Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Union Sq. board members clash over pavilion plan

By Albert Amateau

The bitter controversy over plans to convert the pavilion at the north end of Union Sq. Park into a privately operated year-round restaurant as part of a redesign of the park’s north end has deeply divided the governing board of a 25-year-old neighborhood organization.

One member of the Union Sq. Community Coalition board of directors resigned at the end of December and the leaders of the eight-member board are asking for the resignation of another member.

The Coalition at a general membership forum last month voted to oppose the pavilion restaurant in a strongly worded resolution that called for maximizing both the children’s playground areas and the space for public rallies, a long tradition at Union Sq.

However, the two co-chairpersons of the U.S.C.C. board, Susan Kramer and Gail Fox, are among those who are willing to accept a permanent restaurant in the pavilion as part of the redesign, sponsored by the city Department of Parks and the Union Sq. Partnership business improvement district.

Last week, Kramer and Fox asked Jack Taylor, a longtime member of U.S.C.C. and prominent advocate for historic preservation, to resign from the board of directors. Taylor, a leading critic of the park plan, especially as regards the pavilion restaurant and what he believes is a reduction in public rally space, has refused to resign.

“Our board has been split on this issue and it has proven very divisive,” said Kramer in a written statement last week. “We’ve asked Jack Taylor, though valued for his preservationist background, for his resignation. Gail [Fox], Aubrey Lees, myself and some other board members feel that the current plan has been doing a good job incorporating the many needs called upon by the various and diverse groups of parks users. I personally like the idea of a restaurant in the park. It provides an oasis away from traffic and under the trees and liveliness and safety at nighttime,” said Kramer.

“I’m not resigning voluntarily,” Taylor said last week. “If my removal is done according to the bylaws of the U.S.C.C., I would have to accept it,” he said. Taylor declined to comment further until after a U.S.C.C. board of directors meeting scheduled for Wed., Jan. 19

The organization bylaws allow for the removal of a director by a majority vote at a full membership meeting, but such a meeting had not yet been calendared by the end of last week.

Three weeks ago, Leo Blackman, an architect, resigned from the U.S.C.C. board. “There was a lot of dissention on the board and I was in the middle, trying to get people together. But their positions were hardening and getting further apart,” he said on Friday.

Blackman said he felt the U.S.C.C. board leaders should be taking a more distinct position from the BID, which is sponsoring the plans for a full-service, year-round restaurant in the pavilion. “It seemed like the [restaurant] concession was driving the design rather than the other way around,” said Blackman. “I admire Jack [Taylor] for being principled about this issue,” he added.

For the past nine years, Luna Park, an outdoor cafe has been operating in the plaza in front of the pavilion during the summer. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is developing plans for restoring the north end of the park, including a year-round restaurant in the pavilion.

Parks Department officials have said that restaurant concession fees are needed to help pay for maintenance of the park. The department plans to issue a request for proposals from developers to restore the pavilion, built in 1930 on the site occupied by previous pavilions since the mid-1800s. The winning bidder will have to incorporate the restaurant, public restrooms and office and maintenance space for the department in the restored building.

Aubrey Lees, a member of the remaining seven members of the eight-member board of U.S.C.C., also supports the year-round pavilion restaurant and has joined in the call for Taylor’s resignation.

“He’s very smart but he can be kind of obstructionist. He’s really not that collegial in a group,” said Lees. “I like the plan and the restaurant. Opposition to private use of public space in the modern economic environment is not very relevant and there are plenty of examples [of private concessions] in city parks,” she added.

Barry Benepe, a longtime parks advocate and father of Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, is a Coalition board member who supports Taylor. “He has a tremendous wealth of knowledge. A lot of people know him and he has been a voice of reason and logic on the board,” said Benepe. “As for the pavilion, I support uses that serve people who use the park,” he said.

Susan Fainstein, an urban planner with Columbia University and a neighborhood resident, is also on U.S.C.C.’s board but was not available for comment last week.

Markus Buri, another board member who conducted a mail survey sent to the 500 families on the U.S.C.C. membership roles, last month indicated his willingness to accept the pavilion restaurant proposal.

About 15 percent of the questionnaires had responses, and a majority of them were opposed to the permanent restaurant in the pavilion; many also supported the current outdoor cafe arrangement.

The Dec. 7 U.S.C.C. resolution, however, took a position “opposed to any plan that includes the use of Union Sq. Park land or pavilion for an all-year exclusive private restaurant and that also does not maintain space for children and where meeting or public rally space is reduced or minimized.”

Kramer and Fox sent a joint Jan. 5 letter about the resolution to Mayor Bloomberg with a call for the Parks Department “to improve the manner in which renovation plans are shaped and communicated to our members and other park users and residents.”

The Jan. 5 letter also called for a community meeting to clarify pavilion issues, such as guidelines for granting private concessions in public spaces, and why a permanent full-year concession is being considered for Union Sq. but not in other parks like Madison Sq. and Washington Sq. (Madison Sq. does have an outdoor cafe.)

The letter also wants the city to reveal details about the R.F.P. process and the benefits from a pavilion concession to the city, the Parks Department and Union Sq. Park, in particular. Ordinarily, the income from concessions goes into general city funds.

The letter to the mayor also calls for increasing the main children’s play space, currently configured in the redesign plan as two lobes to the east and west sides of the pavilion connected by a narrow corridor in front of the pavilion. A footbridge to the pavilion would span the narrow corridor between the playground’s two halves.

The letter also calls for detailed plans for plantings or barriers at the northernmost end of the square’s north plaza on 17th St. One of Taylor’s objections to recent versions of the plan concerns a row of trees on the north plaza at 17th St. Taylor says the plantings would reduce the amount of public rally space and could interfere with farmer vendors who take part in the Union Sq. Greenmarket, the city’s largest, four days a week.

In a scale model of the proposed Union Sq. north end displayed at the Partnership’s annual meeting on Jan. 13, the line of trees on 17th St. was not visible and apparently replaced by trees close to the north side of the pavilion.

Union Sq. advocates have zealously defended the Greenmarket. However, supporters of the pavilion concession point out that the Greenmarket is a prime example of private use of public space.

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