Restroom rehab won’t disturb the rest of the dead

By Lincoln Anderson

Following the unearthing of an ancient tombstone in Washington Square Park in October, the Parks Department has scrapped plans to expand the basements of its restroom and maintenance buildings.

Parks officials made the announcement at Community Board 2’s Parks Committee meeting last Wednesday.

The Parks Department had promised to show the committee plans for the new building five months ago. But Becky Ferguson, Washington Square Park’s administrator, told the meeting they still didn’t have anything for them to look at.

“The process is going much more slowly than we anticipated,” she said. “Part of that has to do with archaeological concerns around the site and concerns about going underground at the site.” 

Regarding the archaeological concerns, Ferguson said they’re trying to avoid things “coming up that would delay the project even more.”

Parks anticipates having some schematics of the new park building by the end of next month, and hopes to show them to C.B. 2 by February, they said.

The department had hoped to build a larger building with a bigger basement, the latter to be used for Parks employees’ changing rooms. But now the footprint of the existing restroom building will be kept the same — meaning the basement won’t be expanded or deepened — though the structure on top will be completely rebuilt.

Tobi Bergman, C.B. 2 Parks Committee chairperson, indicated the news came as a welcome development, since the committee members and neighborhood residents would just assume see the building not increase in size.

“I think most people here would say, ‘Build it with the existing base — cramp it a little bit. We don’t need a bigger building,’” Bergman said. “I think smaller is better. We don’t want a bigger building, we want a bigger park.”

George Vellonakis, the designer of the park’s renovation project, gave an update on the 210-year-old tombstone of James Jackson that was found in the park near Sullivan St. two months ago. It was in two pieces, he said, and is being repaired by a conservationist and eventually will be put back on site.

Explaining why they decided not to expand the restroom building’s basement, Vellonakis said while it’s easy to move around catch basins or utility lines if archaeological remains are come upon during the work, “you can’t just move buildings around.” 

During the park renovation’s first phase a few years ago, he noted, workers found near the restroom building’s foundation some “shallow, intact burials.”

Vellonakis said the Parks Department anticipates finishing phase two of the renovation project by this time next year. The reconstruction of the park buildings is considered phase three — though it’s long been the community’s number-one priority for the park.

“We really want to fast-track it now,” Vellonakis said. “We really want to finish up phase three while we’re in phase two.” Landmarks Preservation Commission approval is needed, among others.

Susan Goren said she was annoyed that the area around the buildings is used by Parks employees to park their private cars. Bergman later said his understanding was this won’t be allowed after the structures are rebuilt.

After the meeting, Bergman said he assumed Parks intends to link the restroom building and Ferguson’s small administrative building aboveground, though not belowground. There is also a third building, a small maintenance shack.

During the meeting, Vellonakis noted there are plans to install a number of tripods with information panels about Washington Square at various spots around the park once the renovation is complete. The panels will each refer to different aspects of the park’s history, such as the farm that once stood there and the folk singers of the 1950s and ’60s, he said. The tripods will be similar to those in Father Demo Square, at Sixth Ave. and Bleecker St., he said, referring to another park that he redesigned.

Keen Berger, a committee member, stressed to him that they want to see the text for these plaques before any final decisions are made.

Vellonakis assured, “We will not have it completed and printed without your seeing it and reviewing it and modifying it.”