Community Boards

Danny Meyer Plans to Open

Burger Stand in Madison Square Park

-Board Member, Sharon Paley

Over the last few years, restaurateur Danny Meyer has harbored something of an obsession with beautifying Madison Square Park, which serves as a backdrop to two of his restaurants. Now he’s moving in.

Mr. Meyer’s company, the Union Square Hospitality Group-which owns the Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla and Blue Smoke restaurants-was awarded a contract last September to operate a food kiosk in the park’s southern end in conjunction with the Madison Square Park Conservancy. On the menu: upscale hamburgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, beer and wine. On Feb. 12, Community Board 5 approved the proposed design for the 1950′s-style, environmentally friendly burger shack, with a handful of requested changes.

The park hasn’t always been an ideal location for such a venture. Not long ago, Madison Square Park was shabby and rundown, home to drifters and junkies. Consequently, the views from the giant picture windows of Tabla and Eleven Madison Square Park, Mr. Meyer’s upscale eateries across the street, were decidedly unchic. In 1999, Mr. Meyer helped initiate a $5 million refurbishment of the park, which restored it to its 19th-century glory, complete with wrought-iron fencing, antique lights and a reflecting pool. Half of the reconstruction was funded through donations from local businesses, including Mr. Meyer’s and Met Life, and the other half through public money.

“He’s very involved with the park,” Parks Department spokeswoman Margaret Johnson told The Observer, referring to Mr. Meyer. “The original idea [for the kiosk] wasn’t his, though he did contribute greatly to the design and the concept.”

Mr. Meyer has experimented with food service in the park before. For the last three summers, Eleven Madison Park has operated a gourmet hot-dog cart; the cart was permanently shuttered at the end of last summer, reportedly out of consideration for the regular hot-dog vendors whose customers were being siphoned away. Mr. Meyer was not available for comment.

The new kiosk, which is slated to open this summer, will be funded through private donations. The project came about after the Parks Department’s July 2003 request for proposals to operate a “high-quality café” in the park.

“It’s something the community has really been pushing for,” said Ms. Johnson. “The original idea came about a few years ago when the park was being renovated, and the community has been really supportive of the idea. It will bring people into the park for another purpose, and will provide great food.”

The Conservancy and Union Square Hospitality Group were awarded the nine-year contract in September, and promptly signed SITE Environmental Design, a design firm known for “green” buildings, to design the kiosk. Principals James Wines and Denise Lee built a model, which Ms. Lee presented to Board 5 at its last meeting.

The structure is a tribute to the Flatiron Building and features a sloping roof covered with Boston and English ivy and a zinc sign spelling out the name in block letters across the top. This last element provoked heated debate among community board members, who were concerned about unnecessary commercialism and lighting in the park. There were further questions about the 1950′s style of the building, which would be impractical for any other business that might use the space should Union Square Hospitality Group be financially unsuccessful.

“We are the stewards of this park,” declared board member Sharon Paley at the meeting. “Who is some fancy architecture firm to tell us what is right for this park?”

Ms. Lee defended the scheme, pointing to its “subtle” appearance, “gentle upwashing” of light and the high-tech, experimental materials which were intended to blend the building in with its leafy surroundings.

“This is jerry-rigged to be what Danny Meyer wanted it to be,” protested board member Phil Beer. Mr. Beer introduced another resolution (which was subsequently withdrawn) to disapprove of the kiosk design, citing gaudy lighting on the signage, among other complaints. “Once Danny Meyer got involved, it became Danny Meyer’s vision of Madison Square Park.”

Ultimately, board members approved the design, but included a request that the signage be eliminated. The plan is subject to approval by the Art Commission of the City of New York and requires a permit from the Buildings Department before construction can begin.

“To keep the park beautiful, you need to have positive activity,” Debbie Landau, executive director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, told The Observer . “You need to have reasons for people to be in the park. This park used to be a needle park, it was derelict-it was an unsafe park. People walked around it, not through it. And all of this is a strategy to revitalize the park and make it a place that people want to be in.”

-Sheelah Kolhatkar