Resistance to Washington Square Park Development in 1945

As New York University’s “Plan 2031” expansion continues and hits the news again this week, we delve into our archives to examine heated debates around Washington Square Park in years gone by. And as we see, the more things change the more they stay the same.

In 1945, the Washington Square Association, a group of neighborhood residents, organized a fiery campaign against the impending redevelopment of the area around the park. They feared that a “thirty-story apartment building planned for post-war erection on Washington Square North” would be just the beginning of a complete inundation of the park by tall buildings (Herald Tribune, April 26, 1945). The anti-development advocates found an ally in Robert Moses, who advanced a rule to downzone the area “bounded by Hudson and West Eleventh Streets, Broadway, a line 100 feet south of East Eight Street, Greene, Spring, Varick, and Clarkson Streets.” (New York Times, May 10, 1945). In addition, Moses planned to cap the height of buildings around most of the city’s parks, but “would not affect commercial buildings erected in areas not zoned for residence, such as Battery Park, City Hall Park, and Bryant Park.” (Herald Tribune)

At a City Planning Commission hearing on the plans, “only one of the twenty-two persons who spoke at the hearing, for themselves individually or as spokesmen for civic groups or realty owners, expressed unqualified opposition to the proposed rezoning.” (New York Times, May 24, 1945) This person represented the Chalfonte Syndicate, developers of the proposed apartment building that spurred the controversy. The application for rezoning, on the other hand, was filed by 67 private homeowners who feared for the property values. He “contended that [the proposed restrictions] were confiscatory and hinted that a court fight would be made should the commission approve them.” Moses, in rebuttal, argued that “the city’s parks were all becoming too small and had to be protected from the damage that population congestion was causing.” (New York Times)

The CHPC archives contain clippings of these news reports as well as primary documents chronicling the rezoning of Washington Square Park’s borders. These include impassioned letters from local advocates seeking support for their petition to the City Planning Commission, and between prominent planners and CHPC members.

Here we include the petition and an advertisement that the Washington Square Association distributed for signatures. In addition, the group hired an architectural consulting firm in 1944 to produce a pamphlet detailing neighborhood planning concepts for the park “and environs.” The pamphlet describes what it calls “urban-itis,” an ailment that city dwellers suffer from as a result of poor planning whose remedy is neighborhood planning. You can view that entire document here.