Neighborhood renovation adds theaters, restaurants

A bunch of farmers, a park renovation and an office tower. That unlikely trio helped transform Union Square from a den of drug dealing into a thriving cultural enclave filled with trendy restaurants and theaters that have hosted Pulitzer Prize winners like “Wit,” “How I Learned to Drive” and “Dinner With Friends.”

The farmers arrived with the Greenmarket in 1976, which was followed by the renovation of Union Square Park — once home to protest rallies — and the construction of Zeckendorf Towers in 1987. The developers made room for the Vineyard Theatre in the basement of the Towers, paving the way for the Daryl Roth Theater, the Variety Arts Theater and Classic Stage Co. Meanwhile, restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe spawned other top eateries in the neighborhood.

With crime down and buildings filled, the Business Improvement District and Local Development Corp. have shifted their resources into image development, publishing a fold-out guide of restaurants and theaters touting the area as “The Heart of Off-Broadway.”

“This is not just a marketing plan, this is a great story,” says Meyer, whose restaurant now does booming business at 10:30 at night thanks to the theaters.

Special promotions offer theatergoers a table at hard-to-get-into restaurants, and guests at the chic new W Hotel are offered a package of theater tickets.

“If that’s what it takes to get them into the theater, fine,” says Vineyard founder Barbara Zinn Krieger.

Ironically, the neighborhood’s success has become its most daunting issue.

Krieger says soaring real estate prices mean new theaters can no longer afford to launch in the area. And the arrival of big chains, like Diesel, is both a sign of growth and a concern.

Jim Gabbe, president of the Union Square-14th Street BID, says the economic slowdown is “a chance to catch our breath,” but adds that community-oriented projects like the guide, which shine the spotlight on the little guys, is an important step toward retaining Union Square’s incredible mixture.

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