December 13, 1987
Landmarks Panel Declines to Endorse Bryant Park Restaurant Plan
David W. Dunlap

Although it has the backing of the Koch administration, a plan to build restaurants in Bryant Park has failed to win endorsement from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, adding ambivalence to a four-year chronicle of contention.

The panel has not formally criticized the plan, either. Instead, after two hours of debate last Tuesday, the commission registered no official position.

Civic leaders have struggled since 1983 with the issue of ''saving'' Bryant Park from drug dealers and derelicts by building a restaurant within it—that is, turning over a piece of public parkland in mid-Manhattan to a profit-making enterprise.

There was some agreement among landmarks commission members that 18-foot-high restaurant pavilions would have a detrimental effect on views of the New York Public Library, near whose western elevation they would be built.

Another Design

The commission was divided on whether obscuring the library's facade was detrimental enough to bar a favorable report to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The parks agency is not legally bound to follow advisory reports by the landmarks commission. But it would be useful to have the commission's support in a matter involving the library and park, both of which are landmarks.

In 1983, the restaurateur Warner LeRoy proposed a 55-foot-high pavilion with seating for 1,000 or more. That plan was withdrawn in 1986.

Earlier this year, there was a conceptual scheme with three pavilions linked by a pergola. Although the plan was not offered for formal consideration, the landmarks commission warned that it would consider ''absolutely untenable'' a new building that obscured views of the library.

The latest version by the architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates has two separate glass-and-steel pavilions. Each would have seating for about 175 people and take up 5,250 square feet.

Range of Opinion

During the debate Tuesday night, commission member David A. Garcia said, ''Our purview is to maintain for posterity the landmarks of our city.'' The design and situation of the library, he said, make a statement: '' 'Knowledge is grandeur. Knowledge is glory. And knowledge occupies a place of primacy.' To interrupt that with a restaurant trivializes that statement.''

The vice chairman of the panel, Elliot Willensky, said: ''The most precious thing we have in central Manhattan is open space. I can't believe that the answer to the problems of this park is making it smaller.''

And commission member Anthony M. Tung said: ''We seem to be giving up part of the landmark. It's going to be a very exclusive restaurant in a public park. To me, it's anathema, to watch through the glass as expensive food is served to the wealthy; to take a democratic symbol and make it the exclusive province of the wealthy.''

Mr. Tung's outspoken position on Bryant Park cost him his reappointment earlier this year, although he has not yet been replaced.

The chairman of the landmarks commission, Gene A. Norman, gave the pavilions a more positive reception. ''The proposal before us I find sensitive in relation and scale to the back of the building,'' he said.

Commission member Gaston Silva said, ''I see these beautifully designed pavilions as a noble experiment.''

Yes, said another commission member, David F. M. Todd, but what if the restaurant experiment were to fail? ''If this sits there in any ill-maintained, derelict way,'' he said, ''it will be the worst blight the park ever suffered.''

Another Hurdle

The private Bryant Park Restoration Corporation is overseeing the project, working with the city and the library. Its executive director, Daniel A. Biederman, said that one of the restaurants was likely to be a ''lower-priced place,'' and that there would be entrees available for $6 as well as for $30.

About reducing the size of the pavilions, he said: ''I don't think we can do much more. It would be silly to say that they can't be reduced by one more square foot but they cannot be reduced by 50 percent again.''

The matter is to go to the city's Art Commission tomorrow or next month. The Art Commission's executive director, Patricia E. Harris, said the outstanding issues were the service areas behind the pavilions and the relationship between the pavilions and the William Cullen Bryant Memorial, which they would flank.

Other than that, Ms. Harris said, ''I think everyone was very pleased with the new buildings.'