The years-long battle over the proposed restaurant in the historic Union Square Pavilion took an unanticipated turn last month when New York State’s appeals court ruled that it was just fine to place a restaurant in that public space and that this was appropriate park usage! I (and many others) thought this clearly would be seen as “alienation of park land” since having the historic Pavilion remain as a community space for protests, yoga, music, children’s classes would fall under ‘use for all’ whereas $18 omelettes in a private restaurant would not. Alas! This is the city we’ve been left with post-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everyone is curious if Mayor Bill de Blasio, now having just ended his second month in office, will weigh in since he did not support the idea as Public Advocate. Will he?
And again, this is an example of the problems that occur when a private entity is given control over a public space; in this case, the Union Square Partnership, the local BID – business improvement district – which runs this park and lobbied for the restaurant. I covered the push back against the private restaurant often in 2009, when Reverend Billy and others formed Union Square Not for Sale, and I’d forgotten about the $7 million anonymous donor donation!
From Michael Powell at The New York Times, Plan Offers No Picnic for Union Square Park, February 26, 2014. This piece gives background of that Pavilion at Union Square as well as some thoughts on the anonymous donor:
It’s worth noting, even in pasteurized, gilded-about-the-earlobes Manhattan, that the pavilion is hallowed ground. It’s where generations of dissidents flocked like migratory birds to agitate and demonstrate. Long before the farmers’ market offered 42 varieties of artisanal cheese, Emma Goldman, a stout and eloquent anarchist, raged about the right to birth control and the necessity of resisting capitalist wars. Socialists in 1912 held signs — “Workers Fight the Wars and the Bosses Reap the Profits” — and chanted against the march into the killing fields of World War I.
Dorothy Day, the beautifully austere Catholic Worker radical, stood on a platform in front of this pavilion and gave an early and brave speech against the killing in Vietnam. Then five men burned their draft cards, risking imprisonment. Gay men, lesbians, black and brown, yellow and white: This was their troublemaking lodestone.
It’s not necessary to embrace their every struggle and howl, to appreciate that strands of our DNA are found here. “You can’t do this; this is our history,” said Geoffrey Croft of N.Y.C. Park Advocates, a watchdog group. “There’s nothing progressive about displacing families and seniors from a corner of a public park, and eliminating one of the most famous free-speech sites.”
This battle began some years back, when the partnership announced that an anonymous someone had donated $7 million to freshen up the north end of the park, and to place a restaurant in the pavilion. The generosity was no doubt heartfelt, but it does prompt a Type-A New York question.
Who asked for the dough?
Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried rolled that question over on its belly. “The fact that you’re getting money to do something that you shouldn’t do doesn’t mean you should go and do it.”
That question now tumbles downtown, to City Hall. When Bill de Blasio was the public advocate, he spoke against this restaurant. Now, as mayor, he inherits his Law Department’s victory in favor of it.
The Villager piece, Opponents want Bill to block bistro in Union Square Pavilion, February 21, 2014, includes quotes from Village resident and former City Council member Carol Greitzer as well as Mary Brosnahan from Coalition for the Homeless:
Leaving park advocates and local elected officials dismayed, the state’s highest appeals court ruled on Thursday that the city’s plan to place a restaurant in Union Square Park’s north end pavilion can go forward.
The ruling will allow the hotly disputed bistro to open as early as mid-April. This follows a decade-long debate over the plan, which was then further delayed by legal battles after the city signed a deal with entrepreneur Simon Oren — the restaurant’s owner — in 2012.
In a statement responding to Thursday’s ruling, the city’s Law Department called it “a win for the community.”
But members of that community, in assocation with the park advocates, said they are now undertaking yet another effort to kill the plan, by making a direct appeal to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We’re not giving up on this, and the fight is far from over,” said Carol Greitzer, speaking in a phone interview a day after the ruling. A former city councilmember, Greitzer was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the project.
Under the court’s ruling, the city’s Parks Department has the authority to terminate the restaurant’s license at any time. So de Blasio could tell Parks to block the plan once and for all — and that’s exactly what its opponents are hoping he will do.
“We are calling on the mayor to cancel this Bloomberg-era contract and instead return the historic Union Square pavilion to the children and the community,” said Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, in a statement released immediately after the decision. “The area around Union Square Park has the least amount of playground space and the highest concentration of restaurants in the city, and it is therefore terrible public policy to transform municipal parkland into a commercial use. Our parks should not be for sale.”
A particularly impassioned and strongly worded appeal to the mayor has come from Mary Brosnahan, president of the Coalition for the Homeless and a longtime E. 17th St. resident.
In a letter sent to de Blasio on Thursday, she defended the pavilion as an essential public space for both residents with children — like herself — and for homeless kids.
“I write today as a 25-year resident of the Union Square community — as well as an advocate for homeless children in NYC — to ask you to please preserve the historic Pavilion space so our children, their caregivers and everyone in our community can continue to enjoy this public space for years to come,” Brosnahan wrote.
“Homeless kids need green space perhaps even more than those fortunate enough to have a home,” she continued, later in the letter, “as parks provide essential respite and restore hope to those most in need. I know you agree that turning over public park space to commercial interests will only increase the massive gulf in opportunities between the rich and everyone else in New York City. So, please, stop this plan to give away yet another piece of New York’s heritage to the highest bidder.”
But with all the power now in his hands, de Blasio still has not yet taken a public stance on the issue.
And the February 20th Wall Street Journal story, Despite outcry, eatery will open in New York City park, confirms that park organization, New Yorkers for Parks, takes some dubious positions:
“The building wasn’t built to be a restaurant. It was built to be used by children and families,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates. “It’s an irresponsible Bloomberg-era plan.”
New Yorkers for Parks, a leading citywide advocacy group, praised the restaurant. “Every restaurant proposed for every park is not a good idea,” said Ed Wallace, the group’s chairman. “This is a great idea. To say a park should only be trees and grass misses the point.”
Top Photo: via NYC Park Advocates