Monday, March 10, 2014

Union Square Park: Mayor de Blasio Called On To Halt Controversial Bar/Restaurant & Return Historic Pavilion For Community Uses

There is nothing progressive about displacing families, children, seniors and eliminating one of the county's most historic free speech sites in a public park. On Sunday community residents and representatives from more than 50 neighborhood associations came together to call on Mayor De Blasio to void the concession agreement and give back the pavilion to the people and do what is right for New York City.   (Photos: Courtesy NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

(from L) US Representative Carolyn Maloney,  State Senator Brad Hoylman, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, former Council member Carol Greitzer,  NY State Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried, NYC Park Advocates president Geoffrey Croft, City Council Member Corey Johnson and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel.

The new administration has an opportunity to set a very important tone concerning its public policy towards parks.


By Geoffrey Croft

Children, parents, seniors,  elected officials, advocates, community residents and representatives from more than 50 neighborhood associations came together on Sunday to call on Mayor de Blasio to cancel the Bloomberg - era contract to build a controversial high-end bar/restaurant in the historic Woman's & Children's Pavilion in Union Square Park. 

On Friday seven elected officials sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio with the request.

The signatories included US Representative Carolyn Maloney, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer,   NY State Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried, State Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman, City Council Member Corey Johnson.

For the past decade the community has been fighting to have the historic pavilion in Union Square Park restored to its former uses which include a sheltered, indoor recreation center that served a variety of year-round recreation and free public uses for children, teens, families, seniors, and the greater community at large.

The area around Union Square Park has the lowest amount of playground space but the highest concentration of restaurants in the entire city.  In Community District 5 there are only two playgrounds, but more than 150 eating establishments, bars and markets within just a two-block radius of the park.  

Despite this history, and the serious need for additional recreational and sheltered community space, since 2004 Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Union Square Partnership, a business improvement district (“BID”), have attempted to seize thousands of square feet of potential recreation and neighborhood space by turning the historic Pavilion into a high-end bar and restaurant despite vehement community opposition. The BID, run by Bloomberg's former deputy press secretary,  paid for and pushed though a plan which displaces all of the traditional community uses. 

The BID has been allowed to dictate public land use policy aided by an eight million dollar anonymous donation. 

 Assembly Member Richard Gottfried making a point.  

The City's lawyers have repeatedly argued that the contract can be canceled by the administration at no cost to the tax payers. 

“The Mayor has the legal right to cancel this contract for any reason,” said Assembly Member Richard Gottfried.  

“As the concession agreement provides and the City’s Law Department vigorously argued to the New York State Court of Appeals, the license is freely terminable “at will” at any time.

We have any number of restaurants, but we have only one park pavilion, and we want it back. Fortunately, we have a new mayor who has the power, and we hope, the will, to give it back to us. We know he has the power to give it back to us, because when the city was in court, they argued that there's nothing to worry about, because the city can breach the contract and give the pavilion back at will, at any time. Well, that's right, and we want to give it back now. That's the law, that's our right, and that's what this community needs."

 “For years this community has made it plain that it would be unconscionable to turn a part of Union Square Park, which has historically been a center of activism, recreation and other park uses, into just another high-end restaurant,"  said Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney.

"It blows my mind that the previous administration would consider confiscating precious park space to develop another fancy eatery and watering hole.  I strongly urge Mayor de Blasio to cancel the arrangement.  

I join my colleagues in the neighborhood by saying that this is one of the dumbest ideas that I have seen, to take parkland and turn it into a restaurant," the Congresswoman continued.

"We need to stop this, we need to stop it now. And fortunately we have a new mayor who can turn this around. We are a community that is absolutely starved for open space and parkland...Every inch is valuable to the families and the children, and we need every square inch of this park to stay a park. We have lovely restaurants all around here, and we shouldn't have to give a large chunk of this park for a high end restaurant...We can think of hardly anything that is less suited for this park than a high end restaurant," she said. 

“It's beyond ironic that the Union Square pavilion where Emma Goldman and Dorothy Day made history practicing their brand of free speech could instead become home to free-range pork," said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. 

"This neighborhood already has an enormous choice of restaurants – and a shortage of park space.  To put a restaurant here, in this designated National Historic Landmark, puts a price tag on the public’s enjoyment of what should remain a public space. 

