Board 5 O.K.’s Union Square plan, including the restaurant

By Albert Amateau

Community Board 5 last week approved the redesign of the north end of Union Square Park with an all-but-unanimous vote, paving the way for a playground three times the present size, a restored pavilion with a private concession for a seasonal restaurant and a repaved plaza with a stand of trees at the north end.

The design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, commissioned by the Union Square Partnership business improvement district and supervised by the Department of Parks and Recreation, has been the subject of frequent hearings, several revisions and considerable controversy over the past four years.

The Art Commission must still approve the final design before construction begins. Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner William Castro said he hopes construction starts this autumn, with completion in 12 to 18 months.

The lone dissent in the 29-1 vote at the Feb. 9 Community Board 5 meeting was by Joyce Matz, who was opposed to the private seasonal restaurant in the pavilion and disapproves of the plan for a row of eight trees on the north edge of the plaza.

Matz said later she believed the plaza at the north end should remain unobstructed. “It’s famous as the place where unions held their first rallies and that’s what makes it a national landmark as well as a city landmark,” said Matz, noting that Union Square Park is on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.

Elected officials long opposed to any privatization of public space reiterated their objections last week to the plan for the pavilion. But Rosie Mendez, the new city councilmember representing the area around the park, told the board she could live with the plan because the proposed restaurant is now limited to six months a year and has less seating than the current seasonal restaurant, Luna Park, has in the sunken outdoor area on the south side of the pavilion. The Parks Department’s promise to program the restored pavilion for community uses the rest of the year also improved the plan, Mendez said.

Borough President Scott Stringer also affirmed his opposition to the restaurant but told the board he would work with the city on the project and that he hoped construction could begin on the playground before the pavilion.

City Councilmember Christine Quinn’s statement submitted to the board last week also cited the proposed restaurant’s reduced seating capacity and the playground’s tripled area as improvements over the previous plan. Parks Department assurances that the restaurant would be required to make reasonably priced takeout food available was another improvement in the Union Square plan, Quinn said.

Nevertheless, Sylvia Friedman, Democratic nominee for the Assembly seat vacated last month by Steve Sanders, said that according to legal precedence, any lease of city property for private use requires approval of the State Legislature. “But the city gets around this by calling it a concession,” she said, referring to the proposed restaurant concession for the pavilion.

Parks Department policy, however, has offered various concessions, like Tavern-on-the-Green and The Boathouse in Central Park, in the city’s parks for many decades.

Greg LeFebre, who created the bronze-tablet sidewalk timeline of the square’s history for the restoration of the southwest side of Union Square Park several years ago, told the board last week that he was disappointed that the timeline was not continued as part of the north end project.

But several people at the Feb. 1 meeting said they were eager for the project to begin. Ken Salzman, a father of three young children who said it was important for his children to be able to use the new playground while they were still young, said he welcomed the seasonal restaurant in the pavilion.

Nicole Barth, a neighbor who now takes her children to the Madison Square Park playground because the Union Square playground is inadequate, noted that the pavilion restoration would also provide new space in the basement for Parks Department staff. “Let’s fix the pavilion. Park workers need a nice place to work,” Barth said.

Jim Gabbe, president of the Union Square Partnership, said the final plan was “a far cry from the original and is the capstone of a decade-long effort.” Gabbe said he was confident that the “varied creative and disputatious input will make the park a haven for all.”

The plan includes a structure on the east side of the pavilion for three new restrooms, a unisex bathroom with an entrance from the playground for children and their caregivers and men’s and women’s bathrooms with access from the plaza for the public. The Parks Department has indicated it will show the detailed plans of the bathroom building to the community board before beginning construction.

The board resolution also asks the Parks Department to increase the handicapped accessibility of the enlarged playground and to add more playground equipment accessible to handicapped children.