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NYC Parks Under Siege

Judges Allow Restaurant to Go Forward in Union Square Park

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has today ruled that a “license” and not a “lease” was given by the City of New York to a private entity to operate a restaurant in Union Square Park. This decision effectively allows about 20% of Union Square Park to fall into a private entity’s hands.

The judges said that the type and location of the licensed restaurant did not violate the Public Trust Doctrine which prohibits the permanent transfer of park land for a non-park purpose.

Up until this decision, private entities like restaurants and other private real estate development has had to have the NY State Legislature’s approval on a case by case basis to overturn the Public Doctrine’s protections. Now it seems that a semantic change, to being “licensed” (vs. “leased”), is the latest work-around without need of a more public State legislative action or better, a true application of the historic  intent of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Additionally, the Court did not address the factors they were asked to consider regarding the private encroachments on public park lands but instead deferred decisions on these privatization schemes to the NYC Parks Commissioner “to decide on the broad issue of a park’s purposes and placing a restaurant inside a public park”.  The Court seems ready to respect such privatization decisions unless those schemes seem “irrational and arbitrary”. This is rather ironic as Union Square Park is smack in the middle of NYC’s highest concentration of restaurants – doesn’t another restaurant, now inside a public park,  displacing the farmers market and children’s playground, seem irrational and arbitrary?

The Union Square case is close to the same court’s decision on private condos inside of Brooklyn Bridge Park . In that law suit, the Court deferred to City and State politicians and refused to examine the exact location of the residential buildings, accepting the fiction that the condo towers were not in the park despite the fact that they are inside the park without any separation from actual playing fields, etc. The Court also refused to consider “intrusion” on the parkland and park environment of having residential buildings immediately adjacent to public park activities.

Net, net, New York State’s highest Court does not want to set aside restaurants or residential developments inside our public parks so long as State and City politicians deem it a good use of public park lands.   It is a very disappointing and frankly, scary development for those who look to our parks as a public place set aside for all, equally.

Judi Francis is Co-Chair Sierra Club Park Committee. If you are interested in supporting public parks for public uses, please contact her for more information on parks in your neighborhood:

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