Court of Appeals: Restaurant in Union Square Does Not Violate The Public Trust Doctrine

Michael Rikon has authored a NYLJ article discussing the recent decision of the Court of Appeals in Union Square Park Community Coalition, Inc. v New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation. This case required the court to decide whether the operation of a restaurant in Union Square would violate the public trust doctrine. The Court held that it would not.

Leave to the Court of Appeals was granted from a Decision and Order from the Appellate Division, Second Department, which granted a preliminary injunction restraining the alterations necessary to modify the pavilion in Union Square into a restaurant.

Broadly stated, the public trust doctrine ensures that certain resources are preserved for public use, and that the government is required to maintain them for the public’s reasonable use.The public trust doctrine was best articulated in an earlier Court of Appeals Case, Friends of Van Cortland Park v. City of New York, 95 NY2d 623 (2001), where the Court ruled that the City could not build a water treatment plan in the park without state legislative approval, because doing so would permit a “non park use.” In deciding Van Cortland Park, the court relied on an earlier precedent, Williams v. Gallatin, wherein a taxpayer brought suit to enjoin the Commissioner of Parks from leasing the Arsenal Building in Central Park. The Court granted this relief, explaining that a park is a recreational set aside area to promote public health.

At oral argument in the Union Square case, much of the discussion centered around the City’s action in leasing a section Bryant Park the fact that the City had obtained legislative permission prior to leasing a section of Bryant Park along sixth avenue. The City argued that it had requested legislative approval for Bryant Park because a lease was to be granted, whereas at Union Square the restaurant would be operated pursuant to a license agreement.

In making its determination, the Court was ultimately guided by a precedent from 1965, 795 Fifth Ave. Corp. v. City of New York, which involved a challenge to the placement of a restaurant in Central Park. The Court noted that the Commissioner enjoyed broad discretion to choose among alternative valid park purposes. Observing that restaurants have long operated in public parks, the Court in 795 Fifth Ave. rejected the public trust claim, holding that the only thing shown was a “difference in opinion” as to the best way to use park space, which was not a “demonstration of illegality.”


Posted in New York, Recent cases
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