By Ron Bernthal
For nearly 170 years New York City’s Union Square has been a gathering place for commerce, entertainment, for labor and political events, and of course for recreation. The park owes its name to its location at the intersection, or union, of two major roads in Manhattan, Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) and Bowery Road (now Fourth Avenue).
When the famous gridiron of Manhattan streets and avenues was proposed in 1807, the former potter’s field at this intersection was designated as Union Place. The site was authorized by the State Legislature as a public place in 1831, and acquired by the City of New York in 1833. On July 19, 1839 Union Square opened to the public.
Its paths, situated among lushly planted grounds, were inspired by the fashionable residential squares of London. The design emphasized the park’s oval shape (enclosed by an iron picket fence) and focused on a large central fountain, which was installed for the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842.
As New York City’s downtown expanded northward, Union Square became an important commercial and residential center, with houses, hotels, stores, banks, offices, manufacturing establishments, Tammany Hall, and a variety of cultural facilities springing up on its borders.
In 1871 Parks Engineer in Chief M.A. Kellogg and Acting Landscape Gardener E.A. Pollard collaborated on a new plan for Union Square. A year later the park was redesigned by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Yes, those two! They removed the enclosing fence and hedge, planted a variety of trees, widened the sidewalks, and created a muster ground and reviewing stand, to meet the public requirement of mass-meetings at the time.
In 1928-29 the original Union Square was completely demolished to accommodate a new underground concourse for the subway. Alterations made in the 1920s and 1930s included the straightening of park paths, the construction of a colonnaded pavilion, and the dedication of a new sculpture called the Independence (Charles F. Murphy Memorial) Flagstaff (1926, sculpted by Anthony de Francisci). Earlier statues and fountains with their dedication date include George Washington (1856, Henry Kirke Brown), Abraham Lincoln (1868, also Brown), Marquis de Lafayette (1873, by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi), and the James Fountain (1881, by Karl Adolph Donndorf).
Since 1976 the Union Square Greenmarket has served as a local landmark, offering fresh food and plants on the north side of the park, where a flower market flourished over a century ago. In 1985 major renovations under Mayor Koch included creating a new plaza at the south end of the park, relocating paths to make the park more accessible, planting a central lawn, and installing new lighting and two subway kiosks. In 1986 a monument to (1986, by Kantilal B. Patel) was dedicated on a traffic island southwest of the main park, two new playgrounds were constructed in 1993-94, and a restaurant opened in the sunken courtyard outside the pavilion in 1994. In 1997 the United States Department of the Interior designated Union Square Park as a National Historic Landmark because of its significance in American labor history.
In early 2020 the Union Square Partnership released its Union Square-14th Street District Vision Plan, an ambitious new proposal that includes the Union Square-14th Street neighborhood and, when completed, will result in a 33 percent increase in public space, a benefit to all residents and visitors who enjoy the pleasures of one of New York City’s most inconic location.
“We are proud to unveil a Vision Plan that places the needs of the Union Square-14th Street community at the forefront by promoting openness, equity, safety, and accessibility. The ultimate goal here is for parkgoers to know they have arrived at a place that is special,” said Jennifer Falk, Executive Director of the Union Square Partnership. “Initiated as a response to the proposed L train shutdown, this Vision Plan evolved as COVID-19 upended our world, and with it, our relationship with public space. More open space, safer pedestrian and cyclist travel, better transit, and more outdoor seating and greenery – all of these changes are called for in this plan and will benefit our community immeasurably as we chart the district’s next chapter.”
Designed in collaboration with Marvel, the Vision Plan is the culmination of a two-year-long process working with community members, local business leaders, urban designers, landscape architects, transportation experts, and City and State agency partners. With over a thousand individuals engaged at twenty separate engagement events, it was the largest outreach effort in the Partnership’s 45-year history.
“For many New Yorkers, Union Square is the heart of the city, attracting a rare and vibrant combination of residents, shoppers, and office workers. Our design preserves the wonderful qualities that draw people to Union Square-14th Street and provides more room for pedestrians by extending the park to adjacent areas and reducing congestion. By finding a way for the park to grow and evolve with the city around it, we are maintaining the balance of the space, making it more beautiful and enjoyable for everyone,” said Guido Hartray, AIA, founding partner of Marvel.
The Vision Plan proposes five key projects within this vibrant neighborhood.
1. Transform 14th Street into a world-class boulevard and transitway by building on the initial positive effects of the City’s busway program. This includes expanded pedestrian areas and designated bus boarding zones, as well as prioritizing access and connectivity to create an activated streetscape. New parklets, trees, planters, and other elements will enhance the walking experience, and sidewalks at Union Square will be doubled in width to alleviate congestion.
2. Convert Union Square West into a seamless pedestrian plaza by extending the park all the way to the surrounding buildings. Enlarging the pedestrian area along the full length of Union Square West will create a more unified “town square” feeling and help reduce pedestrian crowding. The plan proposes installing additional seating, encouraging active ground-floor uses, enlarging the subway entrance at 16th Street with an escalator and elevator, and building a permanent flexible infrastructure for the Greenmarket.
3. Create an expansive new open space at the park’s southeast corner. The Plan proposes opening the southbound side of Union Square East to pedestrians to join the plaza to the park and create a large new open space for walking, gathering, and programming.
4. Build a Broadway Gateway at 17th Street as a permanent extension of the park. In 2011, the NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) implemented a temporary plaza at 17th Street and Broadway, where the roadway widens to meet Union Square Park. The vision for Broadway Gateway Plaza makes this plaza permanent so that it becomes a welcoming “gateway” into the square with a unified paving scheme and park-like elements. This aligns with NYC DOT’s Broadway Visioning plan to complete a 2.5-mile pedestrian-friendly corridor stretching down from Columbus Circle.
5. Develop a new Master Plan for Union Square Park. A master plan will be a multi-year undertaking that will result in critical upgrades to the park’s infrastructure, including amenities such as bike parking and upgraded public restrooms, utilities like high-speed data, new lighting, and better drainage), and landscape improvements including a renovated dog run, improved wheelchair access, and a new accessible subway entrance.
As mentioned above, Union Square Park has undergone several design changes since it opened to the public in 1839, each of which have incrementally made it a more welcoming and pedestrian-friendly urban public square. The new Vison Plan comprises reconstruction of roughly one mile of streets and 3.5 acres of existing park land, construction of a new accessible subway entrance with elevator and escalator, and installation of district-wide streetscape improvements in an area of 20 city blocks.
Having lived and worked in and around Union Square for over 35 years, I’ve experienced just about every moment of evolution and development in the Park and its surrounding neighborhood,” said Danny Meyer, Founder, and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group. “Now, after a year in which so many in our community have been isolated and forced to be socially distanced, it’s refreshing to re-imagine a once again thriving Union Square made more commodious with additional public space carved out for people to be with people. We crave and need that.”