Landmarks delays vote on Phase 2 of park renovation

By Albert Amateau

Washington Square neighbors had their say last week about the Department of Park’s revised plans for the music stage, pathways and seating alcoves in the southeast quadrant of Washington Square Park.

The revised plans came before the March 17 hearing by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must approve changes to the park redesign, to be realized in the second phase of the park reconstruction later this year.

In 2005, Landmarks approved the general redesign of the entire park, but reserved judgment on Phase 2 until Parks submitted more detailed plans. Phase 1 included the park’s northwest quadrant and the reconstruction of the fountain.

Directors of the Washington Square Music Festival — which has sponsored free outdoor summer concerts on the music stage for more than 30 years — have been calling for a larger stage than the one proposed last week, plus retaining the current, paved Teen Plaza, which functions as a backstage area.

“But if this is as far as the Parks Depart-ment will go, we must reluctantly accept it,” said Peggy Friedman, the music festival’s president. Nevertheless, she said she wished the stage could be larger and higher than the one put forth at the March 17 hearing.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson said he was disappointed by the proposal to have only two seating alcoves in the park’s southeast quadrant, one opposite Washington Place, and the other near the playground, instead of the current seven alcoves in the area.

“Alcoves are an important use that could easily be accommodated,” he said. “Seniors who don’t want to be in the middle of the park, with all its hustle and bustle, prefer those quieter alcoves with facing seats,” Gerson said. “I hope that you will listen to the community,” Gerson told the L.P.C. commissioners. The councilmember indicated he would talk with Parks officials in an effort to improve the design.

George Vellonakis, the park’s landscape architect, urged the Landmarks Preservation Commission to approve the design at the March 17 hearing, but L.P.C. Chairperson Robert Tierney and most of the other commissioners voted to wait.

Regarding the music stage, Friedman noted that it currently measures slightly more than 650 square feet, and takes advantage of the large, paved Teen Plaza as a staging area and a buffer between the rest of the park and the performing area. The redesign, however, eliminates the plaza and replaces it with a lawn.

“We requested a stage of 800 square feet to make up for the lack of a paved court behind the stage,” Friedman said. The proposed stage is 700 square feet, a little larger than the current stage, but still too small without the paved plaza, she noted. The proposed stage is also lower — 28 inches high — than the current 35-inch-high stage. “That creates sightline problems for viewers behind the first few rows,” she said.

The plan also included a 150-square-foot extension that can be assembled and added to the front of the stage for music festival concerts. But Friedman said the extension seemed too cumbersome and would be an added burden for Parks personnel to assemble and disassemble. The extension would also reduce the audience seating area, she added.

In addition to the music festival, the current stage usually accommodates the Community Board 2 Children’s Halloween parade, a Goldman Memorial Band concert, New York University’s summer lunchtime concert series, a Festival of India, a Festival of Jewish Life, various rallies and protests, eight traveling high school band concerts, early-morning yoga classes, about five performances by Village theater groups and other events.

“All these groups and others yet to come would be negatively impacted,” Friedman said.

Gil Horowitz, a neighbor and member of the Coalition for a Better Washington Square, also said he wished the Parks Department had included a backstage area to accommodate the music festival, but he urged the Landmarks Commission to approve the plan. Horowitz also said the coalition was opposed to any suggestion to add alcoves to the revised plan.

“There are already better-designed seating areas in the Scrabble area [in the park’s northwest quadrant] and the chess area,” he said in a telephone interview later.

Anne-Marie Sumner, a leader in the Washington Square Association, urged the Landmarks Commission to approve the plan as soon as possible.

“Everybody is fatigued with one redesign after another,” she said in a telephone interview after the hearing. Nevertheless, she called for reconsideration of the mounds in the south side of the park. “They really have no play value and could be replaced with viable play space,” she added. Sumner also spoke in favor of eliminating alcoves from the park, saying, “Isolation breeds illegal behavior; there were 200 arrests last year in the east alcove.”

However, speaking for C.B. 2, Tobi Bergman also said the alcoves were important amenities for seniors.

“Still, two alcoves are better than none,” Bergman added.

However, one neighbor remarked that the alcoves attract “undesirable” people who make their homes in the alcoves. The remark provoked the resentment of nearby residents who said they valued the seating alcoves.

Parks is proposing a path divided by a mall just to the west of the stage, with the suggestion that it could be used as a backstage area. But Doris Diether, a board member of the Washington Square Music Festival, noted the suggested area would be in full view of the audience. Moving performers and equipment between the stage and that area would have to be done between numbers, making the pauses between numbers too long, Diether said.

“I understand that the music festival has said it would attempt to accommodate the proposed new staging area, if necessary. But if it’s not necessary, why should they have to?” Diether said. She also said the stage height at 28 inches was too low.

Sharon Woolums, a public member of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee and an outspoken critic of the park redesign, noted that a Project for Public Spaces survey indicated that 95 percent of people polled said the park’s old design functioned well. She urged that the Teen Plaza behind the stage be preserved and the stage itself remain the way it is.