49. Because People Will Argue About Anything

Illustration by Jason Lee

In January 2005, when the Parks Department held a hearing to unveil its $16 million plan to overhaul Washington Square Park, a throng of neighbors was already there to protest it. What ensued was a two-year battle involving five lawsuits, dozens of community meetings, several demonstrations, and a series of fights over, well, just about everything. This month, a judge ruled against the last active anti-development lawsuit, but the fight continues, with City Council members threatening to withhold funding. “There are a lot of folks who just wanted to repair the park, not renovate it,” says Daniel Alterman, an attorney in one failed lawsuit. “We’ve got to get Bob Dylan here for a concert.” Here, a blow-by-blow of the main micro-skirmishes:

The Fight: The Parks Department plan calls for moving the signature water feature and gathering place 23 feet to the east, leveling out the sloping plaza that surrounds it, and adding a new, 45-foot spouting plume with eight side jets. Moving the fountain plaza to the park’s geometrical center, Parks says, would create an aesthetically pleasing symmetrical alignment with the Washington Square Arch as seen from Fifth Avenue; leveling the slope complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act; and the plume is simply considered attractive and fun. Opponents argue that making the park symmetrical would spoil a historically important site for political activism and a prime tourist attraction. One neighbor was so alarmed by the plume alone that he wrote a letter to The Villager using this metaphor: “A jet surge reminiscent of Mississippi when the police wanted to clear the streets.”
The Outcome: A judge seemed sympathetic at first to fountain loyalists who sued over the redesign, but the city won an appeal last spring. Now neighbors are concentrating on the just-revealed half-million-dollar price tag of moving the fountain; they’re calling on Village-based City Council members Christine Quinn and Alan Gerson to block the move, and for the city comptroller to investigate.

The Fight: Last winter, just after a red-tailed hawk was spotted in the park, two lawsuits were filed to block the city from tearing up the western portion of the park for lawns. “The Park’s habitat is necessary,” one suit reads, “for the successful migration of innumerable species of birds that use NYC Parks as part of the Atlantic Flyway.” Chopping down 32 trees, it is said, would also harm the park’s squirrels. Parks Department designer George Vellonakis once joked, “I’m surprised I haven’t yet been approached by a Save the Washington Square Park Rats coalition.”
The Outcome: Both suits were shot down this month.

The Fight: To maximize the proposed green space to the west, Parks wants to move the park’s two dog runs—one for little dogs, one for big ones—from the west side of the park to along Washington Square South, across from Judson church, with entrances from the park and the street. Dog owners said the new site is too narrow and too shady, and that street entrances are unsafe. “If a dog runs out, will drivers stop for him?” says Patricia McKee, who manages the large dog run. “We have had escapees before.”
The Outcome: Parks has said the runs will move as intended, but with entrances inside the park only.

The Fight: The Parks plan would get rid of three decaying asphalt lumps in the park’s southwestern corner, which had once been part of an ‘’adventure playground’’ for older children. Parks designer Vellonakis hated them. “Doesn’t it make you want to come out here with a bulldozer?” he told the Times. The Save the Mounds neighborhood group, however, campaigned to stop the wrecking ball—for the children’s sake. “To see your kids run up and down the sides of those hills, there’s nowhere else in lower Manhattan where you can do that,” says organizer Leonie Haimson.
The Outcome: Parks has agreed to let the mounds stay, and to build a new 8,000-square-foot playground for kids 9 to 12 years old. The catch: The new mounds won’t exactly be the mounds of old. “They will be in a similar form,” a Parks official said at a community meeting, “but with some kind of safety surface.” Still, he added, “Three mounds—you should feel happy.”

The Fight: Parks officials wanted to beef up security (and protect new plantings on the park’s edge) with a Bryant Park–style tall fence to replace the current lower metal rails. Gates at the park’s entrances would lock from midnight to 6 a.m. But critics like Jonathan Greenberg bemoaned a park that, as he wrote in The Villager, is “fenced, manicured and admired from Fifth Avenue terraces, while the people who visit it are forced to adapt to a place inhospitable to ‘hanging out.’ ”
The Outcome: Parks officials lowered the proposed fence to about four feet, with thin pickets people can see through. And the locked entrances are gone. “The gates were clearly a hot-button,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said. “The people have spoken, and we have listened.”

49. Because People Will Argue About Anything