Finally! Officials and kids cut ribbon in renewed park
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | After a six-year, three-stage renovation costing $30.6 million, a ceremony was held Tuesday to celebrate the completion of the Washington Square Park work.
A crowd gathered on the park’s west side under a tent near the bust of Alexander Lyman Holley, the renowned steel engineer.
“I am proud to say this park looks better than it ever did before,” pronounced Mitchell Silver, the Parks Department commissioner.
Seated in the audience along with community board members, park activists and other V.I.P.’s were the students from teacher Lindsay Litinger’s first-grade class at P.S. 41.
“Do you all enjoy the park?” Silver asked the kids.
“Yes!” they shouted back.
“Parks are really what make our cities livable,” Silver said. The refurbished park, he added, will be a place where the students will make their own memories, as generations have done before them.
His father, as a young man, used to take photos in Washington Square Park, “60 or 70 years ago,” he said.
“People proposed here,” he told the first graders. “Kids, you’re too young to understand that — but you will.”
In physical terms, the park’s renovation was intended to “create a renewed sense of place,” Silver said.
The first phase, which opened in 2009, included a renovated and accessible plaza — with the fountain shifted 22 feet to the east to align with Fifth Ave. and the arch. There were also expanded lawns and new planting beds that increased the park’s green space.
Phase two opened in 2011, including a new — though lower — stage area, chess plaza, renovated playground, petanque courts, a dog run for small dogs, sitting areas, landscaping, fencing and light poles.
The recently completed third phase included a new park house — including public restrooms and office space for park staff — a 24-hour dog run for large dogs, a new lawn where the dog run used to be located, and a rope-cable play structure suspended over the reimagined “mounds.”
Silver and other officials at the ceremony praised the park house as an example of state-of-the-art sustainable design. Designed by local firm BKSK Architects, the structure runs almost entirely off self-generated energy from rooftop solar panels and ground-source heat pumps.
The project actually has one final step left — the renovation of the sidewalks around the park’s perimeter, which will be done this winter.
Silver also praised George Vellonakis, the Village resident who designed the park renovation project, drawing a round of grateful applause.
The city’s Department of Design and Construction oversaw the work’s phase three. Dr. Feniosky Pena-Mora, D.D.C. commissioner, said the new energy-efficient park house meshes with Mayor de Blasio’s “vision to create more sustainable city buildings.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Corey Johnson also gave remarks.
“The job that D.D.C. and Parks have done here is phenomenal,” Brewer raved. “You’ve taken the environmental and energy issues here to another level.”
Brewer called the park “iconic — not just because it’s a destination, and not just for the kids,” she said, “but it’s also a place for people who just want to be themselves. The renovation doesn’t change any of that.”
A young busker was banging away at an array of white spackle buckets and pots and pans on the east side of the fountain, and the sound carried.
“I’m so glad that I can hear drums right now,” the borough president said. “Washington Square continues to be the iconic, gritty, authentic place it always has been.”
“Gritty?” someone in the audience wondered aloud skeptically.
Chin said she recalled her son playing chess as a young boy in the park — “but he was playing an adult,” she noted.
“This is a truly exciting day for Washington Square Park, the Village and all the city,” she declared.
The park is in the northern end of Chin’s District 1. Johnson represents neighboring District 2.
Johnson acknowledged state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who were in Albany on Tuesday, for their work on the park’s behalf.
He also paid homage to the spirit of protest and free speech that has characterized the park through its history.
“The people that come here on a weekly basis to protest their rights — we have to keep it open for everyone,” he stressed.
David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2, saluted a community group that has been around a while and engaged in park issues, as well as the Village’s most famous activist.
“One hundred years ago, the Washington Square Association successfully blocked an attempt to put a courthouse in the park, splitting it,” he noted. “And of course, yes, that other woman, Jane Jacobs. If it wasn’t for her, we would all be standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway.
“George Vellonakis did a great job,” he said. “We had a few bumps along the way at the beginning — but look what we got.”
Those “bumps” included several community and environmental lawsuits lodged against the renovation. Opponents charged that the project would do everything from decimate the park’s birds and squirrels to destroy the unique nature of the sunken fountain plaza, which has since been leveled out in the redesign.
Silver also acknowledged three founding members of the new Washington Square Park Conservancy who were in the audience, Veronica Bulgari, Gwen Evans and Justine Leguizamo, who stood up briefly to applause, and also Anne-Marie Sumner, of the Washington Square Association, who did the same.
Critics of the renovation were also on hand.
Asked her thoughts, Washington Square blogger Cathryn Swan offered, “It’s a good thing that the work is complete.”
However, she noted that the initially budgeted cost and expected duration of the project both doubled, in the end.
Queried if she’ll now hang up her mouse and end her probing posting about the park, she said, “No, no! The blog is not over yet. My big concern is about the potential privatization.”
Swan has kept a close watch on the conservancy’s activities — and even their e-mails.
Sharon Woolums, who was a leader on one of the environmental lawsuits against the project, stated, “I stand by everything I said — nothing has changed.”
Yet, she said, she likes some elements of the spruced-up park. One notably is the cable-rope play structure over the sunken, turf-covered valley that Councilmember Alan Gerson and others fought to create where the three children’s play mounds once stood.
“This works perfectly — the mounds,” Woolums said, as the P.S. 41 first graders cavorted nearby on the slopes and ropes. “And people fought for that and won, and that’s the most successful part of the park.”
Nevertheless, disabled activist Margie Rubin said the new mounds area actually is not accessible to kids in wheelchairs because “they put down a rug,” i.e. the springy artificial turf.
On the pro side, Bette Jedding, a Fifth Ave. resident, said designer Vellonakis really was involved in each detail of the renovation.
“Every single plant — it’s been his life,” she said.
Afterward, asked if the park renovation turned out better than he had imagined, Vellonakis said simply, “It was what I imagined.”