Washington Square Park, Haven for Eccentricity, Is Set to Fall Into Line
The fountain at Washington Square Park is not in alignment with the arch.
Under the city's plan for the park, the fountain will be moved.
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
Published: May 10, 2005
Washington Square Park, the scruffy spot with an anything-goes tradition, is about to get a perimeter fence and a lock, courtesy of a Parks Department makeover.
Today, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is expected to approve a $16 million redesign, the last step before the 9.75-acre park will be altered in its most significant way since Eleanor Roosevelt helped lead the fight to ban automobile traffic from Washington Square in 1959.
Under the plan, the park's centerpiece fountain would be shifted into precise alignment with the Washington Square Arch as seen from Fifth Avenue. The park's quirky changes in elevation would be leveled off. Two popular dog runs would be moved. Three six-foot-high asphalt mounds, part of an old playground, would be flattened. A large plaza would be replaced by a lawn. And a four-foot-high granite and iron fence would go up along the perimeter, along with gates that would be locked at night.
"They're sanitizing the park, taking away a lot of its charm and freedom," said Carol Massa, president of the MacDougal Block North Association. "It's overkill."
Few people disagree that Washington Square needs a face-lift. The fountain leaks, the pathways and pavement are badly cracked and the grass is often not green. But in a park in which there is a vice president in charge of the dog runs, and the asphalt mounds have their own preservation group, change does not go down smoothly, said the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe.
"There's a constituency for every little part of the park," he said, "and there are going to be people who are going to be contrarian no matter what."
The Landmarks Preservation Commission vote will determine only whether the plan violates city landmark laws. The plan has already been approved by the local community board and no further approval is needed. The three-year project could start in late June. Officials say that the work will not disrupt New York University graduations, which take place in the park.
Despite the community board's approval however, the area's councilman, Alan J. Gerson, said the neighbors, many of whom have only minor complaints about the redesign, continue to have valid criticisms. "There are several areas of concern," said Mr. Gerson, who grew up playing in the park and remembered falling off the monkey bars many times. "I want to ensure the design preserves the character of openness of the park."
Opinions are nearly unanimous in the neighborhood about the fence: almost no one wants one. Some say it would be far too high; others doesn't want it at all, saying permanent barriers are antithetical to the park's history and character. The Parks Department says that the park now officially closes from midnight to 6 a.m.
At Washington Square yesterday, parkgoers enjoying the afternoon sun generally thought adding gates was a bad idea.
"It's a total waste of money," said Erik Foss, 32, owner of Lit, a bar in the East Village. "This city's already so safe as it is. I walk through here at night. All the people that try to sell drugs here at night are cops anyway." You should be able to just walk through - it's a park."
Erica Roedder, 25, a New York University graduate student in philosophy, said a higher police presence would be preferable to a locked gate. "If I were making the decision I would just have more police monitors and be more aggressive about people who were disruptive," she said. "But keep it open. I have really good memories of coming to Washington Square Park and making out. It's nice for young couples to have a place to go at night."
The Parks Department said that, other than drug dealing, there is very little crime in Washington Square. The fence, they say, will simply help police enforce the park's curfew and keep dogs from ruining the plants.
There were some dark mutterings about the intentions of N.Y.U., whose buildings tower over Washington Square, and whose expansion in recent decades has led to ongoing ill will in the area.
For its part, N.Y.U. denies that it has had any role in the redesign, aside from contributing $1 million and requesting that a dog run not be placed across the street from Bobst Library on Washington Square South. But dog owners have complained that the new dog run would be too close to Washington Square South, and that the shady new site would not allow sufficient sunlight.
The other significant contributors to the redesign have been the mayor's office, the City Council, the Manhattan borough president's office and the Tisch family, which gave $2.5 million.
Carol Greiser, a former City Council member who had been instrumental in the effort to ban traffic in the park, said the Parks Department had erred by planning the changes, including hiring architect George Vellonakis, while consulting only a select few in the neighborhood.
"He's playing musical chairs with everything in the park," Ms. Greiser said about Mr. Vellonakis's design. "He's moving fountains, he's moving dog runs. It should not be a major objective to align the fountain with the arch. What do you need it lined up for?"
However, Anne-Marie Sumner, president of the Washington Square Association, says she expects her group to formally endorse the plan today.
Ms. Sumner said she would support the redesign, despite opposing Mr. Vellonakis's plan to do away with Teen Square - a slightly elevated plaza that has been used as a performance space - in favor of grass. The plaza has been the site of the Washington Square Music Festival, which has given free concerts in the park each summer for decades. After the redesign, the festival would play on a temporary stage.
Peggy Friedman, director of the music festival, said the elimination of a permanent stage would not only harm the quality of performances, but also be a strike against the park's history as a center of free speech.
"I feel every group that uses the park should have a stage to use," she said.
And then there is a group called Save the Mounds. The mounds, three decaying asphalt lumps in the park's southwestern corner, had once been part of an "adventure playground" at the park for older children to climb and to sled on. But while other elements of the playground were long ago carted away, the mounds have endured, and efforts to flatten them have elicited cries of alarm.
The group's spokeswoman, Leonie Haimson, said, "They're the only hills for miles around."
Johanna Jainchill contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company