Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005

Reducing restaurant makes rehab plan go down easier

By Albert Amateau

The newest version of the redesign of the north end of Union Sq. Park calls for eliminating the outdoor patio of the proposed pavilion restaurant and making the children’s playground one third larger than the earlier version, the Department of Parks said on Monday.

Supporters of the controversial park redesign and even many critics of the plan hailed the change.

“It shows that Parks is an agency that can hear the community and understands that the interests of children are the most important and must be addressed,” said City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who designated $1.9 million in her discretionary funds for the Union Sq. N. project.

The change was made in consultation with Susan Kramer and Gail Fox, co-chairpersons of the Union Square Community Coalition, a neighborhood advocacy group. said Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson.

Karen Shaw, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, the business improvement district co-sponsoring the redesign with the Parks Department, said, “I think this is terrific. Whatever moves this project forward is great and the community should be pleased.”

No drawings have been completed but Department of Parks and Recreation staff members affirmed that the seating area on the south side of the pavilion would become part of the playground, increasing the play area of the version in the previous design from 10,500 square feet to 14,275 square feet.

Currently, the playground at the north end of the park is 5,000 square feet and the inadequacy of the space was an important impetus for the redesign of the park.

The Parks Department still intends to issue a request for proposals seeking a developer to reconstruct the pavilion, built in 1930, for a private restaurant concession, But the previous plan for a year-round restaurant has been changed; the plan now calls for the restaurant to operate from late spring to autumn when weather permits. Nevertheless, the restaurant will still have the potential to be converted to year-round use later.

The change means that the main entrance to the pavilion restaurant will be on the north side, with additional restaurant seating on the north platform on both sides of the steps. The previous design called for the pavilion’s main entrance to be on the south side with a bridge to the plaza outdoor seating area.

Much of the most impassioned opposition to the plan has focused on the private use of public space, namely the pavilion, an issue that remains important to many activists, However, the previous playground design, with a 17-foot-wide passage beneath a bridge between the outdoor seating area and the pavilion entrance, was a sore point for many critics.

Edith Shanker, who opposed the plan because it would privatize the pavilion and called for a playground not as large as it could be, said of the revision, “This is a great victory for the kids.” But she insisted that privatization of the pavilion remained a serious concern.

Jack Taylor, a member of the Union Square Community Coalition who has been at odds with Kramer and Fox, said he would suspend judgment on the adjusted design until drawings were released. Taylor, however, said the plan for a line of trees at the 17th St. border of the Union Sq. N. plaza was a serious impediment to the traditional use of the plaza as a place for public demonstations and protests.

“The plan still has to be approved by the city Art Commission, which usually meets on Mondays, and I have not seen it on the commission agenda yet,” Taylor said on Tues., May 24. Because the following Monday falls on the Memorial Day holiday, the Art Commission meeting could be delayed two weeks, Taylor suggested.

Regarding privatization of the pavilion, Lopez said, “I don’t like it, and I’ve opposed plans for private concessions in Stuyvesant Park and in East River Park, but I will not jeopardize the interests of children in this park.”

Lopez invoked the name of Evelyn Strouse, a founder and former head of the Union Square Community Coalition, who convinced her in 1998 to work for the redesign of the park. Strouse moved to California last year to be near her family.

“Evelyn brought me to see a playground so small and crowed that the children couldn’t play. They could not open their wings and fly like butterflies,” Lopez said.

Fox said that Parks Department officials indicated in March that they were ready to adjust the playground configuration. “I’m delighted with what they came up with,” she said, adding, “That leaves the pavilion as a very separate issue, and we do remember that we have members of the U.S.C.C. who are very against any type of restaurant in the pavilion.”

Kramer said, “I think it’s great. The playground was the whole impetus for the north end plan. This should make a lot of people who objected to the plan very happy.”

Aubrey Lees, counsel to the U.S.C.C. and outgoing chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee, said, “It’s really great that the Parks Department took the community seriously. This is a wonderful adjustment to the plan.”

In February, Community Board 5 overwhelmingly approved the redesign of the north end of Union Sq. Park and its north plaza, but urged the Parks Department to consider proposals from cultural institutions, community groups and others, in addition to restaurateurs, for the concession in a restored pavilion.

The city’s largest Greenmarket, which operates four days a week year-round, is one of the most popular uses of the plaza at the north end of the park. Michael Van Valkenburgh Landscape Architects, has been working on the design with the Parks Department. The full cost of reconstructing the park’s north end has been estimated at $14 million. Funding includes $5 million in private money contributed by the Union Square Partnership, $1.9 million from Lopez and $8 million committed by the Bloomberg administration.

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