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Lawsuit Over Restaurant in Union Square Park Goes to Appeals Court

By Heather Holland | January 15, 2014 10:20am
 The Union Square pavilion is not a place for a restaurant, a community group says.
The Union Square pavilion is not a place for a restaurant, a community group says.
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Facebook/Union Square Partnership

UNION SQUARE — Mayor Bill de Blasio has picked up where Mayor Michael Bloomberg left off, by defending the city's plan to open a restaurant in a historic pavilion in Union Square Park.

The Union Square Community Coalition, which sued the city in 2012 in the hopes of blocking a restaurant from opening in the park, took its fight to the New York State Court of Appeals on Tuesday. The coalition argued that the city needed to get approval from the state legislature before moving forward with the plan.

“What we're asking the court to do is to rule against the city, so that it would be required to get permission from state legislature to open the restaurant in the park,” said Geoffrey Croft, a board member at the Union Square Community Coalition. “We’re saying, based on specifics, it’s not of park purpose, and they’re saying...that the parks commissioner has the power to do this.”

Bloomberg had defended the park's plan to open a restaurant, and the de Blasio administration continued that defense in court Tuesday, with city lawyers arguing that the eatery would be a public amenity.

The Union Square Partnership, a business improvement district that funds and organizes programming in the park, is hoping to work with Chef Driven Market to open a seasonal restaurant at the pavilion on the north side of the park — a site that has previously been used as a platform for public speaking and for children's activities.

During the hearing on Tuesday, Sanford Weisburst, the attorney representing the Union Square Community Coalition, said the plan was a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine, a law that protects parkland from non-park uses.

He said the restaurant would take away much-needed recreational space.

In response, Deborah Brenner, the attorney representing the city, said the restaurant would only take up 2.1 percent of the park, and that kids would be welcome to use the pavilion (the only sheltered structure in the park) during the winter months, when the restaurant was closed.

“The pavilion will be available six months out of the year,” Brenner said. “We could put up heating lamps.”

When a judge asked Brenner how Chef Driven Market’s restaurant would benefit the park, she replied that restaurants serve a recreational purpose.

Chef Driven Market, which owns the 5 Napkin Burger chain, plans to serve alcohol and food at the restaurant from morning until midnight and to employ three security guards. The price of menu items will range from $8.95 to $15.95 for a sandwich or burger and $13.95 to $33.95 for dinner entrees, according to court documents.

The Court of Appeals will most likely make a decision on the case within the next 30 to 60 days, according to Weisburst.

If the court rules in favor of the Union Square Community Coalition, the proposed restaurant will go to the state Senate and Assembly for a vote, Weisburst said. If the court rules in favor of the city, the restaurant will be able to open without having to clear any additional hurdles.

“We appreciate the court weighing this important issue and will await the ruling,” said Kate Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the New York City Law Department.

The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.