Testimony on Union Square Park at the Franchise and Concession Review Committee Public Hearing Monday, June 6, 2011
This is the testimony of State Senator Thomas K. Duane and Assembly Members Deborah J. Glick and Richard N. Gottfried who represent parts of Union Square and the neighborhood. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. We regret that we are unable to attend today’s hearing in person due to the legislative session in Albany.
We do not expect the Franchise and Concession Review Committee to disagree with the City administration. Nonetheless, it is our obligation as local elected officials to speak out for the community we represent and continue to remind the City administration that this proposal is a privatization of public park space, and we oppose it. The area of the private restaurant in the Pavilion will be taken from public use, and the area on the north side of the Pavilion. We believe that the City will be loathe to approve permits for rallies and other controversial events – a key -part of Union Square’s heritage – that are not sponsored by the City (such as “public education programs to encourage healthy eating habits”), in order to protect the commercial interests of the restaurant.
RESTAURANT NOT NEEDED AND NOT WANTED
Community Board Five, many of its local elected officials, the Union Square Community Coalition, and other community organizations have, for six years, repeatedly requested that the Parks Department give other organizations the opportunity to submit proposals for the Pavilion and restore the Pavilion for community use year round.
The use of the Pavilion as a restaurant, whether year round or seasonal, is not needed, nor is it a proper use of this public space. Union Square Park users already have plenty of restaurants available within a block in every direction and at every price range. Many other possible and preferable uses for the Pavilion have been suggested, such as a public staging area, a facility for programs and activities, a snack bar, or simply an increased seating and picnicking space. These proposals were never given appropriate consideration. The Parks Department need not look very hard for examples of community-use pavilions. St. Vartan’s Park and Columbus Park are two examples where pavilions are used year round by preschoolers, teens, seniors, and for community activities.
USE OF THE PAVILION
It is little consolation that the Pavilion will be available “for a range of educational and recreational activities open to the public from November through April” and that “The Parks Department plans to sponsor children’s programs, fitness programs, and films” since these plans are neither the community’s preference nor under its control. In addition, it is highly doubtful that the entire area of the Pavilion will be available for community activity, as the restaurant will no doubt need to keep its kitchen in place and store its fixtures during the months it is closed. Obviously, this is far from ideal and puts into question what kind of access and programming would be available.
We also have concerns about maintenance of and access to the Pavilion’s restroom facilities. It is critically important that these restrooms remain open to the public, well maintained and accessible, both during the months of the year when the concession is in operation and when it is not.
INTRUSION ON THE NORTHERN PLAZA
We opposed much of the Parks Department’s $20 million redevelopment proposal for the northern end of Union Square Park and the northern plaza. In particular, the loss of tables and chairs to a private use is unacceptable.
While the Parks Department says that the majority of rallies now occur in the south end of the park, it is the north plaza that is the historic site of the country’s first Labor Day rally, held on September 5, 1882, and hundreds if not thousands of subsequent rallies. The south end of the park is less desirable for a number of reasons and the plaza at the north end continues to be a much-needed site for free speech and mass assembly,. In fact, the north plaza's function as the park's main site for large rallies where First Amendment and free space has been historically exercised was one of the main reasons why the park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
DEPENDENCE ON SITE REVENUE INAPPROPRIATE
The Parks Department has maintained that without an expanded private concession, it would be impossible to raise the funds to pay for renovating the Pavilion. 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 to prevent the harm that commercialization brings. It is not right for the public to 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.
Union Square Park already generates substantial concession revenue for the City. And a well-maintained park generates enormous property tax and sales tax revenue by its strong positive impact on the surrounding area. A park does not have to be sold off in pieces; the City treasury benefits the most by a park being kept up and kept intact.
The City has a responsibility to not only maintain and improve the utility and beauty of our parks, but to prevent the negative impacts that commercialization inherently brings to our public spaces. Private interests in parks come with a hidden price tag – a cost that becomes apparent as private interests clash with the public’s.
The preservation of Union Square Park’s historic use as a gathering place for public protest will inevitably clash with the use of the private concessionaire. The restaurant’s main entrance is slated for the northern end of the Pavilion with seating and tables on both sides of the steps. This means that in the event of a rally or other event, it will be difficult for the restaurant to remain open. It is difficult to envision that any private concessionaire for this space would be pleased to close shop voluntarily whenever New Yorkers feel compelled to organize a rally. The presence of a private interest presents a serious obstacle to free expression.
KEEP THE NEWSSTAND; FOOD KIOSK NOT NEEDED
A satellite restaurant kiosk slated to replace an existing newsstand in the park’s northwest corner is not needed – except to profit the vendor – considering there are more than 150 eating establishments, bars, and markets within just a two-block radius of the park. Newsstands serve purposes beyond that of selling the latest news. They also provide passersby with the opportunity to buy a bottle of water, gum, maps, and a quick snack or other refreshment - items that ordinary park-goers may seek. Serving one of the most highly traversed areas in the city, this newsstand provides residents, tourists, and local workers this access.
What the Parks Department is proposing would constitute “alienating” parkland and would therefore require approval by the State Legislature – which Assembly Members Deborah Glick, Richard Gottfried, and Senator Thomas Duane would oppose. We ask that you reject the proposed plans to award as a concession the operation and maintenance of a seasonal café and the development, operation and maintenance of a year-round satellite kiosk in Union Square Park.