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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”