On Public Space: The Privatized Union Square Holiday Market and the Performance Crackdown at Washington Square

Union Square Holiday Market

As word of the performance crackdown at Washington Square Park spread in October, Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson told the Villager:

“At Washington Square Park the existing regulations are intended to keep paths clear and allow all park users to move about freely and see monuments and views,” said Philip Abramson. He confirmed that performers must stand 5 feet away from benches and cannot perform within 50 feet of a monument or fountain.

To be clear, these “existing regulations” had never existed before. They were written for artist vendors selling their wares (it was controversial with that application) in the city’s public parks. 

The crackdown and ticketing of performers at Washington Square Park has nothing to do with blocking views, paths or monuments. Likewise, the restriction of artists at Union Square Park is not about that.

The Parks Department has no problem with the Holiday Market (pictured above) now in place at Union Square Park – from which it makes over $1 Million. The Holiday Market clearly blocks paths, the 14th Street Plaza and views of the George Washington statue.

This is about controlling public space, money, and a loss of character and charm (the “blanding of New York City”) at our city’s public parks.

Last year, DNAinfo looked into the matter at Union Square:

The sprawling bazaar that takes over Union Square for the park’s annual holiday market has become a hub for gift-shopping New Yorkers.

But one local artist fighting with the Parks Department over its rules to limit street artists in the park the rest of the year sees the city’s preferential treatment of the market as a double standard he thinks could help his case.

Robert Lederman, the outspoken leader of the artists who filed a lawsuit to block the vendor restrictions, claims that money — not public safety or aesthetics, as the city purported — motivated the revised park rules.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe admitted to a Daily News columnist that money was a big factor in welcoming the market, which pays the city $1 million to takeover the southern end of the park where street artists usually decamp.

The Parks Department said the artists created hazardous conditions for pedestrians.

Lederman, who invoked the artists’ First Amendment right to sell there without having to pay the city, is hoping the Parks Commissioner may end up eating his words.

“That the city put a 200-vendor holiday market in the exact south plaza area where the new rules completely ban all artists shows the utterly false nature of the pretext,” Lederman told DNAinfo. “That Benepe publicly claims it’s okay because they paid him $1 million, is the icing on the cake.”

Lederman called the holiday market a “huge public safety threat,” claiming it blocks one of the city’s busiest subway entrances and obstructs monuments — which the artists must be 50-feet away from.

But the city’s law department argued that during the weeks the market operates, the park isn’t used as much anyway.

“…The Holiday Market is allowed during the time of the year when it does not significantly interfere with the use of the Park because weather conditions reduce the number of people who come to enjoy its facilities,” Gabriel Taussig, a chief in the Administrative Law Division of the NYC Law Department, said in an e-mailed statement.

That’s an interesting argument – the weather argument. People still come out of the subway in that location and walk through the park there, no matter what time of year it is. On milder days, people would be sitting or performing on the Plaza at Union Square. None of that can be done while the Holiday Market is there.

Since these articles appeared last year, the artist vendor – referred to by the city as “expressive matter” vending – restrictions were put into place at the city’s parks (Robert Lederman’s lawsuit against this is ongoing – a decision should be reached early next year).

The Parks Department’s interpretation of these rules, applying them to artists and musicians performing for donations, is new. It is being purposefully applied at Washington Square – and is yet another example of the city’s attempt to revise the image and historic usage of the park.

These rules, with their expanding applications, are about the Bloomberg Administration controlling and further privatizing our public spaces, not about protecting the public from “wayward” artists and musicians appearing on pathways and in our midst.

NY Post reports City soliciting of bids for “seasonal restaurant” in Union Square Park to Begin Shortly

All throughout the court case that Union Square community activists brought against the New York City Parks Department and Union Square Partnership, the local BID (Business Improvement District), in 2008 over plans to place a restaurant in Union Square Park’s historic Pavilion — claiming loss of a public space — the City and USP claimed that there were no such plans (despite it being in the official documents and on all the Parks Department’s signs surrounding Union Square North’s construction).  Because of this, the judge ruled the case was “unripe.”

