Planning the Final Stages Of a Park's Makeover
The plaza in Union Square Park where the Greenmarket operates will be resurfaced using colored paving
stones. The pavilion, center top, is to be redesigned into a seasonal cafe in the tradition of an Italian piazza.
By LISA CHAMBERLAIN
Published: June 26, 2005
THE reclamation of Union Square Park over the last 20 years has been one of the most spectacular neighborhood turnarounds in Manhattan. But its transformation is not yet complete.
The north end of the park, where the Greenmarket is held four days a week, is still a patchwork of uses that have never been coordinated. Worse, the pavilion, built in 1932, is badly deteriorated and goes largely unused.
Starting next spring, that part of the park will undergo a major renovation, developed in two years of planning. The Greenmarket will be improved and expanded, playground space will be tripled and the open-air pavilion will be transformed to incorporate a cafe that now operates outdoors south of the pavilion.
The next stage of the park's transformation is being overseen by the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, the son of Barry Benepe, an architect and urban planner who founded the Greenmarket, which has been a huge factor in turning around the park and transforming it from a dangerous spot that few dared walk through after dusk into one of the best-used parks in the city.
Elizabeth Ryan, whose 90-acre farm, Breezy Hill Orchard, has been in operation in Dutchess County since the early 1800's, has had a stand at Union Square from the first days of the Greenmarket 29 years ago. "I know every crack and dip in the pavement," Ms. Ryan said. "Union Square was a grim place when the Greenmarket started. Growers called it Needle Park."
The changes began in earnest in 1984, when the current design was undertaken by the Union Square Partnership, the local business improvement district, in conjunction with the city and community activists. The central area was reorganized and renovated, adding green space. By 2002, the south end was completed, but the north end has yet to receive the same attention.
"Everything has been done in a provisional, semitemporary, ad hoc way because accommodating so many different needs is such a hard problem to solve," said Matthew Urbanski, a principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the landscape architecture firm that is in charge of the redesign. "So what we're trying to do is take all three programs - the playground, the cafe and the plaza, which includes the farmer's market - and bring all those together."
Between $14 million and $16 million - half from the Parks Department and the other half raised privately by the business improvement district - will be spent to reconfigure two and a half acres of space.
The plaza, where the Greenmarket operates, will be elevated and resurfaced using a variety of colored paving stones. As it is now, when the Greenmarket isn't operating, it looks like an uninviting parking lot that isn't even part of the park. Along 17th Street, there will be a sidewalk added, in addition to a row of trees, which will frame the north end inside the public space.
Best of all for the farmers - there are more than 100 stands on a busy Saturday - they will now have access to water, electricity and a newly built restroom. The Greenmarket will be open during renovation, although some operations may have to shift around.
The playground space is only 5,000 square feet now but will be expanded to 14,000. Currently, there are two separate playground areas on either side of the stairs that lead down to the cafe on the south side of the pavilion. This existing cafe area will be incorporated into the playground, which will have its own bathrooms accessible only to children and their guardians.
"We try not to focus on the equipment but plants and water, and ways to experience the landscape," said Rachel Gleeson, an associate at Valkenburgh. "That's not to say there won't be swings and other typical playground equipment, but it really needs to speak to the unique space that is Union Square Park." The architects are looking at pieces designed in Europe, like a stainless steel dome that functions as a multidirectional slide.
They're also consulting child development experts at the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University. "One thing they told us is that the length of time a child plays in a playground is the amount of time that a parent is willing to stay," Ms. Gleeson continued. "So we're adding lots of sitting areas. People think you're taking away play space for kids, but in fact you're adding play time."
The biggest transformation, however, will be the pavilion. "Right now, it's a black hole," Mr. Urbanski said. "Our idea is to turn the pavilion into a lantern that will light all the spaces around it. It will be both transparent and light-emitting."
The neo-Classical building was originally a band shell but is now dilapidated and covered with chain-link fencing and is primarily used to store park equipment. It is being restored and redesigned by Stephen Cassell of Architecture Research Offices into a seasonal cafe in the tradition of an Italian piazza, with views of the farmer's market to the north and the park's green space to the south. Outdoor seating, which can expand or contract to accommodate the farmers' market, will be switched from the rear of the pavilion to the front. In the off-season, the pavilion will be available for public use.
The cafe has been the focus of criticism in what has otherwise been a remarkably noncontroversial design process by New York standards. Originally, the pavilion was going to be turned into a year-round cafe, but at a recent City Council hearing some people complained about usurping public space for private use.
While the year-round restaurant has been scrapped, according to the Manhattan borough parks commissioner, William Castro, the Parks Department is committed to having the seasonal cafe privately run for two reasons: it would be operational seven days a week, which is good for safety; and whoever runs it will have to pay at least half the renovation cost.
Other cultural uses have been suggested for the pavilion, but they are unlikely to satisfy both of those requirements, he said. The Parks Department will issue a request for proposals for the pavilion in the fall.
Union Square Park, which opened in 1833, is thought to be the busiest park per square foot in New York, and its redevelopment is credited with helping surrounding real estate values to soar.
In fact, studies have shown that well-designed and maintained parks increase nearby property values. For example, a report commissioned by New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit advocacy group, which was conducted by Ernst & Young in 2003, studied the impact of parks on real estate in all five boroughs. Among other things, it showed that after Bryant Park in Midtown was revitalized, the value of commercial property around the park rose by 115 to 225 percent from 1990 to 2002 compared with increases of 41 to 73 percent in nearby areas.
But just throwing money at parks does not guarantee a positive outcome. "Successful parks require four things," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, "a long-term strategic vision, effective ongoing management, significant community involvement and local advocates. Union Square has all of those in spades."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company