This is a community of restaurants, and all you have to do is walk around to see them all, and there's very little park space. There are millions of people in this park every single day...We need every single opportunity for public space. This is really a unique, fabulous pavilion, and we want it available to the public, and that's why I'm here. I'm for restaurants in parks, but not this one," she said.

“There is nothing progressive about displacing families, children, seniors and eliminating one of the county's most historic free speech sites in a public park, said Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates and a board member of The Union Square Community Coalition both  plaintiffs in the lawsuit.    

"The new administration has an opportunity to set a very important tone concerning its public policy towards parks.  We are requesting that the Mayor void the concession agreement and give back the pavilion to the people and do what is right for New York City. The BID has been allowed to dictate public land use policy aided by an eight million dollar anonymous donation.  This is terrible public policy.” 

Geoffrey Croft holding up a photograph and rendering of competing uses for the pavilion — mommy and me yoga and the proposed high-end bar/restaurant. 

The community is demanding that the Parks Department allow for community input in a fair and open process that gives organizations and the public the opportunity to submit proposals to be re-established to its original intent as public space.

"This shouldn't be a tale of ‘two pavilions,’ said former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer who represented the area for 21 years. 

"The Columbus Park pavilion serves the recreational needs of all age groups while this one, although designated the Children's Playroom nearly 150 years ago, has been allowed to deteriorate by the Parks Department.   A restaurant would displace families, children, seniors, and eliminate one of the county's most historic free speech sites."

Manhattan's only remaining historic park pavilion in Columbus Park was handsomely restored recently and given back to the public for community activities and is a valued neighborhood resource.

"The public space of Union Square is a civic treasure -- a place with a rich history of speeches, protests, and social movements, and a rare open space in one of the city's densest hives of activity, State Senator Liz Krueger stated.  "

We must not sacrifice this hallowed ground for another restaurant in a neighborhood full of restaurants."

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman and daughter Sylvia.

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman called on the City to cancel the restaurant contract and restore the pavilion as part of a unified and non-commercial public space.

"With dozens places to eat within blocks of Union Square, it's wrong and shortsighted to place yet another dining establishment in the park's pavilion," Senator Hoylman said holding  his daughter Sylvia.

"I'm here as a State Senator, but also as a dad,  and a user of the park along with my daughter, Sylvia. She's been pulling at my hair throughout this entire press, conference,  saying 'I want to go play,  I want to go play, ' and that's, the principle that's really at stake here. It's the public trust, doctrine.  It dates back to Roman times, when natural resources were for the public, and whether that was rivers, or waterways, or public parks, we as a public deserve those public spaces. And that's really why we're all here. That's why we're asking Mayor de Blasio to put an end to this farce, and make certain that the pavilion is returned to the people, to make certain that the pavilion is returned to users like Sylvia."

NY State Assembly Member Deborah Glick, a passionate protector of parkland added,  “I have long held that public space should not be given over to private development. The community needs is more parkland, not another wildly expensive restaurant. I join with the local community and elected officials, to ask Mayor de Blasio, to cancel the contract and ensure New Yorkers get the open space they deserve.”

‎"Union Square is one of our city's most important public spaces. Its very name echoes the historic role it has played in New York City's history,” said Councilmember Corey Johnson.  

“The private takeover of public spaces is unacceptable. We need to create more public green space, not give away what is already rightfully ours," he said.

Critics also charge that the proposed new seasonal restaurant and its outdoor seating area will also dramatically alter the Parks' historic first amendment and free speech role by prohibiting these uses in the pavilion and in the North end of the park year-round. Union Square was designated as a National Historic Landmark in large part because of these important uses which began in 1882 in the park' s first pavilion.   

"We call upon Mayor DeBlasio to cancel the contract to create a high-end restaurant in Union Square Park and return the historic Pavilion for community uses,"  said Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel. 

"In this controversy, a "progressive" mayor should place the community's needs, wishes and rights over the establishment of and the development of business profits.

“So,  Mayor de Blasio,  this is a test for you, ” Siegel exclaimed,  “to see whether your actions will meet your rhetoric.”

Council Member Mark Levine said he also opposes the use of Union Square Park Pavilion for bar/restaurant and called for the preservation of this historic open space for the community and a safe playground for children.

"In a neighborhood already densely populated with restaurants and bars and lacking in public parks, it is essential to preserve Union Square as an open space pavilion," Council Member Levine, the newly appointed Chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation Committee said in a statement.  

