by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York
On Tuesday, 06.10.14, newly-appointed NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, FAICP, and Dr. Feniosky Peña-Mora, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Design + Construction (DDC), were joined by Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, City Council Members Margaret Chin and Corey Johnson, Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber, Washington Square Park Conservancy Executive Director Sarah Neilson, and a score of children from P.S. 41 to open and dedicate the third phase and completion of Washington Square Park’s $30.6 million renovation. The design of the park, by landscape architect George Vellonikos, a longtime Greenwich Village resident, has been complemented by the new north-end public restroom and meeting facility by BKSK Architects, adjacent to the revised and renovated dog run. AIANY testified in favor of the project at the hearing of the Public Design Commission a few years ago, and the Center for Architecture hosted a public hearing on the design, including the dog run. That may have been the only time the canine coalition was out in numbers to voice their support for design change.
But at the ceremony, with kids present, the former controversies were forgotten as the beauty of the design became evident through description and observation. Park Commissioner Silver noted that the park looks better than ever, adding that the de Blasio Administration looks forward to “working with the community to ensure that Washington Square Park remains an inviting oasis to New York City’s residents and visitors for present and future generations.”
DDC Commissioner Peña-Mora noted that “environmentally-friendly amenities for park-goers” would augment the park’s use. He added that Washington Square Park showed the Administration’s commitment to sustainability and worked to “bring our neighborhoods closer together.”Equally eloquent was Council Member Margaret Chin, who said that the renovations “maintain the historic character of the Village” and “improve the park experience for residents, students, and tourists.” And David Gruber, chair of Community Board 2 and a longtime activist about the park design back to his days as the Board’s land use committee chair noted that the Village “got a world-class, charming urban park that everyone can be proud of.”
But, as always, the kids stole the show. Parks Department Manhattan Borough Commissioner Bill Castro, acting as the event’s master of ceremonies, elicited shout-outs and corrections from some of the elementary school children present by misreading the number of their school. His recovery, charming and quick, highlighted the fact that the true users of the park, now and forever, are the children of the surrounding neighborhoods, and, perhaps, their pets.
It might be remembered that despite the wonderful statues of Bessemer engineer Alexander Lyman Holley, who chaired the first meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, a central figure in the Italian Risorgmimento unification, both grace the renovated open space, measuring some 9.75 acres. The hero commemorated by the arch and the park’s namesake is the other George, not George Vellonikos. Washington, the “father of our country,” was the nation’s first elected orator. His farewell address, more an open letter to the nation’s citizenry, was abetted by edits from Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, but remains, quintessentially his own, ending with: “I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat, in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”
On the neighborhood scale, the renewed Washington Square Park was dedicated last week as a representative model demonstrating the power of design, collective care, and collaborative labor. This can be regularly celebrated through the summer concerts organized by the Washington Square Association along with the “Open to the Public: Civic Space Now” exhibition at the AIA New York Chapter’s Center for Architecture.