NY Times: “Top Down Parks Department Remake” of Washington Square Leading to “Slow Diminishment” of Park

Old WSP 2007

“When cities rely on private donors, we end up with sterile, controlled environments,” states the preface to a recent New York Times Op Ed, How Parks Lose Their Playfulness. The piece delves into the redesign of Washington Square Park and how the aftermath of the “top down” plan is leading to its “slow diminishment.”

The $40 Million plus redesign of this Greenwich Village park was largely funded by public taxpayer money, yet it was done, as the article by Thomas de Monchaux outlines, in a “top down” manner; this was with billionaire Michael Bloomberg as Mayor, with Parks Department head Adrian Benepe, and now (recently appointed) Park Administrator George Vellonakis, then as the public face and redesigner. This blog was started initially in early 2008 to track the redesign of the park (technically, still ongoing since the work is not yet complete).

There was behind the scenes influence that led to the moving of the Fountain 22 feet east to “align” with the Arch at Fifth Avenue, also the giveaway of the naming of it. It has always been called “the fountain,” yet Tisch family money led to “Tisch Fountain,” although no one calls it that. $2.5 Million came from the Tisch family, some of which is in a park endowment, as well as $1 Million from New York University, also partly now in an endowment (there is a whole other story behind that).

Thomas de Monchaux writes:

Extraordinary philanthropy, in our new Gilded Age, is extraordinarily praiseworthy. But with ever more private and corporate investment through Trusts and Friends and Foundations and Conservancies, it’s worth wondering what else seeps into public space — not the least of which seems to be a taste for order.

The pedestrian strand fronting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was once a motley of fountains, old trees, vendors of artsy ephemera and street performers. In recent years it has become a tidier, drier place, with rows of oversize awnings and undersize trees — called, after its patron, David H. Koch Plaza.

The writer also talks a lot about Pier 55 and Barry Diller as well as The Highline. And, although the private Washington Square Park Conservancy, with its recent controversial and “murky” beginnings, does not run or manage Washington Square Park – the park remains run by the New York City Parks Department, unlike the privatized and commercialized parks at Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Central Park and Prospect Park – the private organization’s mantra is to raise money to keep the park “safe, clean and beautiful.”

About the redesign of the park, de Monchaux writes:

The quintessential case study is the slow diminishment of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The 1958 rescue of this nine-acre square was a victory for activists, including the urbanist Jane Jacobs, in the nascent historical preservation movement. With the square closed to automobile traffic, the local community board nurtured an open-source and bottom-up redesign into a park, enlisting neighborhood designers coordinated by the polymathic playwright Robert Nichols.

What resulted, in 1970, was a masterpiece. A modern, grown-up playground, its unconventional features nurtured how people most loved to use the place: a curvy sculptural landscape, encircled by shade trees, of low platforms and niches that served as spontaneous seats or stages for troubadours, arrayed like petals around a fountain, stepping down toward it to make an urban conversation pit, providing spectacle and sanctuary.

Forty years later, the well-used park was in need of care, but instead got a top-down Parks Department remake. A perimeter fence went up. The sunken plaza was filled and flattened. The leaky fountain — now officially the Tisch Fountain, in honor of a $2.5 million gift from a private foundation — was repaired. But it was also shoved 20 feet sideways from the park’s center and made to line up with Washington Arch to its north, reducing lively counterpoint to relentless alignment. Shapes from Mr. Nichols’s composition were weakly echoed in narrow new benches. But the park doesn’t do its job as well as it did, and its remaining energy may be more a testament to indomitable downtown bohemians than to its new order.

The original budget for the redesign of Washington Square Park was approved at $16 Million for three phases and a few years, it ended up in four or five phases, cost over $40 Million, and the core of the work took over 7 years for completion. The majority of this was paid for by the public, despite public opposition to the many many changes that were being made.

The bones of the park remain from the 1871 design and some of the Nichols design is still in place due to a fight from the community and park users but the spirit has changed. I very much agree with his last sentence in this Op-Ed which is why fighting to protect this still very special public space from private and other influences becomes that much more important.

You can read the full article here.

Photo: J. Bary

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