Updated: Apr 15
By Bart Boehlert Now a real estate agent with Brown Harris Stevens, the former parks designer oversaw some of the city’s most prominent projects, including the redesign of Washington Square Park.
New York City’s parks bring priceless value to the city, offering a sense of calm and serenity among nature between the otherwise bustling streets. Not only do they provide an escape, but larger parks like Central Park also fight pollution and help to control temperatures and humidity. Additionally, parks raise the value of adjacent real estate by offering residents a bit of the country in the middle of the city.
Few understand this better than George Vellonakis, a landscape architect and parks designer who has created more than two dozen parks, including Washington Square Park, City Hall Park, Columbus Park/Cadman Plaza, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, Joyce Kilmer Park, Holocaust Memorial Park, and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
Vellonakis, who is a Chelsea-born native New Yorker, attended City College where he earned degrees in architecture and landscape architecture. In 1984, he joined the Parks & Recreation Department and then the Office of the Mayor, designing and overseeing many prominent projects.
Here are some of the most notable of his projects, which provide a unique insight into how New York’s parks have evolved, often in the face of many obstacles.
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza offered an early challenge for Vellonakis, since it involved taking out a block of East 47th street to convert to a plaza. “City parks go through an extremely complicated approval process involving community groups, special interest groups, and elected officials,” said Vellonakis.
He became friendly with Katharine Hepburn, who lived in the nearby Kips Bay neighborhood, and visited her at her home in Connecticut where he spotted a bench in her garden.
After Hepburn died, he and her friend Lauren Bacall arranged for the bench to be sent to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, where it resides today.
City Hall Park
At a time of heightened security concerns around government buildings, Vellonakis designed City Hall Park so that the perimeter of the park would be protected with strategically placed elements like trees and police booths—ensuring that the park would be a safe location for elected officials.
Washington Square Park
One of the designer’s most notable projects was the redesign of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, which was previously chopped up with steps, ramps, raised plazas, and a concrete wall in the urban aesthetic. “It was popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s to urbanize parks rather than look at the greener solution, “ said Vellonakis. “My whole life in parks was the greener approach.”
After going through five lawsuits with those who opposed changing the park, the renovation persevered, and now the park is 25% greener and more cohesive with a dog park, a play area with rolling hills, and park lighting and benches inspired by designs from the 1850s.
“I always aimed to make parks more accessible and more green.”
Abingdon Square Park
Abingdon Square Park similarly saw resistance from some neighbors who were hesitant about changing the original paved asphalt playground. But Vellonakis’ successful design oversaw a new mounded, rolling hill at its center, comfortable benches, and beautiful lighting. Abingdon Square Park is now a jewel in Greenwich Village.
“Real estate and architecture have always been my passion,” Vellonakis observed.
After retiring from the Parks Department, he began working full-time as a real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. “What I love most about real estate are my clients and the people I meet. I love looking at real estate and helping people especially in Greenwich Village, which is my home,” says Vellonakis, who lives on Lower Fifth Avenue.
He can always enjoy the fruits of his former labor at a nearby park.
“Our city parks were dangerous and in disrepair,” Vellonakis recalled. “I worked at a time when we transformed parks from liabilities to assets that offer a better image of New York City; they’ve changed the dynamics of our city and improved our quality of life.”
The magical thing about parks is that they continue to grow as the trees get bigger and the landscapes mature. Although the designer’s work is done, his parks will always go on progressing and flourishing.