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.


“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.)


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.

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

  1. Move on. Big issues in the world.

    Cleaning up public spaces is something we just need to do every few generations. Making the fountain ADA accessible, modernizing walkways, breathing life back into the green-spaces, creating some cosmetic order… all good. Lots of people stopped using this park – because it was run down and overwhelmed by illegal behavior.

    You’ll see – in no time you’ll be back in your beloved park enjoying it with the rest of us. No one will remember these protests/sentiments. As we’ll have a great park to enjoy.

  2. Sorry Ray, but that isn’t what is going on here. Cleaning up the park is one thing. Completely re-doing it without any input from the community and what the community needs/wants is completely another. Actually read the blog and you’ll see we’re not protesting cleaning it up and taking care of it. Quite the opposite actually. I don’t think anyone would have complained about fixing what was broken, and shining up the rest. But that isn’t what is happening. They are lighting a match to our park and completely redesigning it when all it needed was to be repaired, cleaned, and actually maintained. They are spending millions on this redesign, but have they talked to anyone in community about we want and need for our park? Nope. That is what is wrong here. These plans came together with 0% community input. If they had talked to the community, they would have learned that 98% of people liked it the way it was with repairs and cleaning. What is happening is that The Parks Department and a bunch of donors have taken the reigns on these plans and are not involving the community in any way. Do the current plans take into consideration how people use the park, what people like and enjoy the most about the park, and what makes this park special? Nope. Not at all. They just on the surface make it “prettier”. Are these current plans functional to how people use this park every single day? Nope. Again, that is what is wrong here. That is what we are protesting on this blog –not whether or not we clean and repair our beloved park after a long period of complete neglect. That is what NEEDED to happen. That is all we wanted them to do! We are protesting a complete redesign of Washington Square Park that threatens the innate character of this unique, historical, well used, much loved space. Making it “prettier” and throwing out the rest is not a plan worthy of this park. Period.

  3. Hi Tara and Ray,

    Re: Ray’s comments…
    “breathing life into the green spaces,” “modernizing walkways,” “making the fountain ADA accessible *(and the City is still missing the boat on many things in relation to ADA – NOT putting in place things the disabled community actually wanted or felt they needed and throwing other elements in just to push forth their agenda..) – all good things.

    The issue is the close-to-total destruction of what was/is. “A lot of people stopped using the park” Well, A LOT Of people still use it and like it. Who decides? Like you, Ray, the people who like it now would like to see it MAINTAINED and shown some ‘love’ vs. given plastic surgery, as if it never mattered. Washington Square Park IS a GREAT PUBLIC SPACE – as is.

    If it was maintained as was necessary over the years, we probably wouldn’t even have any disagreement. The Parks Department let the Park fall into disrepair. There are serious issues with the way the Parks Dept is run. It has become, under Commissioner Benepe, more about p.r. and splashy redesigns vs. maintenance of the City Parks. The money goes towards unnecessary projects – but they provide good photo ops. In a budget crisis, it’s a bit unconscionable.

    The REASON the argument over our public space is important is because it is emblematic of many changes both (a) societal and (b) pushed through by the Bloomberg Administration in our City. These changes are sweeping across all the boroughs and many lament because of the WAY they are done and WHAT the content of the changes is.

    Tara, Good points. Thanks for your input. The Parks Department would (will) argue that they did give the community opportunity to comment. That’s part of the problem. There were many exercises the community was put through and allowed to talk in many settings — but not LISTENED to. The Parks Department had already decided what they wanted into play. They refused to reveal key details and worked to manipulate the process in a way that was slick, unfair, and not how our elected officials should be proceeding.

    Thanks both for your comments.


  4. Yeah, they can still talk to the community, but whether or not they listen/care about what we say is really what counts. Those plans were not put together with the community’s input integrated into them at all, and it really shows. I mean the plans just seem so random, like “Hey lets put a bunch of gigantic flower pots over there! Why not! And hey, let’s shrink the height of the stage! Sounds good! Hey, let’s move the fountain over there, name it after the Tisch family, and shrink the whole general area! Awesome!” Thanks for your update on this. It is very revealing indeed.


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