"For over a hundred years, Union Square has been the central ground for community activism and engagement. I stand with the community in their calls to rescind the contract put forth by the former administration and the Union Square Partnership - BID. We need to prioritize the needs of this community for recreational and gathering space over the interests of private development and ensure that this historic location continues to be the focal point for special events and programming that will benefit residents of all ages regardless to their income level."

The day brought out representatives from numerous neighborhood and community groups including, Union Square Park Community Coalition,  The Council of Chelsea Block Associations,  Tilden Democratic Club,  and several plaintiffs fresh off their victory in NYU park land alienation case. 

U.F.T. co-founder George Altomare recalled using the Union Square pavilion as a free-speech platform in the 1960s and ’70s.

Sign of the Times. U.F.T. co-founder George Altomare calling out the Union Square Partnership BID. He recalled using the Union Square pavilion as a free-speech platform in the 1960s and ’70s.  Mr. Altomare, along with Eadie Shanker and Carol Greitzer were among the first group of people who helped raise awareness of the BID/Bloomberg pavilion privatizing scheme in the park beginning in 2004.  (Photo: Sam Spokony/The Villager)

For more than 130 years, the historic Pavilion in Union Square Park has served many vital functions to all New Yorkers - a covered playspace for children and mothers, a bandstand, a reviewing stand, a speakers’ rostrum, and as a focal point for countless labor rallies and social protests.  Recently the pavilion has also been used for wonderful new uses like free arts and film programs as well as for dance classes. 

In 2004, Save Union Square Park, a grass roots, community - based campaign was organized by NYC Park Advocates to advocate for the needs of the community. With the help and support of 57 community organizations, elected officials and a broad-based labor coalition, the campaign succeeded in defeating an irresponsible plan to create a year-round restaurant and greatly increased the amount of playground space, much of it recaptured from play areas lost to the previous seasonal cafe.

In March 2012 the city quietly approved a fifteen-year deal with Chef Driven Market, LLC. – the owner of a number of high-end restaurants – to build a restaurant at the expense of the children and the community. 

Plaintiffs including the Union Square Park Community Coalition sued claiming the City violated the Public Trust Doctrine which says that municipal park land can not be used for non-park purposes without the consent of the State Legislature. 

Comments made by the City's lawyer in January before the New York Court of Appeals were shocking and park and open space advocates hope they are not indicative of the new administration.

The City argued that there is virtually no limit to the amount of space a restaurant can occupy in a public park, or a price they can charge too high even if the vast majority of people would be prohibited from affording it  - a restaurant would qualify as a "park purpose" under the law. 

In fact, the city argued the only scenario where a resturant might not be a park purpose would be if it took up to “98 percent” of a park.   Under this scenario, the public would have no say in private businesses swallowing 826 acres of Central Park.  The city argued the parks commissioner has unlimited power in making such decisions, once again completely eliminating the checks and balances system required by the Public Trust Doctrine.   

Last month the Court of Appeals ruled that the restaurant could go forward. 

Sign of the Times.  New Yorkers for Parks, a partner organization of the Parks Department filed an Amicus Brief,  written by a board member,  supporting the irresponsible restaurant plan.   In what is clearly a conflict of interest the group has repeatedly failed to disclose to the media that restaurateur Danny Meyer was the co-chair of  the Business Improvement District (BID) which created and paid for the Union Sq. restaurant plan while simultaneously serving on NY4Parks Board.  He also made at least a $ 25,000 donation to the group.  

In several instances NY4Parks has actively worked against communities trying to protect parks and have provided cover for bad park policy issues. 

The public is encouraged to contact the Mayor and the Speaker.  


Mayor Bill de Blasio  
City Hall 
New York, NY 10007

City Council Speaker
Melissa Mark-Viverito
City Hall -   New York, NY 10007
(212) 788-6960

Read More:

The Villager - March 13, 2014 - Sam Spokony 

New York Daily News  - March 9, 2014 -   BY Erin Brodwin  

Epoch Times -  March 9, 2014 - By Ivan Pentchoukov

DNAinfo -  March 9,  2014 - By Dana Varinsky

WCBS - March 9,  2014 

1010 WINS

New York Times -  February 26, 2014 - By Michael Powell

NYU Local - February 25th,  2014 - By Kevin Beerman 

A Walk In The Park - January 13, 2014 - By Geoffrey Croft 

A Walk In The Park - January 9, 2013  

NY Sun -  October 26, 2004 - By Dina Temple-Raston 

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