Arch Enemies Reverse Washington Square Plan

110705 article boards Arch Enemies Reverse Washington Square PlanWashington Square Park has been due to get its three-year, $16 million face-lift for several months now, with only a consensus among community groups and the Parks Department standing in the way of the groundbreaking.

Last April, Community Board 2 finally weighed in on the Parks Department’s plan, passing a resolution that supported the two-stage renovation and redesign.

But earlier this month, in an unexpected repudiation of its earlier vote, the board’s parks, recreation and waterfront committee passed another resolution calling on the Parks Department solely to renovate—and not redesign—the 10-acre park in the heart of Greenwich Village.

The controversial redesign and renovation of Washington Square Park has been the talk of the West Village for months now. Coalitions of community residents have sprung up in response to the Parks Department redesign, each with its favorite issue: There’s a group to save the mounds, the rolling asphalt hills that occupy the southern edge of the park; a coalition to keep the fountain where it currently is, slightly off-center and not aligned with the park’s famous arch; even a coalition of disgruntled dog-run enthusiasts to bark its displeasure at the department’s plan to relocate the runs to the park’s perimeter. And then there’s the Emergency Coalition Organization to Save Washington Square Park, a coalition of coalitions, which simply wants the park to be renovated, not redesigned.

And for months, Board 2 has been the battleground between these competing interests, with eruptions of jeers and boos, affirmations and applause whenever the board’s embattled parks, recreation and waterfront committee took up the issue.

But with the vote in April, many thought that the issue had finally been laid to rest. There was much unhappiness, but even more relief that the board had finally formally approved the redesign, and the members were prepared to move on to issues of a more mundane variety, such as the liquor-license applications and sidewalk-café permits that they regularly deal with.

Then came a change in leadership—former committee chair Aubrey Lees and board chair Jim Smith were both replaced for the interim by Arthur Schwartz and Maria Derr, respectively—and the Washington Square Park redesign was once again under the gun. And on Oct. 6, the committee passed a new resolution, this time requiring that the fountain not be moved, that the plaza surrounding the fountain not be decreased in size or elevated to grade level, that the mounds be kept where they are and, finally, that the new fencing around the park be limited to 30 inches in height.

And on Oct. 20, the committee’s new resolution went before the full board with a standing-room-only crowd in attendance, as swarms of combatants, pro and con, gathered to debate and celebrate—or denounce—the final vote.

After a tumultuous public session—during which district manager Arthur Strickler repeatedly had to plead for quiet amid the jeers and applause following each speaker—Mr. Schwartz presented his resolution to the board. Immediately after, board member Shirley Secunda stood up to offer a substitute resolution that reaffirmed the board’s earlier, pro-redesign resolution. And, after much discussion, it was this rival resolution—not the committee’s Oct. 6 version—that finally passed.

“I’m delighted that it went through,” Ms. Secunda told The Observer after the vote. She said that one of the foremost concerns with the park’s current design—which would have remained in place had Mr. Schwartz’s resolution been passed—is the lack of accessibility for the disabled to the fountain and the surrounding sunken plaza. “I felt, and many other people felt too, that the access right now is impossible,” Ms. Secunda said. As to charges that leveling the plaza would adversely affect its attractiveness to the park’s itinerant performers, Ms. Secunda countered: “It worked just fine in the golden age, when Bob Dylan performed there.”

Washington Square Park was originally acquired by the city in 1797 for use as an execution site and potter’s field, which closed in 1823. It became a park in 1827. In 1889, a plaster and wood arch was erected to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration; this was replaced in 1892 by the current Stanford White–designed marble arch. Fifth Avenue ran through the park until 1964, when the park was redesigned and closed to traffic.

Among the many folks pleased by Board 5’s most recent decision was Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “We’re gratified by the vote; it reaffirms the board’s earlier vote,” he told The Observer. “I think it’s a signal to move ahead.”

Perhaps aiding in that decision was an agreement recently made between City Council members Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn—whose districts include the park and sit just west of it, respectively—and the Parks Department. The agreement, dated Oct. 6 (the same day the committee passed its abortive resolution), calls on the Parks Department to, among other things, limit the size of any perimeter fence, rebuild the mounds “in a similar form,” create an additional playground, construct an elevated concert space, slightly refine the dog runs to make them more amenable to users, and guarantee that the plaza surrounding the fountain would retain at least 90 percent of its current size. Most importantly, the agreement calls on the Parks Department to respect the decision of the city’s Art Commission, which is slated to rule on the department’s plan to relocate the fountain. According to Mr. Benepe, the department will abide by the Art Commission’s decisions; he told The Observer that plans for the redesign will be submitted to the commission within the next month. Once the Art Commission gives the go-ahead, construction on Phase 1 of the project—which will see the northwest quadrant of the park closed for renovation—will start in the spring of next year. It will take approximately one year to complete; then Phase 2, which will cover the southern and eastern reaches of the park, is scheduled to begin.

Nevertheless, even though the redesign is finally back on track, there are still plenty of unhappy parkgoers who feel that their concerns are being ignored. But in the words of Ms. Lees, the former chair of Board 2’s embattled parks, recreation and waterfront committee: “There are too many constituents in the park, and not everyone’s needs can be addressed.”