Extreme Makeover

Washington Square Park renovation battle gets personal—and private

The stiffest objections to the Vellonakis plan concern the fence and the fountain. Vellonakis says the fence—which, he says, is "always below your eyesight"—is actually there to protect plants along the perimeter of the park. He denies that its purpose is to keep the park closed at night. There was a plan to install gates to close the park, but that was dropped in the face of opposition. Still, Greenberg says, the fence could trap someone inside the park. "A four-and-a-half-foot fence makes you less safe, not more safe," he says.

Then there's the fountain. According to Vellonakis, its foundation is crumbling because water is leaking down into the stone and concrete. Plus, he says, the pipes and pumps are shot, and the surrounding plaza must be torn up to fix a drainage system that doesn't work.

"Since you have to rip out all these foundations, it costs you zero money—it's free—to put it back and center it on the arch," Vallonakis says. That will allow people in the fountain to look all the way up Fifth Avenue, and people entering the park to see the fountain perfectly framed. He adds, "It makes the space actually a very exciting space. Will people notice that in the future? Well, possibly not. But since it costs you nothing and since the foundations are going to be repoured, why not properly place it?"

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

Washington Square Association president Anne-Marie Sumner, who supported the redesign, says this move to the center was not something her group asked for. "But if the fountain needs enormous restoration and if you move it in order to satisfy the landscape artist's sense of symmetry and so forth, move it. Why not?" she says.

Opponents say the Community Board ignored wider complaints about the redesign. "The testimony was 80 percent against the plan," says Greenberg. Michael Haberman, an NYU official who co-chaired the task force, tells the Voice: "I think the process worked exactly as it was supposed to." Haberman says NYU "never took a position on any of the specific changes."

Of the $16 million estimated cost of the redesign, only $6.8 million has been set aside thus far. That has Massa suspicious. One of her park favorites, the dog run, will be among the last parts to be fixed. "Which," she says, "simply means by the time they get to it there will be no monies left for the dog run."

Or perhaps there will be, just not the usual kind.

Already, private donations to the project exceed the public monies committed. The Parks Department website says the city's ultimate contribution to the renovations is expected to be only $7 million. The rest has to come from private funders. And private money can come with strings attached. "As the fundraising progresses, changes will take place inevitably," Sumner says. "The people who say, 'We want this for the park and this is the cost of it,' they will probably have a voice at the table."

What worries Greenberg is that a conservancy of private donors will take hold. "Once that conservancy is there," he says, "there will be a new owner of Washington Square Park—and that's why we call it backdoor privatization."

At many parks in the city—those not supported by a relatively affluent, well-educated constituency like the one surrounding Washington Square—millions in private donations might be welcomed. In a recent report, New Yorkers for Parks highlights the vast inequalities of funding between the signature parks—like Bryant Park, where $324,125 was spent last year on maintenance and operations per acre—and the average park, where only $5,142 was devoted to each acre. In its 2004 report card on 200 neighborhood parks, the group found that 50 percent had broken fountains and litter-strewn areas, and a quarter had closed bathrooms. The argument might be made that since Washington Square Park can attract private money, the $7 million in city funds ought to go to parks in, say, East New York or the South Bronx, where there are more pressing needs and no private donors.

But Amy Gavaris, executive vice president of the New York Restoration Project, says it's not that simple, because deferring maintenance at big parks now will cost the city more later. That's not to say there aren't inequities, she says, adding, "My view is the deficiency is not really in the [parks] department or the decision making in the department but that it's insufficient funding."

The Parks Department reports that 86 percent of parks were in overall acceptable shape over the first four months of this fiscal year, down only slightly from the last. But the department's budget and head count are still recovering from big cuts in 2003, and Gavaris says, "I think there's been a shift away from funding of public space."

In Washington Square Park, that larger trend will play out along the benches and under the trees, as the renovations bought mostly with private money shape the use of the park and, some say, its character. "I definitely think it will change," Massa says of the park's free spirit. "There's no two ways about it."

"No, no, no," Sumner insists. "The people are going to make it their own."

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