Well, today’s New York Post reports that in the next two months the City will begin taking bids for just such a restaurant.  From the article:

The city plans to issue a request for proposals to operate a seasonal café in the [Union Square] park’s refurbished pavilion — despite objections that the 80-year-old gathering spot should be set aside as public space.

The city concession was outlined in an Aug. 24 letter to Borough President Scott Stringer informing him of the upcoming request for proposals.

The winning bidder would score a 15-year contract to run the private café six months out of the year and also have the option to operate a satellite cart or kiosk.

The restaurant has been a bone of contention during the $20 million overhaul of the Park.

In April 2008, park advocates sued the city and the Union Square Partnership, a business improvement district that which manages the park. The lawsuit halted the restaurant’s construction for nearly a year.

The restaurant would have table service and an outdoor seating area on a deck.

Critics argue that the pavilion, a historic landmark, should not become a privately run space.

Previous WSP Blog coverage on judge’s ruling on Union Square here.

The High Line Park and Refining Public Space, Questions Raised

A perspective on the High Line appeared in Thursday’s New York Times (9/3) from Ashley Gilbertson who in 2005 explored the at-that-time abandoned elevated rail road tracks and the life that remained and sprung up around them. This was before the work began that resulted in what we have there now, the High Line Park, which opened in June, a mostly privatized endeavor.

Gilbertson writes in the The New York Times articleThe High Line – Up Over Chelsea, Something Saved, Something Lost” of his experience getting up there :

The tracks and sleepers were still in place. The grass and weeds grew higher than my head, and I saw that someone had cleared a plot among them and planted a little vegetable garden. Smashed beer bottles and the occasional crack pipe crunched underfoot. The old covered loading bays that cut into the buildings had become guerrilla art galleries, crammed with graffiti murals by some of New York’s legends, and in one case, an illegal iron installation welded to a steel beam.

I did not see anyone else up there that day. The noise and hustle below were mostly muted. If the city were ever abandoned, I imagined, this was how it might look.

Then, his return:

Four years later, almost to the day, I returned to the High Line, now a refined urban park. Appropriately, it was a perfect sunny day. I held my camera in the same spots, and saw a landscape transformed. It was very pleasant, but I felt as though something had been lost.

The graffiti murals have been cleaned off the walls. The iron sculpture was dismantled to give a better view of Spencer Finch’s public art project; his colored windows are pretty, but feel spineless and manufactured compared with the raw, unsanctioned work that used to be there. Walking the manicured paths, I could no longer bring myself to imagine the city in a different age. I found myself wishing that the High Line had never been touched.

Gilbertson concludes that, if the High Line Park hadn’t been built, it would have been destroyed entirely and lost to luxury housing development. But his article and reflections on The High Line Park raise questions:

* Is there a way to update and improve a public space, to make change, without irreparably altering the character and history of that space?

* Why does the current New York City government, under billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who hails from, uh, Boston), seem incapable of doing so?

* And:  Does everything in present day New York City have to be shiny and glossy and made for high end consumption?

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You can see photos of The High Line in 2005 and 2009 from the article at this link.

The ‘New’ Times Square: Public Space as Suburban Mall and Now Also For Rent

New Times Square 1New Times Square 2Seriously, I think I felt more comfortable with how Times Square was before with all the traffic (and even before that when it was really, uh, gritty…) … this is totally geared to tourists. It feels antithetical to what New York is (and can be). Now it is reported that the Bloomberg Administration is selling off the rights to use this “public space,” a definite pattern, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times:

When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced plans in February to close stretches of Broadway to traffic to create pedestrian plazas, it was billed as a way to ease congestion and create oases for walkers, people watchers, idlers (chairs and tables were provided) and cyclists. Since the car-free zones were opened in May, they have been home to predictable urban vignettes: tourists resting with their shopping bags, New Yorkers pausing with their cellphones as buses go by a few feet away.

But the plazas can also make money for the city.

Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, is quoted about the risks involved:  

“If it’s a public event, then that’s O.K., but what can happen very quickly is they can be privatized and limit public use and public access,” Mr. Kent said. He cited the Bryant Park fashion shows as an example of the latter, calling them “the most egregious private use of public space anywhere in the world.”

These “pedestrian plazas” are located: “on Broadway at Times Square from 47th to 42nd Street, at Herald Square from 35th to 33rd Street, and where Broadway and Fifth Avenue meet between 22nd and 25th Streets. Smaller plazas, called Broadway Boulevard, take up one lane of Broadway between 42nd Street and Herald Square.”

Photos:  Cat

Daily Metro Reports Parks Department Says “No Way” to Anonymous Wealthy Donors’ Plans to “better” Washington Sq Park with their private security Force

Daily paper Metro NY checked in with the NYC Parks Department about yesterday’s report in the New York Post that wealthy but anonymous donors, in addition to New York University, acting as part of a self-appointed entity called “The Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park,” were scheduled to hire private “off duty NYPD” cops to police Washington Square Park.  

From today’s Metro:

The Parks Department would not consider such a proposal,” a Parks spokeswoman said. “The NYPD is responsible for crime prevention throughout the city, including in all parks.”

She noted that one member of the Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park — a group of block associations, Fifth Avenue co-ops and others“expressed interest” in raising money to hire off-duty officers, but said the park is already staffed by Park Enforcement Patrol officers paid for, in part, by NYU

It does raise the question why Gil Horowitz, et al. (we don’t know who the “et al.” are because they won’t reveal who they are!) were so sure their plan was going to proceed and be implemented that they allowed themselves to be quoted extensively in the Post.  I imagine they considered that story quite a feather in their cap.  So… despite the supposed nixing of the private security, will their plans to pay for “maintenance” in the park proceed?  And will they still be meeting with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe as stated in the article?  There’s probably more to this story, don’t ya think?

Photographer Stacy Walsh Rosenstock weighed in with her thoughts in response to WSP Blog’s post on the topic yesterday with yet another insightful comment:

A security force to protect “the investments made in the park?” Perhaps there’s a dastardly plan to move the fountain 23 feet to the west? Lounge on a closed lawn? Or worse, walk on one of the chain fences?

And what will these security patrols do when they do apprehend such quality of life offenders? Issue a citizen’s violation? Isn’t hiring private security forces to monitor all the plain clothes and under cover police posing as criminals in the park like the tail wagging the dog?

But just to add to the equation, wasn’t Washington Square Park one of the first locations to have NYPD surveillance cameras installed back during the Giuliani administration? Maybe the primary function of this new security patrol can polish the lenses of the surveillance cameras.

NY Post Reports New Washington Square “Coalition” comprised of anonymous wealthy donors and NYU. Privatization of Park begins?

In today’s New York Post, we’re informed of a new “coalition:”  “The Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park.”  

The name and article bring up a lot of questions:  Who doesn’t want a better Washington Square Park but who decides what’s “better?”  … The people who wanted the fountain aligned and plaza leveled and trees cut down?  The people who are concerned about their real estate values?  People who have money to throw around and yet won’t reveal who they are?  

The article reveals that the new “coalition’s” goal is “beefed up security” at the Park made up of “off duty NYPD cops” to rid the park of “druggies and lowlifes.”  Yet, the individual people in the group – the ones funding it – won’t reveal who they are except for front man, neighborhood resident and sometime agitator, Gil Horowitz.  

I’ve noted a lot of police at the park since it reopened and they basically have nothing to do.  The Parks Department has explained at length to those who are concerned why it is difficult to curtail any questionable pot dealings in the park so why would NYPD “off duty” cops make the park anything but more… policed?

What we do know is that NYU is involved so an alarm bell goes off right there as to this new group’s intentions.

A step towards further privatization, perhaps?

From the article in New York Post:

Washington Square Park tokers, beware!

A group of “wealthy, high-level” Greenwich Village residents plans to hire a security force of off-duty NYPD cops to keep the refurbished bohemian playpen from returning to its bad old days as an open-air drug market, The Post has learned.

