NEWS AND ISSUES


TESTIMONY BY NEW YORK STATE SENATOR THOMAS K. DUANE BEFORE THE NEW YORK CITY ART COMMISSION REGARDING UNION SQUARE PARK

July 16, 2007

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senatorial District, which includes Union Square Park. Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony before the Art Commission of the City of New York today regarding the proposal from the New York City Parks Department ("Parks Department") to redevelop the north end of Union Square.

The application before you today is a large project, years in the making, that significantly alters all the key components of the north end of Union Square Park. Included in this considerable renovation, the last piece of the Parks Department's overhaul of Union Square Park, is the planting of a row of trees along the perimeter of the North Plaza; the repaving and tiling of the Plaza itself; the complete demolition, reconstruction, and enlargement of the playground; the addition of a new restroom building; and the desperately needed restoration of the pavilion. This project, a joint venture between the Parks Department and the Union Square Partnership, has been mired in controversy and unfortunately has taken entirely too long to realize. Various issues have been the source of controversy over the years, including the size and makeup of the playground and the location of seating around the north end, and many of these issues have been resolved satisfactorily. Today, the focus of neighborhood activists opposed to the renovation is the Parks Department's intended placement of a concession in the pavilion.

I want to begin my testimony by thanking the Art Commission for its considered and thoughtful response to the plan during last year's preliminary hearing. I agree with the Art Commission that the addition of a southern extension onto the pavilion was not appropriate to the Park, especially because its only possible function was to create more seating for the concession. I would also like to commend the Art Commission for asking for the removal of trees designated for the center of the plaza itself. Dividing the plaza up piecemeal in this way would have been devastating to the activist, associational history of Union Square Park, which I will discuss later.

The plan presented today has many aspects that I believe will greatly enhance Union Square Park and benefit the surrounding neighborhoods and all those who use the Park. The Union Square neighborhood, one of the most bereft of playground space in the City, is going to take great advantage of the larger, more efficient, and modernized playground. The Plaza itself, a neglected site today, greatly needs the beautification that this plan offers and I am appreciative of the enhanced services that will be provided to the much loved Greenmarket. These positive changes to the plan were realized due to the Parks Departmen's responsiveness to the community through outreach and consultation, and we are all in the community's debt for its weighty suggestions. Regrettably, throughout these conversations and negotiations, critiques of the Parks Department's intention to install a concession within the pavilion have gone unheeded. I understand that the purpose of todayfs hearing is for the Art Commission to assess the design of the plan, not to opine on the use of the pavilion. Unfortunately, however, major aspects of the plan before the Commission are affected in one way or another by the Parks Department's intention to install a concession inside the pavilion, and this must be taken into account during today's hearing.

One such aspect is the planned comfort station, which is not appropriate for three reasons. First, its mere presence not only robs this community of open space that could otherwise be put to better use, but its location adjacent to the pavilion also throws off the oval symmetry of the park. Second, the building itself, a glass and metal box of modern design, does not conform to the neoclassical pavilion directly beside it. Finally, an additional restroom is simply unnecessary in Union Square Park. While New York City is clearly in need of more public restrooms, there are already ample facilities in Union Square Park. The set of bathrooms in the park's pavilion and its subterranean support area could simply be renovated -- thereby providing the community the improved and accessible facilities it needs without using public money to add another structure to the park. In fact, the only reason the comfort station is necessary is because the Parks Department plans to restrict access to the pavilion's restrooms to concession customers during the months of the year when the concession is in operation.

The concession will also impact the north end of Union Square Park's continued use as a place of public gathering and protest. The Park is a State Historic Site and a National Landmark in part because of its legacy of protest and gathering, particularly in the North Plaza. 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 undoubtedly has hosted more rallies in the past couple years because its recent renovation by the Parks Department has made it a more attractive space, but as the redevelopment of the North Plaza is completed, in any fashion, rallies are likely to be sited there with increased frequency. Therefore, I am very concerned about anything that might impede the Plaza's ability to return to this type of use. Past versions of the plan have shown immovable seating, planters and trees, to be used as dividers between the public plaza and the concession seating. Concession seating that may not be used by non-customers, and fixed tables, chairs or planters, are encroachments onto the public space that is the North Plaza, and they inhibit the North Plaza from being fully used as a place for assembly and protest. I am grateful to the Art Commission for requesting the removal of trees from the Plaza, as they assuredly would have prevented the use of the North Plaza for its historical purpose. Now I urge the Commission to consider other types of hindrances that may be included in this plan, and to consider that some of these hindrances are created or exacerbated by the desire to have a concession in the pavilion. I also note that incursions into the Plaza can do nothing but exacerbate the Greenmarket's need for space.

The Parks Department has maintained that its plan for a private concession in the pavilion is essential to raising the revenue to pay for the restoration of that building. The increasing privatization of our parkland is an abdication of the City's responsibility to not only maintain and improve the utility and beauty of our parks, but to actively prevent the negative impacts that commercialization brings to our public spaces. It is troubling that the public is being asked to accept trade-offs like this in exchange for park improvements. The City is treating its parks like burdens that must be made to pull their own weight. Instead, we should regard our parks as creators of value, resources in which the City should be eager to invest. And, let us never forget that one of the purposes of our tax dollars, which we give to the City year after year, is to improve and maintain our City's parks.

Finally, while much of the plan is still controversial, it is very disappointing that because of the Parks Department's unpopular proposal, the start of construction for the playground space has again been held back. Six years ago, then Councilmember Margarita Lopez allocated $1.9 million toward the expansion and unification of the playground space in Union Square. Children in Community Board 5, and specifically the Union Square arty. I urge that the non-controversial element of the plan -- the extension of theea, have limited available play space, and expansion of the playground should be a high priori playground -- go forward immediately.

The Parks Department intends to release its RFP for renovation of the pavilion this Fall. Community Board Five has asked, and the Parks Department has agreed, that the RFP allow for responses that do not include concession uses. While, unfortunately, the Parks Department has not shown the community the most recent draft, I am eager to collaborate with the Parks Department on the release of the RFP and in the review of responses to it. I have been heartened by productive communication with the Union Square Partnership and I remain greatly heartened as I work with the Partnership's new leadership on this issue. While this has been a long endeavor in which the different parties involved have at times seemed destined to ultimately disagree, I am hopeful that a mutually satisfactory solution will be reached in the end.

I thank the Art Commission for allowing me to submit this testimony and appreciate your consideration of my concerns as you come to a decision today.


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