Volume 77 / Number 51 - May 21 - 27, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

A Salute to Union Square
A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A dispute over the Union Square pavilion, above, is at the heart of a community lawsuit lodged against the redevelopment of the park and square’s north end.

Renovation proceeds as restaurant dispute simmers

 By Albert Amateau

The third and final phase of the Union Square Park reconstruction got underway last month when work began on the north end of the 1839 park.

A public-private partnership of the city Department of Parks and Recreation and the Union Square Partnership business improvement district, the estimated $20 million project is the culmination of a park restoration that began in the 1980s when the area south of 16th St. was rebuilt with redesigned paths and new lighting.

The second phase reconstructed and expanded the southwest border and the southeastern triangle of the park in 2002.The third phase of the project will triple the size of the park’s current playground, restore the long-neglected pavilion with new restrooms and reconstruct the north plaza, where the city’s first and largest Greenmarket holds sway four days a week.

But the project, which has gone through several redesigns over the past few years until the final plan was approved by Community Board 5 and the city Art Commission two and a half years ago, is still the subject of a lawsuit by the Union Square Community Coalition, a civic group seeking to prevent the installation of a seasonal, six-months-per-year restaurant concession in the reconstructed pavilion.

Nevertheless, in a decision on April 28 on a move to temporarily halt construction, State Supreme Court Justice Jane Solomon ruled the project may proceed but the city may not do anything about installing a restaurant — or even seek a concessionaire for the restored pavilion, until the case is resolved.

Still, the city and the Union Square Partnership hailed the long-awaited beginning of the project, which they hope will be completed and open to the public in November 2009.

“We are very pleased the project can go forward with the new playgrounds and restrooms, a new plaza and a restored pavilion,” said Jennifer Falk, the Partnership’s director, last week.

In a prepared statement earlier this month, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said he was gratified to be able to “proceed with the renovation of Union Square Park’s northern end without delay.” Benepe declined to comment further on the grounds that the project is still the subject of litigation.

The project, managed by the Parks Department with Padilla Construction Services as general contractor, began with the installation of fencing around the area and the dismantling of the current two playground spaces on the west and east sides of the pavilion.

The Parks Department has said the playgrounds will be closed for no more than one season.

The new, unified playgrounds will cover 15,307 square feet, replacing the current playgrounds, which have a combined area of 5,135 square feet. The area for toddlers and their minders will be on the pavilion’s west side with sand and water-play areas, while older children will have equipment, including a climbing dome, monkey bars and tube-shoot slides, on the pavilion’s east side. The two sections will be connected at the front of the pavilion, and both areas will be wheelchair accessible.

New restrooms, for men and women, will be built on the northeast side of the pavilion accessible from the plaza, with an attached but separate family restroom accessible only from the playground. The existing men’s and women’s restrooms inside the pavilion will be renovated and enlarged. All the restrooms will be handicapped accessible and will have baby-changing stations.

The north plaza, currently at street level, will be raised to sidewalk level and surfaced with the hexagonal pavers traditional in city parks. Water hookups and electrical connections for Greenmarket farmers will be installed on the plaza’s north and west sides, and 53 new trees, many of them in the playgrounds, will replace the 17 trees currently in the plaza.

During the 18-month construction project, the Greenmarket will continue at temporary sites south of 16th St. on the west side of the square.

The contractors have already installed a trench along 17th St. on the north side of the plaza in order to build a concrete wall to shield the roots of the planned row of new trees from a steam pipe beneath the roadbed surface.

Trees planted a few years ago along the north edge of the plaza did poorly because of the steam pipe.

New lighting will be installed to match the lighting of the previous renovation phases. In all, the new lighting will include 12 new bishop’s crook light poles, replacing the current cobra poles, and 18 poles with Riverside Park-style lamps.

In front of the pavilion on its south side, the Abraham Lincoln monument, designed in 1868 by Henry Kirk Brown, will have special new lighting, and so will the James Fountain — commonly known as “The Mother and Child” — on the park’s west side.

There will be weekly updates on construction progress posted at www.unionsquarenyc.org. The construction updates will also be e-mailed to several hundred interested parties, including the Union Square Community Coalition and the individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Carol Greitzer, a former city councilmember, and Geoffrey Croft, a founder of NYC Park Advocates, are among the plaintiffs, whose main interest is stopping the pavilion’s use as a restaurant. One of their legal arguments is that any transfer of public property to private control for nonpark purposes requires approval by the State Legislature.

But city attorneys said that leasing private concessions in the parks is not the same as transferring ownership, and they cited existing restaurant concessions in Madison Square Park, Fort Tryon Park and Riverside and Central parks, among other park locations.

Moreover, for the past 14 years, a sea sonal, outdoor restaurant, Luna Park, has been operated under a concession in a sunken plaza in front of the pavilion.

And although the project plan specifies a seasonal restaurant in the pavilion, William Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, said in an affidavit that the project, including the pavilion renovation, would go forward regardless of the proposed restaurant, and that the restaurant concession option is not yet final and is subject to further department review.

Hearings on the main issues of the suit are expected to begin next week.

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