“The Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park” — which is made up of area co-op boards and NYU — says it wants to protect the great strides made there, including a multimillion-dollar face lift paid for, in part, by the Tisch family.

“There are wealthy New Yorkers that are public-minded,” said coalition founder Dr. Gil Horowitz, a longtime parkgoer and resident of lower Fifth Avenue. “We have brought together some very high-level people in order to get this done.”

Washington Sq Pk Turned Upside Down

Washington Sq Pk Turned Upside Down

And then this:

The powerbroker donors have thus far opted for anonymity.

“We just want people to respect the investments made in the park,” said Adelaide Polsinelli of the Presidents Roundtable, a coalition of Village locals.

Whose investments?  The Tisch Family? NYU?  The local Business Improvement District?

At least the story gets another viewpoint in there from lawyer Ron Kuby:

But longtime Village resident, lawyer Ron Kuby, expressed concern.

“I think the rich folk who are sponsoring this want to change the character of the park from the free-wheeling street-theater scene to something that resembles their backyard terraces,” he said.

Let’s stop this before it begins. Ideas, anyone?

The Selling Off of our Public Space by the NYC Parks Department — Private Fashion Event To Take Over West 4th Street Ball Courts; Parks Dept. Bypasses Community Board Approval

Yes, there was a Washington Square Park Task Force/Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting last night addressing Washington Square Park’s Redesign: Phase III.  But truthfully what was perhaps more interesting was what happened after that part of the meeting ended.

CB2 Parks Committee chair Tobi Bergman announced that they had a last minute addition to the agenda. At that point, four young women who had entered the Task Force meeting mid-way (they didn’t look like the regular Washington Square Park folks) went to the front of the room and sat down, clearly ready to give some kind of presentation. I couldn’t even fathom what it might be but it had ‘this is going to be interesting‘ written all over it.

Turns out it was.

These women represented clothing designer Joseph Abboud, who, along with JC Penney and the NBA are launching a fashion line, and have been given the go ahead by the Parks Department to take over the West 4th Street (Basketball)Courts for a day and night on Monday, May 18th for a private event – an “editors’ preview” – for the sum of $17,000.00. The event planners met with the Parks Department about a month and a half ago and just now, one and a half weeks before the event will occur, the agency sent representatives from the company before the Community Board to present the plan – after the contracts have been signed.

The New York City Parks Department basically threw these four women into the fray with no idea what they up against (community disapproval, for one). Instead of the Parks Department sending its own representative to explain this decision – which is supposed to receive Community Board approval first – they sent company representatives who clearly didn’t realize there was any issue with what they were doing.

And, really, why would they? In Mike Bloomberg’s New York, why would you think there’d be any problem with a corporation taking over and seizing a public space for a private event, shutting out the … uh… public?

There’s no possible reversal or canceling of the event at this point. I gather the Parks Department figured it was better that the Community Board hear of this now rather than after the fact and alerting them before hand (as is technically required) might have put this plan in jeopardy. The Community Board might have not approved it or put stipulations on the event.

Tobi Bergman commented, “We don’t love people using parks for private purposes.” That was the basic sentiment of the Board during the meeting which was outraged and concerned that approval of the event did not come before them first.

I asked Geoffrey Croft from NYC Park Advocates about this privatization of parks and the bypassing of the Community Board and he said: “This is common practice by the Parks Department. This administration goes out of its way to avoid community based planning and consultation.” In addition, “The City is using Parks as cash cows. The money doesn’t even go into the parks. However, that also becomes a slippery slope because [if it did] the temptation to exploit our parks becomes so much greater.”

Part of the problem – which perpetuates situations like this – is that the Parks Department is severely underfunded and neither the Mayor or the City Council seem ready to address this anytime soon.

It was suggested at the meeting that the company (or someone) put up notices in advance to alert the basketball and handball players at the West 4th Street Courts – it’s a very popular court for both playing and watching – that their courts were being taken over for a day and therefore unusable. The company has the public space from 6 a.m. to midnight. The event occurs from 6-8 p.m.

