Extreme Makeover

Washington Square Park renovation battle gets personal—and private

A dazzling Friday sun has Washington Square Park teeming. Frisbees are in the air, kids swarm the playground, canines trot the dog walks, and a motley crowd of performers, readers, and loungers crowd around the central fountain. A teenage visitor to the city, in long dark hair and cool black T-shirt, sidles up. "Excuse me, sir," he says. "Where is 'the Village'?"

Little did he know he was in its heart, and its latest battleground. If current plans hold, sometime this fall the Parks Department will launch a $16 million redesign of the Greenwich Village landmark. The fountain will be refurbished and moved so it lines up with the arch, the central plaza will be ripped up and flattened, and a new playground will go where concrete play mounds now sit. A four-foot wrought iron fence will replace the current mishmash of lower barriers.

Approved by the community board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the plan still faces opposition in the neighborhood. "I've been here and I've watched the changes over all these decades," says Carol Massa, president of the MacDougal North Block Association, "and right now the biggest concern is how they are sanitizing our park. They're taking away the freedom, the charm, the uniqueness."

Public displays of affection: Going with the flow at Washington Square Park
photo: Cary Conover
Public displays of affection: Going with the flow at Washington Square Park

The opponents are planning a major protest and weighing legal options, and they are not alone. The local councilman, Alan Gerson, has said he might hold up money for the project. And in a rare moment of agreement, both The New York Times and the New York Post came out against the renovation plan. But for some neighborhood residents, the objection to what's about to happen in Washington Square Park is about more than the specifics of the new design. There are suspicions that this legendary public park is being privatized.

Controversy is not a new visitor to Washington Square Park. Once a potter's field, a site of public hangings, and a parade ground, it became a park in 1827. The current fountain went in around 1870, shifted slightly off center to make room for a roadbed. In the 1950s, the neighborhood resisted attempts by Robert Moses to direct more car traffic through the arch, and in the 1960s, community efforts finally got the park closed to bus routes. Protests have also defeated efforts to renovate the park, like a bid to install a fence in the 1970s.

Nowadays, "I would say 99 percent of the people agree that the park needs renovation, that it's old and it needs work," says Arthur Strickler, district manager for Community Board 2. But the agreement only goes so far. "This is Greenwich Village. If there is unanimity on something I think I'd fall flat on my face."

The new park will feature a new adventure play area for older kids and a refurbished bathroom house. Holley Square will be moved away from the central fountain to create freer walkways, and there'll be more benches in some areas, new tables for Scrabble, and lower walls for sitting. The central plaza and lawns will all be made to the same grade so wheelchairs can get around and the different parts of the park feel connected. "People with wheelchairs should have the right and people who are old should have the right to go to this space," architect George Vellonakis tells the Voice. "What we want to do is, when you're in this park, you want to feel the greenery. All accessible. Grass meeting plaza."

It sounds great, and, on paper at least, it looks nice—maybe too nice, opponents say. "Once you have something that is extremely groomed," Massa says, "there is a feeling—and there will be—that you can only walk through and sit down and not participate." Jonathan Greenberg of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition has a more basic objection: "The question they don't answer is, What's wrong with the existing design of the park?" The construction will put half the park off-limits for a year, and then close off the other half for a second year, at least. "The heart of Greenwich Village will be closed, and it's entirely unnecessary," he says. (The parks department says the renovation will take at least two to three years.)

There's no denying that the Square looks a little beat up. The Mounds, leftovers from an adventure playground, are cracked, fenced off, and have been baited for rats. The pavement is cracked and patched in several places. The sandlots in Teen Plaza, a raised area along the south edge of the park, look the worse for wear. But since the park is overrun with users, something seems to be working, and it seems a touch of paint or a layer of asphalt might cure the stuff that isn't.

Vellonakis's redesign is more ambitious than that. The reason, say backers of his plan, is the sheer number of problems to fix. "First of all, it hasn't been repaired or renovated in 40 years, so there's so much that needs to be done," Aubrey Lees, a community board member who co-chairs the Washington Square Park Task Force, tells the Voice. "There needs to be some sort of unifying fence. Repairs have to be made to the pavement. The fountain needs a lot of work."

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