Union Square Park Reno Finally Underway

It all started Six years ago when the City Council pledged $1.9 Million dollars to renovate the North end of Union Square Park. There has been controversy, anger, appeasement, and backroom dealings ever since. That was until this week when fencing went up and construction trailers descended on the Park. Today, the Farmers Market was moved to the West side of the park and various construction barriers indicate that something is finally happening on the North end. The construction, which was last reported to begin this fall, has apparently begun. The final plan which will cost $20 Million will include a tripling of the playground space, a greening of the North end of the park and resurfacing of the Farmer's Market area to include electrical and plumbing upgrades for the vendors. The most controversial aspect is the plan for a 120 seat restaurant which will occupy the badly dilapidated Pavilion built in the 1930's. The Pavilion will be completely renovated and will also include office and maintenance space for park workers. Critics argue that this amount to a "privatization of public space". While this argument may hold some validity, the plan as a whole, largely privately funded, appears to be beneficial as a whole. First, a tripling of playground space is never a bad thing. Second, the north end of the park, home of the Farmers Market, is nearly 2 city blocks of pavement and nothing else. On rainy days like today, this pavement is a minefield of puddles and plainly put a blight. The greening and resurfacing of the area is a welcome, overdue improvement. Yes, we may end up with another Danny Meyer inspired Shake Shack effort, but there was a bar there before, and who couldn't use a good burger now and then?
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  1. Twenty million dollars is a huge amount for a NYC park - the entire agency's construction budget has to cover 28,000 acres and is only $500m. Let's hope that the construction goes smoothly and that kids will be able to play in the improved playgrounds soon!

  2. i care a lot that my park is being privatized! yes, paving the cement for the greenmarket would be great and they've been promising to do that for years.

    but this entire plan is basically just a sweetheart deal that will make the co-chair of the union square partnerhip (danny meyer) richer.

    there will at least 40 feet of space taken away from the greenmarket when all is said and done. and instead of doing the construciton in stages, they are closing off the entire north end of the park which forces the greenmarket to move to the west and south side of the park which in turn means the first amendment artists get squeezed out of the park entirely when the greenmarket is set up.

    currently there are more than 150 restaurants in a 2 block radius of union square park - 6 of them face the park with outdoor seating. do we REALLY need ANOTHER restaurant in this area???

    fixing up the children's playground is a great idea and that should have been done long ago with the repaving of the cement but that should have nothing to do with building a restaurant!

    the parks belong to the taxpayers - the parks department are the custodians of this land. the parks are deliberately underfunded which is why they have to rent out space for events, etc.

    the parks department would LOVE to rent out kiosks to corporations in order to make millions of dollars. this is why they are constantly trying to get rid of the first amendment artists who set up there. and as long as the artists are there in the park, no corporation will pay millions of dollars to put a kiosk next to an artist who doesn't have to pay a dime to be there.

    don't be foolish to think they are doing the public a great service here...they are all just lining their own pockets. after all, money talks louder than the first amendment.


    Union Square Park has a long and venerable history as a location for First Amendment protected activities. These include protests, union rallies, artists displaying their work and musicians. In recent years it has also become home to a wonderful Greenmarket providing fresh organic produce to thousands of New Yorkers.

    Unfortunately, the Parks Department's agenda of privatizing public parks now threatens to eliminate or seriously diminish many of these activities. A wealthy board member of the Union Square Partnership BID, who is also a personal friend of the Parks Commissioner, plans to build a big restaurant in the North end of USP. This plan will result in the Greenmarket permanently losing much of the area it has occupied.

    The restaurant and the thousands of daily customers it expects to have will also take space away from the playground, eliminate the area where most large protests have traditionally been held, diminish the number of trees and displace many of the local residents who now use the park for recreation. Considering that the area around USP has more restaurants than any in NYC and less open green space, there is no reason to locate any restaurant there.

    Many local residents are communicating their disapproval of this plan to the Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, whose own father, Barry Benepe, founded the Greenmarket. A lawsuit to stop it is in the works. You will also notice that street artists are displaying signs and protesting about this planned restaurant/park renovation.

    The Parks Department has temporarily relocated the Greenmarket to the South side of USP. They have also attempted to illegally evict all the artists from the park.