I’ve written here before about privatization-of-public-space in New York City. See previous entries: Union Square and pervasive influence of the local Business Improvement District, the selling off of the Washington Square Park Fountain to the Tisch Family by the Parks Department ($2.5 million) and another well publicized take over of public space in Central Park by Chanel last fall given the green light by the Central Park Conservancy.

Photos: Left, Wallyg; Right: Footprintzstars

Union Square FOR Sale? … Judge rules NYC Parks Department and local BID can Proceed with Renovations that Will Likely Include Privatized Restaurant

Union Square Park Not for SaleUpdated April 2nd, 2009

It had been so quiet on the Union Square Park Pavilion front, and, frankly, it seemed like this had been a victory in the effort to save our public space.

The issue? Whether the historic Union Square Pavilion should be turned into a private restaurant at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg, NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and Union Square BID co-chair and restauranteur Danny Meyer.

What would this mean? This would take away the public space from everyday people and remove an integral part of NYC’s history from public usage.

$12 Pinot Noir anyone?

Although in more recent years no one’s been allowed in it, the Union Square Pavilion has been used throughout history as a site for political speeches and demonstrations, including the first Labor Day Parade in 1882. The hope was that the space could be used for the community, for performances, art, a museum with the history of the area, play space (although with 15,000 square feet of playground in the park – the playground itself was tripled and numerous trees cut down in the process – children have a lot of space as it is), etc. It is an opportunity to be creative.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe never misses an opportunity to link with a private corporation and is continuously seeking ways to turn NYC’s parks and public spaces into playgrounds for Mayor Bloomberg’s friends, manipulating them into homogenized, bland spaces devoid of their unique histories and charm. (See also: Washington Square Park)

NY State Supreme Court Judge Jane Solomon ruled Monday (3/30) on the case of Union Square Community Coalition and others vs. the New York City Parks Department and Union Square Partnership (local Business Improvement District). Her previous ruling was what was keeping a restaurant from going in to the historic Union Square Pavilion.

In a somewhat confusing decision, she dismissed the USCC’s lawsuit against the City and the BID because she said it was “unripe” (not ready to be argued) because it was unclear if the city’s plans – purposefully evasive – even included a restaurant. She ruled that USCC could come back to court once the city declares a restaurant is actually in their plans. However, it is pretty well known that millions of dollars are being spent to prepare for a restaurant. So you can, most likely, expect some more court action soon.

Union Square Not for Sale is asking people to put pressure on NY City Council Member Rosie Mendez (it’s her district) and Danny Meyer.

They write:

“The politicians and fat cats that are pushing to take away our public space and put it into private hands are vulnerable to public pressure, and we need to make them feel it. Councilmember Rosie Mendez needs to answer the question of why she signed off on this destructive, short-sighted plan in the first place. Danny Meyer needs to be called out publicly for hatching the scheme to take away play space for kids and performance space for artists. The Pavilion was designed and built with taxpayer money for public use. Privatizing it so that only paying customers can use it is just plain wrong.”

Contact info:

NY City Council Member Rosie Mendez phone; 212-677-1077
email: Rosie.Mendez-at-council.nyc.gov

Restauranteur and BID co-chair Danny Meyer/Union Square Hospitality Group phone: 212-228-3585
email: info-at-ushgnyc.com; dannymeyer-at-ushgnyc.com ******************************************************************

WSP Blog’s last post on this before the case being argued again in court on December 8th is here.

Bloomberg’s Privatization of Washington Sq Park: NYU, Tisch, Who Else?

Phase I of the City’s extensive planned “renovation” of Washington Square Park has gone from a projected $6 million to over $13 million. The “renovation’s” TOTAL costs, once two, now three Phases, stated to be $16 million at the onset (an excessive sum to begin with), are now lurching upwards to $25-30 million.

Where will the money come from? Since most everyone believes that Washington Square Park could manage with a few repairs on a relatively minor budget, it seems like a tailor made scheme for future privatization of the Park. Will a private conservancy be put into place to further control and manipulate this park? The Park’s redesign aims to change everything about its past – why not that?

