Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Controversial Union Sq. Restaurant Deal Collapses

Tango inside the Union Square Park pavilion - June 18, 2011. The community wants the historic pavilion to be used for year-round children and community uses. The Union Square Partnership (BID) and the Mayor want it used for a restaurant. (Photo: © Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on image to enlarge.

By Geoffrey Croft

The Mayor and the Union Square Partnership BID's controversial plan to install a restaurant in the park's historic pavilion has hit a snag as celebrity chef Don Pintabona's O-V Hospitality Group has backed out A Walk In The Park has learned.

The concessionaire had guaranteed to pay the city a minimum of more than $ 8.6 million dollars over the life of the 15-year deal. License fees were supposed to start at a minimum of $400,000 a year or 18 percent of gross revenues, whichever is greater, and escalate by 5% each year of the 15-year license term. The concessionaire had also committed to a minimum capital investment of over $1.1 million to build the seasonal restaurant which was to be called City Farm Café. According to a city source, Luna Cafe - occupied an south of pavilion paid the city $ 217,000 in its last year of operation.

The community wants the pavilion renovated and restored to its former uses which include a sheltered indoor recreation center that serves a variety of year-round recreation and free public uses.

Critics also assert the restaurant is required to get NY State alienation approval first as Bryant Park was required to do in order to use the public park for a non-park commercial purpose. A lawsuit was prepared to stop the restaurant plan.

The mayor has been increasingly relying on the Parks Department revenue. The City expects parks will generate more than $ 142 million in FY12. Funds generated through the agency now account for ninety-one percent of all concession revenue from city agencies according to a 2010 report by Comptroller John Lui.

Pending approval from the City's Franchise and Concession Review Committee, (FCRC) City Farm Café anticipated opening in Spring 2012 and operate from May to October. The issue went before the FCRC on June 6th where it was slammed by numerous neighborhood residents, advocacy groups and elected officials. The FCRC was supposed to rule in August but that never happened.

On May 17, the City announced the winner of the controversial restaurant concession, complete with a friendly name. City Farm Café was picked as the new operator of a seasonal café in Union Square Park, managed by O-V Hospitality Group, LLC (“O-V”), a New York-based restaurant management firm.

Chef Don Pintabona Pintabona was the opening chef at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Grill and is also the author of The Tribeca Grill Cookbook and The Shared Table.

“It’s a dream come true," Chef Don Pintabona, one of the managing partners of O-V. said at the time of the announcement. Partnering with Pintabona was Giorgio Kolaj, who also with Chef Pintabona operate Valentino’s on the Green, a new NYC park concession, in Bayside, Queens.

According to the parks department the interior décor was to include a large communal table and a full-service wine bar. A new outdoor dining area on the north plaza was to include scrim awnings, and the lighting design to "cast a warm and inviting glow during evening hours."

For more than six years a broad based coalition has fought to restore the historic pavilion for children and community uses year round. 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. The campaign greatly increased playground space, much of it recaptured from play areas lost to the previous seasonal cafe.

However despite vehement community opposition, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and The Union Square Partnership (BID) have continued thier attempt to take away thousands of square feet of potential recreation and community space for six months of the year to accommodate a seasonal restaurant.

Critics also charge that allowing the pavilion to be converted into a seasonal restaurant will dramatically alter the Park's historic first amendment and free speech uses. For more than a 130 years the Park's pavilions have served as a backdrop for countless labor rallies and social protests. It is this important role which served as one of the main reasons why the park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

Amid chants from protesters of "Parks are for kids, not for restaurants," Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the City/BID plan for what was then a year-round restaurant at a October 25 2004 press conference. (That plan which was eventaully defeated through the efforts of the Save Union Sq. Park campaign.)

While exiting the event Mr. Bloomberg was confronted by a group of parents holding "Park Land For Sale" signs and passing out flyers protesting the proposed land-grab.

A grandfather asked the Mayor, "Where are our children supposed to play, " to which Mr. Bloomberg famously shrugged and flippantly replied, "How do you expect for us to pay for parks."

After years of failing to address the community's wishes, The Union Square Community Coalition were unfortunately forced to seek relief though the legal system. On April 19, 2008, they filed a lawsuit (USCC v. NYC Parks, Index No. 08/105578) challenging the Parks Department and Union Square Partnership's (BID) plans to install a restaurant in the historic pavilion.

On March 30, 2009 Justice Solomon dismissed the lawsuit ruling the suit was too early to file and was not ready (ripe) until the City was further along with the restaurant. The main issue, whether or not the proposed restaurant needed to go through the state legislation to get "alienation" approval for a public park being used for a non-park commercial use was not decided.

In dismissing the lawsuit Justice Solomon also reaffirmed the legal position that not all restaurants in all parks are universally acceptable.

“In dismissing the lawsuit, Justice Solomon reaffirmed our position that not all restaurants in all parks are universally acceptable,” Geoffrey Croft, NYC Park Advocates president and USCC board member said. “We believe the restaurant in the pavilion is not acceptable, and we are prepared to go to court again to make that claim."

“Now that the City’s ill-conceived deal to turn over the Union Square Pavilion to a private concessionaire has fallen through, I urge the administration to reconsider their plans and return the pavilion to full-time public and community uses. The City’s precious public park space should be used for recreational purposes that benefit all New Yorkers, not for private enterprise that benefits only a few.” - Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer

Parks Department embarrassing statement:

"The candidate for New York City’s public café in Union Square Park’s -- O-V Hospitality Group, LLC – has informed the Parks Department that it is unable to move ahead with the license agreement for operation of this seasonal public amenity at the Union Square Park pavilion. Parks is currently reviewing other high-quality proposals submitted and will select a new operator in the very near future. The new public café benefits all New Yorkers and brings positive life to the park, especially after dark, as it continues the 150-year-old tradition -- going back to the first restaurant in Central Park -- of dining al fresco or stopping for a beverage in a natural setting nestled in the midst of this boisterous and fast-paced city. Income from this public, seasonal café goes to the General Fund to pay for City services. It is not a private venture. The Parks Department welcomes all opportunities to provide the public with the amenities they enjoy and request, from public spaces for recreation to great new food options within their parks. " - Vickie Karp

Read More:

Union Square meals threatened
New York Post -
September 8, 2011 -
By Josh Margolin

The Villager - September 8, 2011 - By Albert Amateau

New York Times - City Room - September 7, 2011- By Joseph Berger

Union Square Park eatery falls through
Crain's New York Business - September 7, 2011 - By Daniel Massey

DNAinfo - September 7, 2011 - By Mary Johnson

Union Square Park Pavilion Concessionaire Announced - Lawsuit Being Prepared
A Walk In The Park - May 17, 2011 - By Geoffrey Croft

New York Daily News - May 17, 2011 - By Celeste Katz

The Villager - May 19, 2011 - By Albert Amateau

Faces Chants of Protesters
The New York Sun - October 26, 2004 - By Dina Temple-Raston

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