their plate or cannot give this proper attention. Control of the WSP Task Force needs to be removed from their hands.

Example: The fence. The fence (coming in is 4 feet high, as opposed to the more welcoming 3 feet that exists currently) is not supposed to have decorative spears or points on top (this is actually stated in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement). And yet – it does. (See photo above.) Is anyone looking after this? Isn’t this important?

There needs to be a point person from the Washington Square Park Task Force walking through that park regularly and monitoring each aspect. There needs to be a point person talking to the Parks Department. Now, unfortunately, if Council Member Alan Gerson is the designated elected official you go to if you are not getting answers from the Parks Department, then you may be in trouble because he will not rock the boat. But at least get the boat in the water!

Note: I am going to send this information to every elected official listed as involved with the Washington Square Park Task Force.

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Washington Sq Park Fence Now

Top photo (fence being installed): Cathryn/WSP Blog
Bottom photo (girl with guitar sitting on fence): Louis Seigal

The Villager – at last! – Reports on WSP Task Force meeting – and future WSP “plans”

The Villager at last reports on the July 17th Washington Square Park Task Force meeting (while omitting the date of the meeting, I gather, to not to call attention to the late reporting?).

There’s some interesting information in there (although right this minute, the story has the wrong title, something about a “mystery hotel”) and interviews with some of the key players from the Community Board, the Task Force, the Parks Department*, and community members.  (*A Parks Department spokesperson says — contrary to what was stated at the meeting — a conservancy is not ruled out, citing the benefits of working with “community groups.” Right.)

WSP Blog covered this, beginning last month, in a series (in 8 parts): Update on New York City’s Redesign of Washington Square Park. If you missed it, begin here.