Restaurant offers Union Sq. a serving of right stuff

By Karen H. Shaw

For over 20 years since its inception in 1984, the Union Square Partnership business improvement district has acted as a staunch advocate for the Union Square community, bringing people together to maximize the interests of the entire neighborhood. Our efforts, both on behalf of and with members of the community, have helped to improve our neighborhood and the quality of life for all of our residents, local businesses and commercial property owners. Union Square owes its renaissance to the collective vision of individuals, area businesses and civic leaders. It is in this spirit that the Parks Department and the Partnership have worked together with the community to improve the park for all of its users.

Anyone who lives, works in or has visited this neighborhood knows that Union Square Park is one of the most popular and intensely utilized parks in the city. The new comprehensive design for the north end of the park seeks to balance the needs of all the users of this park and will significantly improve and finally complete our historic park. Taken as a whole, it will enhance and create a more beautiful overall space for the diverse users of the park. The new design for the expanded playground will be innovative, A.D.A. compliant and challenging for all children; the plaza will be decoratively repaved and improved for the farmers Greenmarket and the public alike; and after years of neglect, the pavilion will be restored to its original beauty and used as a seasonal restaurant. The plan for the renovation of the park will be the capstone of the city’s effort to restore the whole park. It will be a great benefit to the entire community.

The Union Square neighborhood and Union Square Park, in particular, derive their energy from this vibrant diversity of uses. It is one of the city’s most heavily used parks at all times of the day and night and throughout the year. Neighborhood residents, families and school children enjoy the playgrounds; residents and people from throughout the city flock to the farmers Greenmarket; young and old alike sit and enjoy the tree-lined benches to read, use the wireless Internet in the park or just plain people-watch or relax. The central interior lawn is carpeted by people, enjoying the sunny outdoors. The city-at-large uses Union Square Park as its central gathering spot — for meeting friends, or being part of rallies or large gatherings. And, at all hours of the day but particularly at night, people flock by the thousands to the park to enjoy Luna Park cafe, the wonderful, unique restaurant, even though the neighborhood is littered with restaurants a short distance away.

Those who would seek to portray this proposed redesign in a highly negative light because it includes a restaurant concession, leading one to believe that having a concession in Union Square Park is a new idea, ignore the fact that this restaurant is in operation currently and is a highly popular and appreciated feature of this park. Further, it has been in operation for well over a decade. It did not just appear last week.

Union Square Park was not always this popular or this safe. To put this latest development in the transformation of the park in context, as recently as 10 years ago, this park was known more as a crime-ridden public space to be avoided at all cost by residents and people who worked in the neighborhood. Nobody used the park — or should I say, nobody who was up to any good used the park. It was dark, threatening and unsafe, populated by petty criminals and drug dealers who hung out and scored deals. This great public space was off-limits to the entire neighborhood. And like a wave, the park’s decline washed over the entire neighborhood. And the neighborhood suffered through one of its worst declines in its history.

What changed this destructive slide — and helped create the glorious, well-used park that we know today? Lots of things, but it is widely believed that the introduction of two private, entrepreneurial uses — the farmers Greenmarket and the restaurant — were the catalysts which added new energy, life and activity to the park. And the restaurant, through its well-lit presence at night, was a tremendous positive activity that drove out the negative, unsavory uses that plagued the park. And this continues today. When the children are tucked into their beds and the playgrounds are empty, and the Greenmarket has packed up for the day, the concession is what is keeping the park safe, vibrant and alive at night.

The history of these private entrepreneurial uses in the park is entirely positive. Their effect has indisputably helped the park become the safe, family-friendly, centerpiece of this neighborhood. Not to mention the larger, positive economic impact that the restaurant and the revitalized park have had for the entire neighborhood in the form of direct investment, retail activity and employment. And, park concessions are an important source of revenue for the city.

In a city that has continually faced constrained resources, the beneficial results from public/private partnerships have accounted for more beautiful parks, added resources in schools, libraries and cultural institutions throughout the city.

To imply that all private uses in the park are inherently negative ignores the positive effect they have had — and certainly ignores the fact that there are private uses that coexist beautifully throughout the city’s park system currently.

They say that refugees vote with their feet. Here, the neighborhood and the entire city have voted with their feet. Last year alone, an estimated 185,000 customers patronized the Luna Park cafe, the majority of whom came from the immediate area. The thousands and thousands of people who flock to this park daily to enjoy and use the restaurant show clearly that the public wants to have a place to eat in the park and considers this to be a highly popular and desired use.

This is a small park — no doubt about it. Space has always been at a premium. But this park has developed and benefited over the years by accommodating a wide variety of uses and not cleaving to a single use. This delicate balance of distinct, multifaceted uses has always hung together to make this park so unique. It is what we love about it. The restaurant in the park adds immeasurably to the enjoyment, safety and security of all parkgoers — all day and particularly at night. The concession and the redevelopment plans do not infringe upon any of the other uses or the public’s enjoyment of them. It enhances them.

The Partnership will continue to work together with the Parks Department and each and every community group and park constituent to ensure that we are creating a balanced plan that builds upon the park’s intrinsic qualities, while enhancing the whole park for all of its constituents — playground users, Greenmarket shoppers, demonstrators and restaurant patrons, alike.

Shaw is executive director, Union Square Partnership