Save Union Square Park Pavilion!

On Saturday, March 9, advocates, elected officials, and the community rallied in support of the historic Women & Children’s Pavilion in Union Square Park.  Together we called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to cancel a Bloomberg-era contract to build a high-end restaurant in the park that would drastically reduce public access to the pavilion area.

Here’s our letter to the Mayor and DNAinfo’s coverage of the event, and below please find our press release from the rally:

Community, Advocates, and Officials Call on Mayor de Blasio to Protect Historic Pavilion for Community Use

Advocates, local elected officials and community residents came together to ask Mayor Bill 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, repeating the request made Friday in a letter to the Mayor by seven elected officials.

“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.”

For the past decade the community has fought to restore the historic pavilion in Union Square Park to its former uses, including a sheltered, indoor recreation center offering year-round recreation and free public uses for children, teens, families, seniors, and the community at large.

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

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

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

Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates said, “There is nothing progressive about displacing families, children, and seniors, and eliminating one of the county’s most historic free speech sites in a public park. The new administration has an opportunity to set a very important tone concerning 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 Business Improvements District has been allowed to dictate public land use policy, aided by an eight million dollar anonymous donation. This is terrible public policy.”

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

Despite this history and despite the serious need for additional recreational and sheltered community space, the City and the Union Square Partnership pushed through a plan which displaces most if not all of the traditional community uses, aided by an eight million dollar anonymous donation.

Union Square Community Coalition member and former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer said, “This shouldn’t be a tale of ‘two pavilions.’ 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.”

State Senator Liz Krueger stated “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. We must not sacrifice this hallowed ground for another restaurant in a neighborhood full of restaurants.”

“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,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman. “I hope that the City will cancel this contract and restore the pavilion as part of a unified and non-commercial public space.”

Assembly Member Deborah Glick added “I have long held that public space should not be given over to private development. The community needs 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.”

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel said, “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. 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.”

BACKGROUND

In March 2012 the city quietly approved a new 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.

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

Although the Pavilion will be available “for a range of educational and recreational activities open to the public from November through April” and “The Parks Department plans to sponsor childrens’ programs, fitness programs, and films” these plans are not necessarily the community’s preference nor under its control. In addition, it is unclear what areas of the Pavilion would be accessible even during the restaurant’s “off-season” except for occasional Parks Department activities.

INTRUSION ON NORTHERN PLAZA

The Parks Department’s $20 million redevelopment of the northern end of Union Square Park and the northern plaza has already resulted in the loss of tables and chairs to private use. As the pavilion in the north end remains a much-needed site for free speech and mass assembly, the City has discouraged rallies in the north end by limiting the number of permits issued for large gatherings and instead has sought to move assemblies to the less desirable southern end. The north plaza historically functioned as the park’s main site for large rallies, and the exercise of first amendment and free speech rights is one of the main reasons why the park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

INAPPROPRIATE DEPENDENCY ON SITE REVENUE

The Parks Department has maintained that without an expanded private concession, it would be impossible to raise the funds for pavilion renovations. But it is wrong to insist that this is the only option. The increasing privatization of our parkland is an abdication of the City’s responsibility to maintain and improve our parks and prevent the harm that commercialization brings. The public should not be asked to accept trade-offs like this in exchange for park improvements. Parks should be supported by the City. We should not have to sell off pieces of our parks to pay for them.

For more than 130 years, the parks’ two pavilions have 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.

PARK ALIENATION

The community and the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit believe that the taking of this space for a restaurant should require “park alienation.” The Public Trust Doctrine, which dates back to the 19th century in New York and has its roots in ancient Roman law, provides that once land has been acquired for use as a municipal park, it cannot be used for any other purpose without the approval of the State Legislature.

Parkland alienation – the sale, lease or use of parkland for non-park purposes without legislative authorization – is a growing concern. Increasingly, municipal governments are taking parkland for private use.

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