CIVITAS in action: The East River Esplanade
Hunter F. Armstrong
With the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaching on October 29, the Upper East Side and East Harlem waterfront is in regular political discussion. CIVITAS is helping plan for the East River Esplanade’s future, and is responding to citywide policies and institutional plans. We are pushing for a larger plan for this natural and recreational resource. Otherwise, the community will be stuck with a patchwork of different proposals for the park. With so much energy and attention being focused on the East River, with the East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station and other proposals, now is the time to plan smartly for the long term, and to prepare for future storms. Below is an overview of factors currently at play in our communities’ waterfront.
In June, the NYC Parks Department and consultants presented their engineering evaluation of the wooden piles that support the Esplanade between 60th and 125th Streets. Marine borers have gradually chewed away the piles and destabilized the platform. Most potholes that resulted and pocked the Esplanade have been filled, but the overall study was critical to determine where future holes may occur. The Parks Department study stated the piles will need to be replaced by concrete piers and determined this will cost approximately $110 million over a 10-year period to maintain the Esplanade in its current, narrow footprint. If the city defers maintenance and piles are not replaced this decade, the Parks Department consultants estimated costs will balloon to exceed $400 million.
Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Resiliency and Rebuilding
The Mayor created this initiative after the devastation Sandy reaped on New York. Released in June, much of the 400-page report understandably focused on neighborhoods devastated by the storm. That said, it does have major implications for our community. The plan proposes a “deployable floodwall” between 90th and 125th Street, where the storm surge gushed as far upland as Second Avenue. CIVITAS has met with the Mayor’s staff to discuss the proposal’s feasibility in a future administration, and how the community can help shape the plan.
Farther south, Rockefeller University is planning to expand with a four-block platform over the FDR Drive between 64th and 68th Streets. CIVITAS, the community board and neighbors have met with university officials and their designers to determine implications of this major expansion, which will fill in the only remaining gap over the FDR between 61st and 71st Streets. The two-story building will be over 150,000 square feet. As part of the plan, which went into the official city land use review process in September, the university proposes upgrading four Esplanade blocks with new plantings and trees, irrigation, new seating and separate areas for cyclists, walkers and benches. The redesign will keep the 1930s-era metal railing and asphalt pavers that are used throughout our city’s waterfront. CIVITAS and neighbors raised concerns about the impact on Esplanade users due to increased traffic noise and exhaust fumes that will result from capping over the highway. We also asked for better access to the waterfront via the gated campus and for additional information about the platform’s impact on the Esplanade’s underlying infrastructure.
The proposed Rockefeller University expansion. Rendering by Rafael Vinoly Architects.
With no comprehensive community waterfront plan, smaller projects continue to occur in a piecemeal way. To mitigate impacts of their 1 million square foot facility between East 73rd and East 74th Streets, Memorial Sloan Kettering and Hunter College-CUNY will invest the funds needed to replace the deteriorated piles at Andrew Haswell Green Park, over a half-mile away. CIVITAS and other groups objected to the distance between the park improvements and the 450-foot building’s 8,500 daily visitors. CIVITAS also recently learned that sections of the Con Ed property near 73rd Street will be partially opened and returned to park land. Unfortunately, the building will remain in place mere feet from the FDR and maintain a narrow, dangerous pinchpoint for Esplanade users.
Next Steps for Reimagining the Waterfront
In addition to work cited in this article and keeping the community informed, CIVITAS is also keeping our award-winning 2012 exhibition from the Museum of the City of New York on public view. In September, CIVITAS installed the exhibition at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House and is working with their staff and the museum to create programming for Lenox Hill’s many daily visitors. We are also developing more programs to educate park users and neighbors. The Esplanade was the first topic in our public panel series with the National Academy, which is discussed on Page 1. We feel strongly that more funding and attention is needed to address our densely built neighborhood’s park-space deficits, and we will continue to work toward improving the Esplanade. Threats like future storm surges have focused more attention on preparing for the catastrophic while planning for day to day enjoyment.