Preservationists say it’s too late for landmarking of Union Square Park

Union Square Park on a recent afternoon (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Union Square Park on a recent afternoon (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

As the Landmarks Preservation Commission began addressing decades worth of backlog last Thursday, representatives for preservation groups expressed surprising opposition to the designation of Union Square Park as a city scenic landmark.

Jack Taylor, speaking on behalf of the Union Square Community Coalition, and Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council opposed the proposed landmarking.

Taylor said in his testimony that landmarking the park as it is today would be a “historical travesty” and he noted that the idea would have had much more support if the LPC had followed through with the landmarking after a public hearing in 1977.

Since then, though, the park has been modified to the point that Taylor said it doesn’t resemble the location of various historical events, including the first Labor Day that was celebrated there in 1882. He said that in 2005, there was a deliberate effort on the part of the city and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg that drastically changed the nature of the north plaza.

“This attempt to ‘beautify’ the north plaza converted an open and unimpeded space so that it would never again be a platform for the Emma Goldmans and Eugene Debses to express themselves in the fashion guaranteed by the Constitution,” Taylor said. “That historical space doesn’t exist anymore, despite the efforts of the Union Square Community Coalition. We would be unfaithful to our history if we encouraged the status quo.”

The park was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997 but this designation does not protect it from changes as it would be if it were designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Taylor said that even the plaque designating the park as a National Historic Landmark is a disappointment, since it was installed in the South Plaza instead of the North, where protesting often took place.

Carroll said that the Historic Districts Council had similar reasons as the USCC to opposing the landmarking.

“With two centuries of changes to the park, it is difficult to determine original historic fabric,” she said. “The surroundings have been completely reconfigured.”

Community Board 5 Landmarks Committee chair Layla Law-Gisiko, on the other hand, testified on behalf of the board in favor of landmarking the park, arguing that the changes don’t impact the park’s historical status.

“The great site of gatherings and civil protests is a great open park in a busy area of our district,” Law-Gisiko said in her testimony. “Its history is rich, and so is its landscape architecture. The park has undergone a number of alterations but these do not in any way diminish the historic merits of the site.”

The preservationists’ opposition was first reported in real estate blog New York Yimby.

The commission said it will be holding public meetings, when it will consider either removing items from the calendar by voting not to designate, prioritizing the designation for some of the items by next December or removing items from the calendar with a no action letter.

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