Part I: Update On NYC Parks Department Redesign Work on Washington Square Park — Status and the Fountain

"working to improve your park"
"working to improve your park"

The Washington Square Park Task Force, convened by Community Board 2 and local elected officials to give some community oversight over the Parks Department “renovation” (redesign) of Washington Square Park, gathered recently for a public meeting in the NYU Silver Building on Waverly Place. This was the first meeting of the Task Force after a long hiatus.

Rebecca Ferguson, Washington Square Park Administrator, gave a presentation about the status of Phase I work on the Park, some future details and took questions. The meeting was presided over by Community Board 2 Washington Sq Park Task Force(WSPTF) co-chairs Brad Hoylman (also CB2 chair) and Tobi Bergman. Also present were Steve Simon, Manhattan Borough Parks Department Chief of Staff, and representatives from the offices of local elected officials, including Council Members Alan Gerson, Christine Quinn, and Rosie Mendez as well as from Assembly Member Deborah Glick’s office.

Here is Part I of Up-to-the-minute Facts about NYC Parks Department’s Redesign Plans for/Work On Washington Square Park:

Part I : Status of Redesign and the Fountain

1. STATUS : Presently, the Parks Department is at work on “Phase I,” the North West Quadrant of the Park, which includes the “scrabble plaza,” the Alexander Holley Plaza, and the Fountain and its Plaza. According to Rebecca Ferguson, the project is “100% on time” and “60% complete.” The contract for the work is up in November and the Parks Department has every expectation that it will be done on time.

2. FOUNTAIN : Piping and drainage are 70% done. The stones from the original fountain are in Long Island City and being rehoned. They will be placed in the new fountain. The Diameter of the Fountain will be the same. There will be benches around the fountain which will be 16″ high with no backs. (For those who haven’t been by the Park recently, a large hole has been dug in the new location which aligns the fountain with the Arch – after 137 years unaligned – and the structure is being built.)

Causes for concern:

THE WATER PLUME/JETS OF THE FOUNTAIN: When on, when off, who decides?

Jane Jacobs said about the famous Washington Square Park fountain, “In effect, this is a circular arena, a theater in the round, and that is how it is used, with complete confusion as to who are spectators and who are the show.”

The jets on the new fountain will be adjustable but it is unclear just who will determine how they are regulated. (Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps?) It’ll be nice for those tourists coming down Fifth Avenue viewing the Fountain through the Arch (per the wishes of redesigner George Vellonakis) to see the large water plume from their taxis. However that was never really the point of this fountain, used for politics, music, art, juggling, shout outs, etc., as Jane Jacobs so admirably expressed.

REDUCTION IN PUBLIC SPACE AROUND THE FOUNTAIN:

“Inner Circle” Around Fountain

An issue that the WSPTF did not address at this meeting is the square footage of what is deemed “the inner circle” around the fountain — from the outermost edge of the fountain wall to the innermost edge of any seating. The WSP Task Force wishes expressed in an August ’07 document to the Parks Department allowed for it to be “no less than 90% of the current area,” allowing for a 10% reduction (why?… I could not tell you).

This report stated: “The fountain plaza appears to be smaller than 90% of the current area, and thus does not comply with the Gerson-Quinn Agreement*. The question is, however, by how much. The Task Force did not have enough information from the Parks Department to draw a clear conclusion on the size of the inner circle in the Plan. Rough calculations made by Task Force members of the total square footage of the inner circle ranged from 88% to 77% of the current area.”

There was no indication at the meeting that this question was ever answered. It was not addressed. (I did not have this August ’07 document: “Report of the Washington Square Park Task Force,” which CB2 chair Brad Hoylman provided to me at the meeting, so I did not ask.)

Entire Plaza

And what about the entire Plaza, extending outward from the “innermost circle?” This is certainly well utilized by the public and is part of the experience of being in Washington Square Park. Presently, there is a 23% reduction planned – a significant amount – something the WSPTF, to my knowledge, never addressed.

What is the Gerson-Quinn Agreement?

*“The Gerson-Quinn Agreement” is a somewhat dubious document, drafted by Council Member Alan Gerson and Speaker Christine Quinn, dated October 6, 2005, and sent to Parks Commissioner Benepe. In the document, the Council Members put forth a framework for “resolving the outstanding major issues pertaining to the renovation of Washington Square Park.” The only problem is that the outstanding major issues were: the reconfiguration of the entire park, the loss of public space, the aligning of the fountain, and the moving of the dog runs, among others. These issues are not addressed in the Gerson-Quinn Agreement in any substantive fashion. Nonetheless, it contains guidelines within it that they ask the Parks Department to adhere to. (I’ll report back on that another day.)

Basically, the Gerson-Quinn Agreement followed the principle of ‘ask what you think you can get, vs. what you want.’ (Many would argue they just stayed cozily in line with what Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wanted.)

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I think the Community Board could get some traction on this issue of the public space around the Fountain.

… Stay tuned… there’s more!

*This WSPTF meeting took place July 17th, 2008.

**Go to Part II here.