Volume 77 / Number 47 - April 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Front row, from left, Diana Carulli, painter of the Union Square north-plaza labyrinths; former Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman; former Councilmember Carol Greitzer, and Geoffrey Croft, president and founder, NYC Park Advocates, at Tuesday’s lawsuit announcement.

Union Square rehab on hold after opponents file lawsuit

By Jefferson Siegel 

Just weeks after the city closed off a large swath of the plaza north of Union Square Park and began tearing up the ground, a lawsuit filed by a parks group has brought work to a halt. 

NYC Park Advocates filed suit against the city and the Union Square Partnership — a business improvement district and local development corporation — claiming the city didn’t get the state’s approval to convert public parkland for nonpark use. On Monday, State Supreme Court Justice John Stackhouse issued a temporary restraining order against the city, halting work for at least one week. 

“We are seeking to have this project halted until the court can rule on all of our claims,” said Reed Super, one of two lawyers representing NYC Park Advocates and others. At issue is the concept of “park alienation,” in which public parkland is converted for private use. The State Legislature must first approve any such alienation.  

Super added that no environmental impact statement was filed for the project, and no zoning amendments were issued. There was also no review under the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP. There will be a court hearing on the suit on Mon., April 28. 

At issue is a restaurant planned for the pavilion that would be open from April to October. The creation of an albeit significantly enlarged children’s playground — three times the size of the existing playground — which would be placed in a sunken area, is also raising hackles among locals and activists because of its configuration.

“The restaurant would take away the opportunity to reclaim thousands of square feet of additional play space in a community with the lowest amount of playground space and highest concentration of restaurants in the city,” said Geoffrey Croft, president and founder of NYC Parks Advocates, at a press conference Tuesday morning. “Every inch that is used to accommodate a restaurant is an inch taken away from the children and the community.” 

“Putting in a private, expensive restaurant in this park is absolutely ludicrous,” said former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer, who added that during a recent stroll about the area, she counted 17 restaurants around the park and about 150 more within several blocks.  

“We have a burgeoning childhood population and there isn’t enough room for the kids to play,” she said.
Greitzer, who represented Greenwich Village for 20 years and lives near Union Square, thinks placing private concessions in city parks is using the parks to help finance the city, a practice she condemns.

“Parks shouldn’t have to pay for themselves,” she said. “Schools and the Police Department and the Fire Department don’t pay for themselves. They’re funded by the city; they’re necessary.” 

In an e-mail statement, Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, said, “While we cannot comment on the specifics of the litigation, the Union Square Partnership firmly believes that the project will provide enormous benefits for our community, including expanding and upgrading the playground, rehabilitating the pavilion and enhancing the plaza space for the Greenmarket’s operations and other community events.” 

Falk lamented that, “after almost six years of planning and public review, including by the community board and Art Commission, it is truly unfortunate that the petitioners waited until after a contractor had been retained by the city, and work at the site had begun, to file this suit.”  

Standing by a wall erected in front of the sunken plaza on the park’s 16th St. transverse, activists held signs reading, “Children first, Not business first, Stop the B.I.D.” and faux  “For Sale - Park Land” signs. 

About a dozen street vendors, members of Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics, or A.R.T.I.S.T., also voiced their displeasure with the work. Their vending tables used to fill the plaza ringing the park’s south end. However, as construction on the project started, the Greenmarket’s stalls were moved to the south end, displacing the vendors from their traditional spots. 

Many worried the restaurant, which would overlook the children’s play area, could cause injury to the tots as a result of falling beer bottles or other debris. 

“The entire north-end reconstruction project is misconceived,” said Jack Taylor, a local preservationist and president of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District. “Union Square Park is a national historic landmark,” Taylor added, noting that the north plaza had been the site of protests for more than 100 years and that the redesign would “handicap future protest demonstrations.” 

In addition to the Partnership, others named in the suit are the city’s Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, the city’s Buildings Department and the city of New York.  

Joining NYC Park Advocates as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Union Square Community Coalition; former Councilmember Greitzer; Louise Dankberg, Democratic district leader out of the Samuel J. Tilden Club; and two women identified as grandparent Eadie Shanker and area parent Margaret Gonzalez. Shanker is the widow of the late United Federation of Teachers union president Albert Shanker.




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