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BY SAM SPOKONY | In the latest chapter in a nearly decade-long battle against city officials and Union Square’s business improvement district, community and park advocates last week hailed a judge’s decision to block plans to create an upscale restaurant within Union Square Park.
In his Jan. 8 decision, State Supreme Court Justice Arthur F. Engoron issued a temporary injunction that prevents the city Parks Department from moving forward with the construction. City lawyers responded by saying they will appeal that decision as soon as possible.
Engoron’s ruling was based on two main points: First, that the city never gained the state legislative approval that, under a public trust doctrine, is required for such a project; and his opinion that the restaurant would not provide any beneficial “park purpose.”
Activists and local elected officials had long argued that the proposed site for the restaurant — the pavilion at Union Square Park’s north end — must remain open to public uses, such as playground space for children and various community functions.
“It’s shameful that the Bloomberg administration continues trying to take away desperately needed space from community members and their kids,” said Geoffrey Croft, a representative of NYC Park Advocates and a board member of the Union Square Community Coalition, which filed the lawsuit last May. “The mayor thinks government shouldn’t have to take care of parks, and that those spaces are better off just being used as cash cows for the city. This is a perfect example of that.”
Based on the facts of the matter, it seemed inevitable that the restaurant plans would come under fire for failing to take the neighborhood’s current needs and atmosphere into account. As Engoron noted in his decision, there are only two playgrounds within all of Community Board 5 — which spans from 14th St. to the southern edge of Central Park, between Eighth and Lexington Aves. — while there are already more than 150 eating establishments within two blocks of Union Square Park.
According to the city and its proposed restaurateur, Chef Driven Market, LLC, the pavilion restaurant would operate six months per year — from April to October — and would be open from 7 a.m. to midnight, seating around 200 people. The establishment would also be accompanied by a smaller food kiosk, which would be open year-round.
Engoron also knocked the restaurant for its planned menu prices, which top out at around $34 for entrees, $15 for appetizers and desserts, and $18 for eggs at brunch. He agreed with community activists who claimed that the prices seemed more suited for wealthier dining crowds, writing in his decision that “the proposed prices would make broad swaths of the public think twice before entering.”
Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, whose district includes Union Square, notably joined as a plaintiff in the suit against the city, along with former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer and several other individuals. In an interview on Monday, Gottfried explained that while he rarely makes such a gesture, he felt a particular need to take a stronger stand in this case.
“I think that for many years, and through many different mayors, the city has often looked on parkland as a sort of vacant lot that can be taken advantage of to make money,” Gottfried said. “In this case, it would simply be wrong to take the pavilion away from public park use. And even if the restaurant proposal were acceptable, it ought to be done by law [with state legislative approval].”
The assemblymember noted that, previously, he had in fact supported state legislative approval of a restaurant within Bryant Park, because it was seen as a way to revitalize what had been a largely derelict portion of the park. But in the case of perpetually bustling Union Square, he said that perspective simply doesn’t apply.
Gottfried also criticized the Union Square Partnership — the area’s business improvement district, which is not a co-defendant in the restaurant suit — for continuing to push for the plan alongside city officials.
“The BID has, at least on this issue, been too focused on one aspect of business needs, and over a period of time that’s made it harder for them to work with elected officials and community groups,” Gottfried said, adding that while this has been has been his only real disagreement with the BID, it has tended to “dominate the relationship” in recent years.
Croft took more aggressive shots at the Union Square Partnership, calling it “outrageous” that the BID would attempt to — and potentially be allowed to — dictate land use in such a direct manner.
Citing unnamed sources, Croft vehemently asserted that the BID had always been the biggest proponent of the restaurant proposal, and that the Parks Department only supported the project because of commands from the Mayor’s Office.
“I have a lot of sources in Parks,” Croft said, “and people in that department hated this idea from day one, but they were under a lot of political pressure.” He added that the department officials would have had to be “deaf, dumb and blind” not to understand that the needs of children and community members outweighed those of a restaurant owner and the city.
The Union Square Partnership and the Parks Department declined to comment.
But Hilary Meltzer, deputy chief of the city’s Environmental Law Division, responded to all the criticism by claiming that Justice Engoron’s decision to block the restaurant was simply off base.
“The restaurant in Union Square is a proper park use, which we are confident does not constitute alienation of parkland,” said Meltzer in a statement released after Engoron’s ruling. “We believe the decision is incorrect, and we plan to appeal once the order is entered.”