Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

The Joffrey Ballet dancing in Union Square Park as part of the Union Square Partnership BID’s free Summer in the Square performance series.

After revitalization: Managing growth and success

By Karen H. Shaw

The Union Square Partnership, the city’s first business improvement district and local development corporation, in collaboration with the residents, businesses, property owners, institutions and the city, has for the last three decades been a leading advocate and catalyst of positive local action. Together with the business and residential community, the Partnership helped spearhead the renaissance of the Union Square neighborhood, which had been in decline since the late ’70s and early ’80s. Our mission then was to revitalize through sustained economic development projects and improvements in safety, sanitation and other quality of life priorities.

Today, we celebrate the extraordinary turnaround of our neighborhood. The Partnership’s sanitation teams have consistently kept the streets and sidewalks at record-clean levels and our public safety officers are patrolling the streets seven days a week, helping to keep our area safe and disturbance free. This past year saw the continued success of Partnership programs and events as well as the successful launch of new initiatives that we hope will become neighborhood traditions. Continuing our role as leading advocates for long-term improvements to the neighborhood, the Partnership has led the charge in creating a better park for residents, children and visitors, attracting businesses to the area, running events year-round to meet the neighborhood’s needs, and in increasing awareness of Union Square throughout New York and beyond.

Union Square’s renaissance over the past quarter-century owes its success to all the stakeholders that decided to make Union Square their home and to support the neighborhood with their investments, energies and hopes. Today, Union Square and its surrounding streets buzz with activity: with families taking advantage of the park, diners enjoying the fantastic array of food establishments, shoppers visiting the area’s myriad stores, students rushing to and from classes, patrons of the arts attending one of the many off-Broadway theaters and commuters utilizing the city’s third most active subway station and transit hub.

When Con Edison, The New School, restaurateur Danny Meyer, concerned citizens and several other business owners banded together 30 years ago to create the forerunner of the Union Square Partnership, they could never have expected their grassroots movement to be as successful and pivotal to the neighborhood as time has shown. Union Square’s transformation has been an amazing success story, and the neighborhood is attracting people and businesses to the district in never-before-seen numbers. The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s figures show that over 29 million people will enter the subway system through the Union Square station this year, nearly double the number from a decade ago. The Partnership is in the enviable position of having to manage the wonderful growth that our area has and is experiencing. The Partnership is now faced with the challenge of keeping ahead of this explosive growth to ensure our neighborhood remains a highly desirable place to live, work, visit and play.

Ever since Captain Rowland Hussey Macy first opened his lace store, R.H. Macy & Co., at 56 W. 14th St. in 1857, the area has been known as a premier retail and cultural trendsetter. With the neighborhood’s clean and safe streets reflecting the continuous work of the Partnership’s sanitation and public safety teams, prominent retailers have found Union Square once again. This past year saw the opening of Whole Foods Market, Filene’s Basement, DSW, Forever 21, Sephora, American Eagle Outfitters and Babies “R” Us. Whole Foods Market alone is catering to over 80,000 shoppers on a weekly basis.

Partnership security officers responded to 85,000 requests for information in the past 12 months.

The Union Square Partnership has been successful in addressing the local impact of such large numbers of people. In the past year, the Partnership’s sanitation team picked up more than 3.2 million pounds of garbage, nearly 1 million more pounds than was picked up in 1998. The Partnership’s public safety officers, serving as community information liaisons, responded to over 85,000 requests for information in the past 12 months.

As the modern mix of real estate uses evolves, Union Square has become home to an increasing number of residents as well as businesses. Nearly 90,000 people live within one half-mile of Union Square, and the number of local residents is projected to rise in the coming years. To address the needs and desires of the growing residential population base, the Partnership continues to develop and put on events, festivals and programs. Our free Summer in the Square program, a perennial favorite with attendees of all ages, brought 11 weeks of music, dance and entertainment to the Union Square Park’s center lawn for the eighth season this summer. Pumpkins in the Park, the Partnership’s inaugural harvest festival in the park for families, was a particular favorite of children and parents. In addition to being entertained by magicians, face painters and Shetland ponies, delighted attendees took home over 300 free pumpkins.

The Union Square Greenmarket, which has been drawing patrons from across the city since 1976, has helped define this neighborhood as a food connoisseur’s mecca. Farmers and purveyors from across New York and the tristate area come to sell their wares on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year. During its busiest days, enough people are drawn to the Greenmarket to fill Yankee Stadium. Danny Meyer located his Union Square Café, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, just off the square so that his chefs could choose from the fresh produce available at the Greenmarket. Since that time, dozens of the city’s most celebrated restaurants have followed his lead and opened in the community. Zagat’s 2005 survey again placed three Union Square restaurants in the top five “Most Popular” list. Luna Park, the outdoor restaurant that has been in operation in Union Square Park for the past decade, attracts over 185,000 customers annually. The Partnership’s 10th annual Harvest in The Square celebrated “New York’s Best Tasting Neighborhood” with a fall soiree that raised over $100,000 to be invested back into Union Square Park. Over the past 10 years, the Partnership’s Harvest in the Square has raised nearly $1 million to provide much-needed park infrastructure improvements, such as new park benches, fences and landscaping, as well as programming. Lauded by the Parks Department, the Partnership’s unique public/private partnership with the city has set the standard for sustained involvement to benefit its community.

A visitor to Union Square Park, the centerpiece of our neighborhood, can witness the immense variety of activity the park hosts. In the past year, the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit urban planning and design organization and a leader in the analysis of public “place-making” attributes, named Union Square the world’s 8th Best Square and Plaza, behind such notable public spaces as the Piazza Del Campo in Sienna (#1), Piazza San Marco in Venice (#2) and the Hotel de Ville in Paris (#5). P.P.S. noted the important role that squares and plazas play in the lives of urban residents, workers and visitors and ranked their public spaces accordingly. Since its inception, the Union Square Partnership has funded numerous improvements and beautification programs in the park, including the brilliant new lights fixtures and the decorative interior fence. In the spring and summer of 2005, the Partnership successfully launched a public art project pilot program with the installation of three bronze Letourneur sculptures along the east side of the park for the public’s viewing enjoyment.

The Parks Department and the Partnership have been working together with the community to improve the park for all of its users with a redevelopment project of the north end which will benefit the entire neighborhood and provide for an improvement of the variety of uses which currently exist in the park. Construction on this exciting initiative to expand the children’s’ playgrounds, renovate the pavilion building and repave the northern plaza, is expected to begin in late 2006, after the completion of the community-approval process. The new design for the expanded playground, nearly three times the size of the existing two playgrounds, will be innovative and challenging for all children; the plaza will be decoratively repaved and improved for the Farmers Greenmarket and the public alike; and after years of neglect, the pavilion will be restored to its original beauty and used as a seasonal concession. This public/private partnership will create a glorious northern gateway to our community and will finally complete the restoration of Union Square Park.

Union Square owes its renaissance to the collective vision of area businesses, individuals and civic leaders. The success of Union Square’s future will again be dependant upon the incorporation of wide-ranging points of view. The spirit and ability to work together to take on challenges and continually push for improvements make our community a vibrant place to live, work and learn. It inspires us to build on the Partnership’s historic success and to continue to work diligently with our local business neighbors and residents to ensure that Union Square remains a vibrant and diverse community.

Shaw is executive director, Union Square Partnership

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