Of course, the elephant in the room is New York University whose advertising pitches and promotional materials all feature Washington Square Park’s Arch (a public space, last we checked) larger than life. On the subway the other day, I saw five ads across the car for NYU’s School of Continuing Professional Studies — the Arch was bigger than anything else in the ad.

NYU is throwing in $1 million thus far for the “renovation” of the Park despite their insistence that they are “not involved.”  The University even sent a letter last year from their Community Affairs office to their “neighbors.”  It stated that “the University believes it [the Park] has been in need of renovation for some time” … “though NYU had no hand in the specifics of the Park’s redesign.” ??

NYU’s $1 million is an amazingly small sum towards this spot that they claim as their own and use in all their advertising and as the site of their graduation ceremony. Anything more and perhaps it would look like they had too much control, eh?

But since Mayor Bloomberg and NYU President John Sexton are such good friends — and Sexton’s endless expansion of NYU through our city’s neighborhoods has been bolstered by Mayor Bloomberg’s “policies” … the destruction of the fabric of communities is what Mayor Bloomberg likes because then his rich yet bland vision of NYC is further realized — there’s definitely some behind-the-scenes negotiating going on here.

Then there’s the Tisch Family who clearly believe there can’t be enough structures with their name on it — who forked over a nominal $2.5 million towards the reconstruction of the historic circular fountain guaranteeing them the naming rights and the aligning of the fountain with the Arch at Fifth Avenue. Soon it will be unveiled as the TISCH FOUNTAIN; a plaque on each side. (Whether anyone will actually call it that or be cool with that plaque’s existence is another story.)

Who exactly is negotiating these deals? Parks Commissioner Benepe? If you’re going to sell off one of the most famous and beloved spots in New York City at least do a good deal.

With the Park’s redesign costs skyrocketing out of control, will the City ultimately commission other corporate naming rights within the Park? The JP Morgan Chase Garibaldi Statue perhaps?

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* Updated and revised version of a post originally published February 29th, 2008 *

NYC Parks Dept. – 2/3 cuts in workers and many privatization schemes

Parks Dept. Logo, old Grate, Flatbush, Bklyn

Parks Dept. Logo, old Grate, Flatbush, Bklyn

According to New York Jobs With Justice:

“Years ago, NYC’s public parks were administered by over 7,500 municipal employees of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Today, it’s only 2,500 municipal employees taking care of NYC’s public parks. This number continues to shrink as the years go by. Much of the labor has been privatized through city partnerships with non-profit administrators resulting in a two-tier work force of public servants in the City’s public parks.

That is a 66% reduction in Parks Department workers.

Since so much has been willingly privatized (by the City), it’s hard to know what the actual number of workers is now.

Another result of the Parks Department budget cuts and the City government’s focus on privatization of our public spaces is emphasis on private entities which manage the space and also deem how that space is used.

* The City sells off naming rights to the fountain at Washington Square Park under the ruse that they can’t afford to repair it otherwise, and they agree to re-name it Tisch Fountain for $2.5 million (it ends up being moved, unnecessarily “aligned,” along with the deal) …

* At Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy – the private entity in charge of the park – has fought workers’ efforts to unionize.

* At Union Square Park, the Parks Department accepts a $7 million “anonymous” donation with STIPULATIONS – strings attached – that this donation ensures that there is a private restaurant in the historic Pavilion at Union Square. Although it hasn’t been revealed who the donor is, somehow restauranteur Danny Meyer, who is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (the local BID-business improvement district), is the only name bandied about as the choice to helm the restaurant. The restaurant is held off – for the moment – by a judge’s decision; the result of a lawsuit that a community group brought against the Parks Department to stop the privatization of this public space. (Meyer insisted in an affidavit that he has no plans to run the restaurant – but he supports it.)

You can see how much of a slippery slope this whole privatization game is.

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Photo: Cat

* This is an edited and expanded version of a post published April 25, 2008. *