Volume 74, Number 39 | February 2 - 8, 2005

Community is being force fed a pavilion restaurant

Let them eat cake, er, apples….
The mayor munched on an apple in Union Sq., above, when he announced funding had been allocated to renovate the square’s north end. However, the community is divided over plans for a restaurant in the pavilion.

By Carol Greitzer

Focus on the infighting at the Union Square Community Coalition board (“Union Sq. board clashes over pavilion plan,” news article, Jan. 19) distracts us from the real issue: should there be a permanent year-round private restaurant in Union Sq. Park? By “private” I mean open only to paying customers, but closed to all other members of the public. There are some who consider the restaurant concept a fait accompli — didn’t the mayor famously ask, “How else can you pay for playgrounds?” — but the community feels that the city’s obligation to provide services for its citizens definitely includes recreational amenities.

In the Washington Sq. Park proposal (“Washington Sq. redesign to go public; some think it’s too late,” news article, Jan. 19) the city seems willing to spend money moving dog runs and relocating statues, but insists that playground renovations must be financed privately. What are your priorities, Mr. Mayor? In Union Sq. Park, the public is expected to give up space that could better be used by children, in order to accommodate a pricey, unneeded restaurant.

This is not only bad policy, but it would set a terrible precedent for the rest of the city. What might come next? Building housing on “vacant” land, as was once proposed for Central Park…or perhaps renaming parks for donors willing to give a couple of million bucks?

Union Sq. Park, a national historic landmark, was at its lowest ebb as a drug dealers’ hangout, prior to the brilliant redesign in the late ’80s under the aegis of then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. At the dedication, I said I never thought I would see the day when mothers with baby carriages would be sitting in this park. But there they were, and soon it seemed that everyone was coming here…neighborhood people and those who poured out from eight subway lines (4, 5, 6, N, R, Q, W and L) via four staircases that empty into the park. People come to the city’s largest farmers’ market, which operates here year-round, four days a week. Pet owners come to the dog run, while would-be pet owners check out the adopt-a-pet facilities that function on weekends. The big Christmas crafts show is there for a month, but crafts tables abound throughout the year. Exhibits and demonstrations take place at both the north and south plazas. The three small playgrounds attract local kids, children from daycare centers and nursery schools, and older school children who come in groups to the market. Many bring lunches to eat in the park, as do hundreds of office workers who enjoy spending time outdoors on a nice day.

Union Sq. is a unique location, at the juncture of several communities: Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Flatiron, Gramercy Park. Technically in Community Board 5’s jurisdiction, its southern border is just across the street from Board 2, while Boards 3, 4 and 6 are just a couple of blocks away. Boards 4 and 6 residents must rely on Union Sq. Park playgrounds, for they have virtually no recreational facilities other than their waterfronts (Stuyvesant Park has only passive recreation and Gramercy Park is privately owned.) Tiny Union Sq. is only three and a half acres, but it has a huge daily constituency, apart from those residing in the Board 5 area. Yet these people are never consulted. The Parks Department deals with the Union Square Partnership and Board 5, but not with the park constituency. There are many creative uses for the pavilion, but nobody was ever asked for suggestions. Contrast this with an unused comfort station in the Allen St. mall, where the Parks Department actually solicited ideas for its use from the community.

While this area is deficient in play space, it has no dearth of restaurants — over 100, in fact, within a block’s radius of the park, running the gamut from McDonald’s to the Union Square Cafe. No wonder there was a derisive hoot when a Parks official said there was a demand for a year-round restaurant here. Yes, people like to eat in the park, but most want to bring in their own inexpensive food, and incidentally, they wish the department would stop shifting around the few available picnic tables. On a nice day it’s frequently so crowded, that many folks sit on the ground to eat.

Defenders of the plan point to what they call similar restaurants in other parks, but there are important differences. People usually spend several hours in Central Park, and may need to eat while there. This park is so large, it can easily accommodate such facilities. In Bryant Park, kiosks and restaurant are on land occupied by the library. And in Madison Sq. Park, a summertime stand sells food, but the nearby tables and chairs are not off-limits to non-customers. Anyone can sit there.

There are only two acceptable ways that food service might be made available in Union Sq. Park — either via the Madison Sq. Park model or via mobile food carts. Such carts, incidentally, are not permitted in the park currently, despite the city’s lament that it needs income. Let it be noted that in a Nov. 23, 2004, New York Times article we learned that the city collects multi-thousands of dollars from food vendors, one of whom reported that he took in $4,000 on a good day.

Union Sq. is too small and too crammed with people and activities to lose any of its land to an exclusive private use. The summer restaurant operation was an intrusion that deprived the public of much-needed space in this heavily used park, but the proposed year-round restaurant would be a huge, irreversible mistake. It is bad public policy that could have serious negative ramifications for parks all over the city. Union Sq. Park not only serves several neighborhoods, but it is a destination park, a national historic landmark. As such, it deserves to have a great, innovative playground that would be a showcase — not one where kids have to tunnel under a restaurant to get to the other side!

Greitzer was a city councilmember from 1969-’91, representing both Washington Sq. and Union Sq. parks, and was also a founder of The Council for Parks and Playgrounds, which later merged with the Park Association to become the Parks Council, now renamed New Yorkers for Parks.

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