Sunday, May 14, 2017

Washington Sq. Park Redesign Nemesis Appointed To Head Up Park & Conservancy

George Vellonakis

The new head of Washington Square Park is controversial Parks Department landscape architect George Vellonakis.  He was responsible for the controversial redesign of the park during the Bloomberg administration.   


By Geoffrey Croft

The irony.

George Vellonakis,  the much reviled Parks Department landscape architect behind the much vilified $ 30 million dollar renovation of Washington Square Park has been appointed to head up the historic park. 

He will simultaneously serve as both the park administrator, a city job, as well as the executive director of the private Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Mr. Vellonakis has stepped down as a landscape architect for the Parks Department after  more than 35 years. 

Friday was his last day in the capital division.  He starts Monday in his new positions.

His appointments will certainly ruffle a few feathers.

The then unlicensed landscape architect - but licensed real estate salesperson for Brown Harris Stevens  - was responsible for the controversial redesign of Washington Square Park during the Bloomberg administration.  (He has since gotten his landscape license after his lack of licensure became more wildly known)

The contentious renovation plan drew considerable public opposition.  Controversial elements included moving the fountain to align with the arch, (the fountain had been in the center of the park since 1870) reducing the size of the fountain,  eliminating the park's popular mounds, installing a wrought iron fence in order to close historic park at night, and the destruction of numerous trees.

The city was forced to make several concessions after community backlash. 

Unlicensed landscape architect George Vellonakis, and Manhattan Brough Commissioner Bill Castro holding up a rendering of the proposed fence at a public hearing on the Washington Sq. Park renovation plan.  The fence, which was to be used to close the park at night, was eliminated from the plan after public opposition.  (The Villager file photo)  

The park’s contentious nine year renovation was completed in 2014. 

The salary pays between 85,000 - 95,000 a year according to the Internal Job Vacancy Notice. 

His commute will not be a hardship as he lives four blocks from the park.

Vellonakis replaces Sarah Neilson, former chief of staff for Jonna Carmona-Graf,  Chief of Capital program management. Sarah left in 2016.

“I never lose my temper,” Vellonakis  told the NY Times in 2005.   

For months George was in the park’s maintenance building every Wednesday to discuss the design with the public. It was during this time that he was infamously caught by hidden camera speaking to a critic in rather unfriendly manner. (1:46 in)  

"We will pull our money, there won't be any design," he says in a contemptuous tone.

In 2008 the city was forced to pay $ 1 million dollars to fix a poorly designed sidewalk in City Hall Park after the Parks Department’s unlicensed landscape architect Vellonakis choose to use bluestone.  This despite being told by colleagues not to use that material because the surface was not appropriate - too slippery - and people might get hurt, which they did.

The forming of a conservancy for the park and its influence also raised the ire of the public.

The Parks Department worked behind the scenes to help form the private Washington Square Park Conservancy with the help of actor John Leguizamo’s wife, Justine, and socialite Veronica Bulgari. 

A year before the group publicly announced its formation plans in June 2013 Conservancy founder Elizabeth Ely was on the four person interview committee to decide the new Park Administrator and was instrumental in picking the city employee for the job.

Founding Washington Square Park Conservancy board members (from left) Justine Leguizamo, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari and Elizabeth Ely.  The fledgling group had already succeeded in influencing public park policy even on which city employee to hire as Park Administrator a year before the group even presented themselves to the public for the first time on June 5, 2013.  (Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates.) 

The Executive Director job is subject to the approval of the Parks Commissioner and the Board of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. 

The duel role of city employees simultaneously holding a Park Administrator job while serving as the head of a non-profit affiliated with the same park has repeatedly raised conflict of interest issues.

Washington Square Park in 2013 after the renovation. 

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