    In 2001 members of A.R.T.I.S.T. won a Federal lawsuit, Lederman et al v Giuliani, establishing their right to sell art in any NYC park under First Amendment freedom of speech. Please note that this Federal ruling protects the sale of visual art in the form of painting, prints, sculptures and photographs. It does not protect the sale of general merchandise such as jewelry, batteries etc.

    The park privatization agenda is partly due to the Mayor deliberately under funding Parks. The Parks Commissioner is forced to seek other means of raising money to make up for this, which he does by selling space in NYC Parks to restaurants, allowing huge months long "Holiday Gift Markets," and corporate promotions by companies such as Disney, Sony and BestBuy, and by completely turning the operation of parks over to private corporations such as the Union Square Partnership BID, the Central Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Conservancy. These corporate Business Improvement Districts or BIDs are run by the city's largest real estate interests. They privatize our public parks, hire private security guards to patrol what they consider "their" private property, take a big cut of the multi million dollar permit fees for corporate events and gradually eliminate the public's right to use the parks for free expression, relaxation and play.

    Public parks are not the same thing as real estate or other private property. They cannot, or at least should not, be bought and sold like any other commodity. They belong to the public, and are held in trust by elected officials. When those elected officials privatize our public spaces, they are violating the public trust.

    The artists who sell in USP are members of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics). We urge you to help us defend the entire public's free expression rights in this and every other NYC park. We also fully support the continued operation of the Greenmarket, which is one of the best things ever done in any NYC Park. Help us defend your public park.

    A.R.T.I.S.T. website: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NYCStreetArtists/
    Email: artistpres@gmail.com
    Contact the Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe at: The Arsenal Central Park NY, NY 10021
    Tell him No Privatization of Union Sq. Park!
    Union Square Boondoggle

    By Alex Kane
    From the April 11, 2008 issue | Posted in Local | Email this article
    The chain link fences are up around the north end of Union Square Park as the city prepares to launch a $20 million renovation that critics say privileges private business interests over the public good.

    The overhaul began in 2002 as a $1.9 million initiative by then City Council Member Margarita Lopez to improve two playgrounds on both sides of the pavilion at the north end of Union Square. By 2004, the Parks Department and the Union Square Partnership had folded the playground money into a $14 million scheme that would install a privately run restaurant in the pavilion. The pricetag is now at $20 million with an anonymous donor contributing $5 million.

    "There's absolutely no rationale for the city to be doing this except to appease business groups," said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, a nonprofit watchdog group dedicated to monitoring New York City's public spaces. "This is an area with the highest concentration of restaurants in New York City, and the lowest amount of playground space. The fact that the Business Improvement District has been able to usurp the public's interest and the community's interest is very unfortunate."

    In a 2005 survey that Croft conducted, there were 153 restaurants, markets and bars in a two-block radius around Union Square Park.

    The makeover is supposed to be finished by the spring of 2009 and will include expanding playground space by unifying the two playgrounds, fixing up the run-down pavilion, the inclusion of new facilities for the Parks Department, cutting down at least 13 mature trees in the area around the pavilion to make way for the private restaurant and "improvements" to the north plaza of Union Square that hosts the city's most popular Greenmarket. During the reconstruction, the Greenmarket will be displaced to the south and west sides of Union Square.

    The plan has the support of City Council Member Rosie Mendez but has been criticized by Assembly Members Richard Gottfried and Deborah Glick, whose districts border Union Square, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. "[Stringer's] position has always been to oppose the privatization of park space … and [he] opposes the construction of a restaurant in Union Square," said Stringer's press secretary Carmen Boon in an e-mail to The Indypendent.

    Community Board 5, which encompasses Union Square, approved the plan in 2006, but urged the city to allow cultural institutions and community groups to have an opportunity to use the pavilion as well.

    Project opponents have few legal options at this point but are weighing whether to pursue alienation proceedings that would bring a lawsuit against New York City to the New York State Assembly, in hopes that the Assembly would declare the private restaurant an unneeded facility in an area with an abundance of restaurants.

    In the past, the pavilion has been used as a bandstand, a speaker's platform, and a backdrop for protests and rallies. The north end of Union Square was the site of the first Labor Day Celebration organized by the Knights of Labor in 1882.

