Volume 74, Number 26 | October 27 - November 03 , 2004

Mayor pledges $8 million for Union Sq. N. renovation

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

From left, Susan Kramer and Gail Fox, co-chairpersons of the Union Square Community Coalition, a bodyguard, Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Benepe.

By Albert Amateau

Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to Union Sq. Park on Monday to announce the city’s funding of $8 million toward the $14 million reconstruction of the north end and the north plaza of the park.

With $5 million in private money contributed by the Union Square Partnership, the business improvement district that has been guiding the project for the past few years, the funding for the project is nearly all in place.

“I’m confident that the Union Square Partnership will raise the balance of the $14 million and a year from now we’ll see construction begin,” said Bloomberg at the Oct. 25 news conference joined by parks officials, BID leaders and Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who previously committed $1.9 million in her discretionary funds as part of the city’s share of the project cost.

“It’s New York, so you can’t please everyone and we recognize that when the project is under construction, it will be a temporary inconvenience, but you have to accept inconvenience,” said the mayor. However, he pledged that the Greenmarket, the city’s largest, which operates in the Union Sq. N. Plaza four days a week, will continue without interruption during construction.

Standing with Bloomberg were James McGrath, president of Con Edison and chairperson of the BID; Karen Shaw, BID executive director and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, as well as Lopez.

The project will be the third and final phase of the Union Sq. reconstruction. The south plaza was rebuilt in 1986 and the southwest triangle and western border were completed in 2002.

No Union Sq. project event would be complete without protests, and protest there was from a group of neighbors opposed to city plans to issue a request for proposals for a private concessionaire to run a year-round restaurant in the restored pavilion.

Barbara Quist, holding a sign saying “Union Sq. Park, more playgrounds no restaurant,” led a group of child-minders, mothers and kids in strollers. Police told her she needed a permit to demonstrate and hustled her out of the park shortly before the mayor arrived.

However, Quist and other dissenters, including Geoffrey Croft of New York City Parks Advocates, returned without signs and shouted one or two heckling remarks while the mayor spoke. Quist held her arm up in a Nazi salute all the while.

Nevertheless, most people at the event said they were looking forward to the completion of the Union Sq. north end restoration. “I don’t think it’s a perfect plan but I’m impressed with the incredibly open process that led to it,” said Bob Mystad, a member of the board of the Victoria co-op at 14th St. and Fifth Ave. and a member of the Partnership’s board of directors. Mystad said he liked having a year-round restaurant in the park and credited the current outdoor restaurant, Luna Park, with helping to keep the park safe during the summer.

Lopez paid tribute to Union Sq. as the cradle of the labor union movement. The councilmember also credited Evelyn Strauss, a founder of the Union Square Community Coalition and advocate for the park who moved to California two years ago to be near her family, with laying the groundwork for the current project.

Lopez acknowledged later that she had problems — “ideology concerns” — with policies that allow private corporate use of public park space. “But I live in the United States, which is a capitalist country, and I have to struggle with that,” she said. However, Lopez insisted that charges that the proposed design diminished children’s playground space were wrong. “The design was developed in consultation with mothers whose children use the playgrounds,” Lopez said.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, landscape architect commissioned by the BID to develop the general concept of the project, outlined the main features. In addition to the pavilion to be restored by the restaurant concessionaire, the plan calls for Parks Department space in the pavilion’s basement. Two new low-rise structures would be built on the east and west sides of the pavilion, one for new and accessible public restrooms and the other for an entrance to Parks Department offices. A newly paved plaza would serve Union Sq.’s political protest tradition.

Community Board 5, whose district includes Union Sq., voted on Oct. 14 to approve the concept plan despite doubts about the restaurant. The board also asked that the plan maximize public seating in the project.

C.B. 5’s Oct. 14 resolution called on the city to allow the community board to review the R.F.P. for the restaurant and urged that the final plan maximize Greenmarket space.

While the board does not usually vote on plans in the design stage, the project came up on Oct. 14 to allow the community board to make a recommendation to the city Art Commission. The community board will also review the final plan for the project, according to Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner.

Castro told Board 5 last week that the concept provides 3,500 more sq. ft. for the Greenmarket than currently exists and also expands the total square footage of playground space.

Opponents at the Oct. 14 C.B. 5 meeting charged that plans for two playground lobes connected by a 20-ft.-wide passage spanned by a pedestrian bridge from the park to the pavilion was a mistake.

Responding to charges that the public has not been adequately informed about plans for the project, Karen Shaw, executive director of the BID, reminded the community board that during the past year and a half, the Parks Department and the BID conducted three public design forums and “countless public meetings with the stakeholders.”

Shaw also disputed persistent statements by critics that a $5 million grant by an anonymous donor was conditioned on a guarantee that a private concessionaire would develop the restaurant.

“I want to say unequivocally that the only condition on the $5 million was that the city had to make a substantial donation for the project,” Shaw said.

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