Fountain flowing, flowers blooming, restored square bursts back to life

By Albert Amateau and Lincoln Anderson

The chain-link fences came down without any fanfare and with minimal public notice around 6 a.m. Tuesday. But it did not take long for Villagers and visitors to find their way into the new, redesigned northwest quadrant of Washington Square Park.

By 10 a.m. the relocated fountain was jetting water as it should and George Vellonakis, the designer of the park’s renovations, was on hand to see that all was well. He declined to comment and referred all inquiries to the Department of Parks and Recreation press office.

Early-morning visitors had divided opinions about the new design, which provoked a seemingly endless and bitter controversy for the past several years and survived a court attack by dissenters.

“I liked it better the way it was before,” said Ognjen Simic, who works at New York University. “I don’t see the need to change it.”

“It looks great,” said Vigdis Burke, a Village neighbor for 15 years who came with her daughter, Annika, 2 years old, and her son, Christian, not quite 1 year old. Annika found her way to the water in the fountain and wet her fingers and the bottom of her shoes before mom said, “No.”

What did David Langdon, in the park with his wife and three children, think of the new landscaping with a wide central path leading to the plaza and the fountain? Langdon shrugged.

“It’s pretty,” he said. “But they took down a lot of trees. The fountain seems strange here in the center. I don’t think it was worth closing the park for two years.”

Robin Nagle, an anthropology professor at N.Y.U. and anthropologist-in-residence of the city’s Department of Sanitation, said, “It’s beautiful, but I’m concerned about maintenance. That will be the make or break of the park.” Nagle said she did not miss the sunken aspect of the old plaza. “It was kind of skuzzy,” she said. “I predict that on a sunny summer day this whole plaza will be filled with people.”

Cathryn Swan no longer lives in the Village but nevertheless follows and writes about Washington Square for her blog, www.washingtonsquarepark.wordpress.com. She agreed the park looked pretty but she added that it wasn’t worth the acrimony. She said the park could have been renovated as it used to be.

Around 9:30 a.m. a first grade class from P.S. 41 entered the park to explore all the living things they could find. They came expecting only the as-yet-unreconstructed southwest quadrant and east side of the park to be open, but found a brave new world to explore in the newly opened section.

Rebecca McMackin, a Department of Parks gardener, was on the job at 9 a.m. and took the time to talk to a visitor who wanted to know the name of the purple spike flowers blooming all over the place.

“Cat mint” was the answer. “It’s like catnip and cats really like it,” McMackin said. Many plants native to the region are expected to bloom soon. The yellow-and-brown black-eyed Susans for example, and the purple echinacea, commonly known as conehead, will come on in a few weeks. McMackin confirmed that the echinacea in the park is the same plant that has been touted as the remedy for the common cold.

“I’m interested in them and the other native plants because they attracted native American bees. I’m doing a native-bee survey for the park,” she said.

Michael Oppizzi, who has lived on the park all his life, remembered the 1972 renovation and said the park needed some beautification. He liked what he saw on Tuesday morning.

“I think they’ve done a spectacular job,” he said.

By early afternoon, the park’s renovated section and the fountain were packed with people. Around 1:30 p.m., the actor Matthew Modine, who lives near Washington Square, was sitting astride his new orange Puma bicycle by the arch where he happened to be giving an interview on some other subject. He simply raved about the renovation to The Villager.

“I think that the people responsible — the architects — for this renovation will be looked on with as much reverence as Olmsted on Central Park,” he predicted. “The park had gone through renovations that made it very ’60s, with the globe lights, and what they have done with the carriage lamps and the plantings, the gardens — it represents Washington Square.”

Sandra Pailet, who has lived around the park for 40 years, said she initially had been concerned about the project’s steep price tag. But on Tuesday, admiring the completed first section, she called it “divine,” and said she appreciated the new symmetry.

“It’s such an important park,” Pailet said. “It makes such a difference to have the fountain centered. Everywhere I go in the park, I can see it. I’m an artist and I studied architecture — maybe I’m a little more sensitive to it than most people.”

Sitting on the new, smooth steps inside the fountain, reading a Robertson Davies novel, Ted Cardos, 28, an N.Y.U. Law School student, gave the job an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “I like the new benches on the outside, and I Iike the symmetry more.” He said the water jets arcing on either side of him were great, but added, “The only problem is, if the wind blows, you get wet.”

Barefoot little children were scampering around the fountain’s steps, and Cardos noted that the youngsters were another cause of wayward water spray — putting their hands or feet on the spouts, deflecting the water’s direction.

“There was a 4-year-old kid spraying a homeless guy,” he said. “I don’t think it was on purpose… . Parents got to be more aware — have their kids on a leash,” he joked.

A number of dogs, some on leash and some off, were also enjoying the watery scene on the fountain’s steps.

Asked if he thought the renovation looked good to him, filmmaker Tim Hall, 45, sitting on the fountain’s lip as the water jets audibly splashed into the fountain, smiled and said, “It does — it sounds good, too.”

Speaking of sound, by the early afternoon, several groups of musicians had already made their way to the new park. Loose Marbles and Baby Soda, two old-style jazz bands from New Orleans, were taking a break on the benches on the plaza’s south side. They looked like they were right at home, but a member of Baby Soda withheld giving the project his seal of approval. He said he wanted to see how heavily the park is used when the weather isn’t so beautiful.

“Give it a couple of weeks and see what the change is,” he said.

Nearby, three women in their 20s hula-hooping on a lush new lawn all said they liked the refurbished park.

“The wide tables are nice for doing homework,” observed one of them, Megan DiBello, 23, a poet, regarding the new, smooth black benches ringing the plaza.

However, local activists Doris Diether and Sharon Woolums, who were checking out the smaller plaza area east of the fountain where the Holley statue is located, were not too pleased.

“These paths are too wide,” grumbled Diether.

“I don’t like the Holley statue on the side,” said Woolums.

Diether, a veteran member of Community Board 2, said she had told Vellonakis from the beginning that the grassy median along the path between the circle with the bust of Holley and the fountain plaza reminded her of “Rockefeller Center.”

A public member of C.B. 2’s Parks Committee, Woolums was a plaintiff on a community lawsuit against the project. She called later to say she didn’t want to sound too negative, and that the renovation did have some good points, too.

“The grass is nice and some of the plantings are nice — and it’s clean,” she said.

Woolums said she hoped Parks at least leaves the park’s eastern half open for the summer before starting phase two of the renovations.

However, Cristina DeLuca, a Parks spokesperson, said the department expects to begin construction on the second phase this summer and that the work should take about a year to complete.

“The second phase of the reconstruction project will feature restored landscaping, plantings and flower beds, replacing excess asphalt in the remaining northeast, southeast and southwest quadrants,” DeLuca said. “The northeast playground will be upgraded, and a new play area in the southwest section will incorporate the mounds, rebuilt slightly below grade to improve sightlines and minimize their impact on the park landscape, and covered with carpet-style synthetic turf for safety. A new performance stage will be built, the dog runs will be relocated and expanded, the Giuseppe Garibaldi monument will be conserved and relocated, the petanque courts will be reconstructed, the paths will be repaved and new lighting and fences will be added.

“We are not sure of the cost, as the project is currently out to bid,” DeLuca added. “We will receive the bids on June 1, and should have a better idea of the cost at that point.”