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

Conflict du jour:
The Union Sq. pavilion restaurant

By now it’s quite clear that not everyone supports the Union Sq. Partnership’s plan to convert the Union Sq. pavilion into a year-round restaurant. The restaurant is just one feature of a plan for the north end of Union Sq., which also includes improving the park’s playgrounds and resurfacing — and potentially adding some trees to — the north plaza. The restaurant has emerged as the linchpin of the plan, and its most contentious aspect.

Supporters of the restaurant say it would bring a welcome use to that area of the park at night, increasing safety, and would, in general, be a nice amenity for the park, along the lines of a smaller Tavern on the Green.

Critics charge, rightly so, that the restaurant would constitute the taking of public space for private use. They say the overall plan for Union Sq.’s north end shouldn’t be dependent on the restaurant, and that other, more public-oriented uses could be conceived of for the pavilion. Furthermore, they note, there is already a plethora of fine dining spots all around the square. They are also uncomfortable about the fact that a business improvement district is spearheading the push to privatize the pavilion.

In short, both sides have valid points.

In theory, it seems a restaurant would not be such a bad use. Yet the idea of ceding public space is undeniably a major issue.

It would seem that if the pavilion building did not exist, we would not even be having this debate in the first place. Built in 1930 on the site of previous structures that had been there since the mid-19th century, the pavilion was originally intended for use by women and children and was also frequently used for performances. However, it has been underused for a long time. Union Sq. is on an upswing, and the time is ripe to find some constructive function for the pavilion that adds to the park.

The plan’s opponents have valid arguments, that’s clear. But so does the Partnership, which also has a well-defined plan, and a constituency. Basically, the opponents must offer one or more counterproposals on what they think would be a better use of the old building. As it stands now, the message “no restaurant” is coming through loud and clear from the plan’s detractors. But we’d also like to hear what they envision as an alternative.

Information center and cultural center have been mentioned as some alternative uses. Yet, it’s unlikely these would generate revenue equal to a restaurant.

Which brings us to another point: the assumption is that revenue from the restaurant would go toward maintenance of the park — if not into the city’s general funds. It seems the city is set on this concession being a moneymaker, if not for the park, then for the city’s coffers.

The opponents would say making a decision based on revenue-generating potential is the wrong way to plan public parks. They have a point — yet in an era of austere city financing, a revenue generator clearly could help the park. Again, we want to hear more alternate ideas from the opponents. But they better hurry — or they might someday soon find themselves sampling an onion soup on a nice white tablecloth in the pavilion.

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