Opponents pile on Union Sq. pavillion plan at rally


By Jefferson Siegel

Politicians and activists opposed to the plan for a restaurant concession in the Union Square pavillion gathered in the park last Sunday to denounce plans to convert the historic structure and renewed their calls for renovation of the park’s north end.

A plan by the Parks Department, spearheaded by the Union Square Partnership business improvement district, would create a seasonal dining establishment in the pavillion while the space currently occupied by a seasonal restaurant would become part of an expanded playground.

“Today we are calling on the city to abandon its support for the Union Square Partnership’s irresponsible restaurant plan and begin construction immediately on the desperately needed playground,” said Geoffrey Croft, founder and president of NYC Park Advocates.

Croft was joined in his call to arms by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; former Village Councilmember Carol Greitzer; Jack Taylor, a member of the Union Square Community Council and founder of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile Historic District; and other local activists.

“This community has just two playgrounds,” Croft continued, “the fewest of any neighborhood in the entire city.” Croft went on to criticize the city’s plan to remove valuable playground space for a new restaurant in an area with a high concentration of restaurants.

“The Union Square neighborhood is in desperate need of more open space, not more room for restaurants,” said Stringer. “Let’s provide a public space that our children can enjoy.”

According to NYC Park Advocates, the city currently allocates only $232 million of its $52.9 billion budget, less than 0.4 percent, for the Parks Department, despite that agency’s control of 14 percent of the city’s land.

(Asked on Tuesday to confirm that figure, Warner Johnston, a Parks spokesperson, said, “That number is so off base. In Fiscal Year 2007, our expense budget is $315,453,940. If you incorporate other items, including monies budgeted for parks projects in other agencies, fringe benefits, pensions, debt service and judgments/claims/legal fees, you can add an additional $309 million for a total of $624,968,722. This represents a little more than 1 percent of the [city’s] budget. And don’t forget that this is only expense [personnel and everything other than capital]. Over the next two years, our capital budget [contracts, supplies and renovations] is about $1.2 billion dollars.)

Gottfried was adamant as he spoke of park preservation.

“Parks should not be chopped up and parceled off,” he declared.

Greitzer has long been a vocal critic of the city’s ongoing habit of selling off rights for park use.

“This is all part of revenue generation for private concerns,” she said.

Ernie Raab, vice chairperson of U.S.C.C., said the coalition filed a freedom of information request and discovered that the holiday market, which takes over the park’s south section for one month each year, generates $500,000 in income. Raab said that money goes into the city’s general fund, not toward Union Square Park.

Disability rights activist Margie Rubin found serious deficiencies with access. When she recently tried to patronize the pavillion restaurant, which is several steps down, an employee suggested she go to the other side of the pavillion, where a ramp is located, and someone would meet her there.

“The ramp was blocked by garbage cans,” Rubin recalled, “and no one came around to meet me.”

Taylor sees serious problems with a new restaurant, but he has even bigger concerns with renovation of the square’s northern plaza, a popular gathering spot for protests, as well as the monthly Critical Mass bike ride. Taylor derided a plan to break up the space by planting trees.

“This is our Place de la Concorde, our Trafalgar Square, our Piazza del Popolo,” Taylor said. “It should not be beautified by rose trees or fancy paving.”

In response to the protest, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe issued the following statement: “The planned renovation of the north end of Union Square Park will complete the restoration of the park that started in 1984. The project, a public-private collaboration with the Union Square Partnership, has already been approved twice by Community Board 5 and also by the New York City Art Commission, and we are completing the working drawings so we can begin construction next year. The project will add a state-of-the-art playground — triple the size of the current one — with a new, handicapped-accessible public restroom. The seasonal public cafe will move inside the restored historic pavilion, freeing up outdoor space for the playground. Finally, the North Plaza will be rebuilt to provide a first-class public space for the Greenmarket, events and rallies. This project is a huge win for all the constituents of Union Square Park, one of the busiest and liveliest public spaces in the world.”