    The Parks Department has drawn criticism for not divulging the name of the $5 million mystery donor whose gift is contingent upon the establishment of the restaurant. Meanwhile, speculation over who will end up running the restaurant has centered on Danny Meyer, a restaurant mogul who owns 11 eateries including Union Square Café and the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park. Meyer is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership's Local Development Corporation.

    For people who also fought the city's plan to partially privatize Washington Square Park under the rubric of improving it, the city's efforts to remake Union Square are a familiar sight.

    "There has definitely been an effort to privatize across the board, [especially] the parks … it seems to be an effort by Mayor Bloomberg to be in everybody's public space," said environmental activist Cathryn Swan.

    Photo by Sophie Forbes



    Washington Sq News

    PARK CONSTRUCTION | Argentinian artist Daniel Arancibia sells his stylized photography in Union Square, but since the Parks Department has started construction, he may be barred from selling there two days a week.

    OUSTED | Michael Bittner, 18, sells Polaroid transfers mounted on watercolor paper.
    U. Square art sellers ousted by city dept.
    By: Monica Burton
    Posted: 4/10/08
    Things aren't looking so good for downtown Manhattan street artists.

    Less than six months after the Washington Square Park renovations started, the Parks Department announced another construction project in a nearby artist hot spot.

    For the next two years, artists will be prohibited from setting up in or around Union Square Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays because of construction at the north end of the park. The construction will be building a restaurant owned by one of the Union Square Partnership board members.

    Local street artists say the restaurant has no place in the park to begin with.

    Upon learning this news, Robert Lederman, president of Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics, contacted Parks Department officials to resolve the issue. The Parks Department agreed to allow artists to set up in a few designated areas, but the accommodation is temporary and still unsatisfactory to artists who feel that their First Amendment rights are being violated.

    "It's firmly established that we can sell in any park," Lederman said. "We're not asking for permission to do anything. The real question is how far [the Parks Department] is willing to go in order to provide their privatization agenda."

    Lisa Park, a 36-year-old Manhattan resident, only periodically displays and sells her artwork at Union Square Park but sympathizes with the street artists who sell in the area regularly.

    "It's kind of nonsense," Park said. "It's a public park, so I don't understand how they can build a restaurant. Money talks these days, I guess."

    The Parks Department is aiming to accommodate both Union Square's popular Greenmarket and the artists. But because the construction leaves less space for both parties, there may not be enough room to satisfy everyone. However, Lederman said the artists and Greenmarket merchants are willing to coexist, as long as the artists are able to maintain their right to set up in the public park.

    But there may be long-term affects to the construction, 55-year-old park artist Patrick Christiano said.

    "It's what the courts would call a slippery slope," he said. "Once you start infringing on one group's rights, you prevent other people from expressing themselves in other ways."

    The issue doesn't sit well with non-artists either. CAS freshman Taylor Lane has disapproved of the Parks Department since the construction began on Washington Square Park.

    "I think that the city is doing poor things with park planning," she said. "There should be a public venue for art."

    Lederman, who has been working to gain rights for street artists since the formation of ARTIST in 1993, wants to ensure just that. He urges those who care about the rights of artists to write to the parks commissioner and come out to Union Square Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays to buy from the artists who will continue to set up for as long as they can find a spot in the dwindling public park space.

    Monica Burton is a contributing writer. E-mail her at citystate@nyunews.com.

  4. The renovation is nothing more then a sweet heart deal between the Parks Dept and the local BID named the Union Square Partnership and it's board of directors. This is how public land is given to private business for a fraction of it's value and without public consent. The Parks Dept does not own the property the true owners are the residents of New York City. The Parks Dept are merely the custodians it is not their right to give it away. The land and the north pavilion being offered to Danny Meyers was originally set aside for use by children. The north pavilion was referred to as the Children's Pavilion the use was aimed at given children a place to play on rainy days and to host educational events , birthday parties and many other such events. Now this will end forever, our children, our children 's children and their children's children will never have this use again. Are our children not worth the preservation of the north pavilion? Do we continue to take away from our kids?
    Restoration and renovation of the playground and the pavilion for it's intended purpose would cost only a fraction of what we taxpayers will be paying to give the property away, and will take less time then 2 years currently estimated to complete the project. It will leave the north end open for the greenmarket and truly worthy events.
    Are we all so short sighted and blind to what is truly happening here and where will it end, when we have no more parks left!


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