The New York City Parks and Recreation Department is due to issue a request for proposals from restaurateurs angling to take over Tavern on the Green, once the highest grossing restaurant outside of Las Vegas.
New Yorkers can be forgiven for not quivering with anticipation. They’ve already undergone the Tavern on the Green bidding-war hype cycle twice since the restaurant declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Plus, they never went there much in the first place.
But next year’s proceedings are likely to be under closer scrutiny than ever. For one thing, it will be the first time since Robert Moses christened it that it will share the name Tavern on the Green. A licensing agreement for thename was purchased for $1.3 million in September by a group of managers from the most recent incarnation, will soon adorn an international franchise of taverns around the world. (Ready for Tavern in the Green Zone?)
Second, the city has decided that, cultural relevance notwithstanding, the Tavern matters. Two years without playing host to every New Jersey high school graduate and Westchester County bride has cost the city and state $2.2 million in revenue and $3.7 million in sales tax, according to an audit published by City Comptroller John C. Liu’s office Monday.
Like many of the architectural gems dotting the city’s parks, the Parks Department leases Tavern on the Green to private companies for either a flat annual rate or a percentage of gross receipts. (Most recently, Tavern turned over 3.5 percent of its revenue to the city; Danny Meyer’s Madison Square Shake Shack contributes 4.5 percent.) The comptroller’s report blasted the department for letting the Tavern sit empty for so long, and for not providing proof that it’s using a fair and competitive bidding process to fill it.
The audit gives voice to a growing concern among city labor groups and advocates that the park’s concessions are being mismanaged under Assistant Parks Commissioner Betsy Smith, a friend and neighbor of Mayor Bloomberg’s. Parks vendors account for 91 percent of the city’s concession revenue, yet oversight is minimal.
“When you look into how few people they have to monitor concessions, it’s unbelievable,” N.Y.C. Park Advocates president Geoffrey Croft told The Observer. “They need to hire many more human beings to track and to enforce the contracts.”
In April, a separate audit showed that the private vendors who run the park carousels were operating off the books and owed the city north of $450,000. In June, the Central Park Boathouse was investigated by the feds for employee sexual harassment and discrimination incidents. In August, Boathouse workers went on strike, claiming employees who tried to unionize were fired or intimidated by management, led by Boathouse restaurant operator Dean Poll.
Mr. Poll is also a key figure in the Tavern’s struggle. In 2009, while the restaurant declared bankruptcy and its famous Crystal Room was torn apart and auctioned off, Mr. Poll won the license to the space in a bid against Capitale owner Seth Greenberg and Warner LeRoy’s family. Although he had grown the Boathouse’s revenue significantly, Mr. Poll was never even able to hang an open sign at Tavern because he failed to reach a contract agreement with the New York Hotel Trades Council.
When negotiations dissolved entirely in May 2010, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would solicit new proposals and that the unionized workers would be part of the deal. The Cipriani Group and Donald Trump expressed interest. Mr. Trump offered to pay to rebuild the Crystal Room out of pocket.
Instead, Parks allowed food trucks, like those of Rickshaw Dumpling and Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, to operate where Tavern on the Green’s Crystal Room used to stand, charging less than $50,000 each in fees.
“It’s an embarrassment,” Mr. Croft said.
The food trucks are gone for the winter, but the Parks department aims to retain a low-key vibe. The department recently addressed Community Boards 7 and 8, representing the Upper West and East Sides, respectively, to announce that its RFPs would specify a casual dining restaurant with an outdoor café, a place morning walkers and strolling tourists can patronize without a car service and a months-out reservation.
“Casual dining, rather than a fancy establishment, reflects the needs of park users,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told The Observer.
Upper West Siders applauded the decision, according to community board chair Mark Diller. Invoking Frederick Law Olmsted, Mr. Diller told The Observer that a casual dining restaurant better serves the democratic mission of New York’s parks. Also, those late night soirées on the terrace got a little loud.
The Upper East Side community, on the other hand, asked the Parks Department to remove the word “casual” from the proposal request. The community board is dominated by preservationists, according to chair Jacqueline Ludorf, who favor a more formal approach.
“We wanted it to be white table cloth,” Ms. Ludorf told The Observer, “not checkered.”
Real purists, however, might prefer the Tavern’s current shabby-chic state.
“Before it was turned into a restaurant in the ’30s it was where sheep that grazed on Sheep’s Meadow went at night,” Mr. Diller pointed out.