Think of the perfect Saturday on the East Side. Brunch with your friends and the kids at, say, Fig & Olive, Artisinal or—the mayor’s favorite—Viand. Maybe a stroll along Madison for a little shopping and errands, and then off to Central Park to let the little ones wear themselves out before a nap. Or maybe it’s the other way around, soccer and softball in the park, a little tennis with friends or just some sunning on one of the lawns, then a late lunch.
Living East of Eden sure can be nice, but just like Adam and Eve, it always seems like there is more outside the garden gates.
Not satisfied with their proximity to one of the loveliest parks in the world, East Siders have been lobbying for decades for more leisure land, particularly along the river. They look jealously on at their West Side brethren, with Riveside Park and Hudson River Park—and even the green shoots along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. Thanks to rampant development, from Robert Moses’ FDR Drive up through the Bloomberg Building on 59th and Lexington, the East Side has grown more crowded every day, and yet access to the water, a mere mile away, has been all but impossible.
Last week, the mayor reached what he called “a historic agreement” with the United Nations that would finally realize every East Sider’s dream of waterfront open space. Beyond that, it ensures the U.N.’s continued presence in New York (a mixed blessing, unless you are a fan of motorcades). In exchange for half of the adjacent Robert Moses Playground—a span of hardtop beloved by roller hockey players—and two office towers, the city will receive $73 million upfront and up to an additional $150 million over time. This will upgrade existing parks as well as the funds to complete a 1.2-mile section of the riverfront greenway. The plan is not only a boon for East Siders, then, but all Manhattanites, as it will close the last gap in the 32-mile “emerald necklace” encircling the island.
“It’s hugely important because despite these difficult fiscal times, we’ve found a way to fund this very expensive and difficult piece of the greenway,” Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, one of the engineers of the deal, told The Observer. “There’s always a reluctance to move forward, especially if it means the demapping of a park, but this is critically important to the neighborhood and the city.
That’s swell! Sure it is. It’s just, well… “The esplanade is a desperately needed feature, but you should not mistake that for a real park,” said Geoffrey Croft, director of NYC Parks Advocates and an East Side resident.
There is some truth beyond pure parochialism that the East Side has been given short shrift. They may have Lavo and Barneys, but they also fall last in New Yorker’s for Parks’ rankings. “Believe it or not, the neighborhood has much less park space than most of the city,” local councilman Dan Garodnick told The Observer. “My district ranks 51st out of 51 neighborhoods.” Falling just after Midtown East is the tony quarters of the Upper East Side, 46 out of 51.
This count is on a per capita basis, and it does not include Central Park, but the fact remains, more than 300,000 New Yorkers are confined to 65 acres of open space in East Midtown and the Upper East Side. (The Park Avenue median does not count.) “It’s true, the Upper East Side is wider, so all those hundreds of thousands of people living between First and York, Second and York, they have a long way to go to get to Central Park,” said Alyson Beha, director of research, planning and policy at New Yorkers for Parks.
While locals welcome the new greenway, they look around at the waterfront parks that have washed up across the five boroughs in the past decade and cannot help but feel a little contempt blossoming.
“There is a huge disparity between what the East Side is getting and what the West Side has had for a long time,” Mr. Croft said. “They’ve got multiple recreational spaces not only with ball fields but skate parks and even merry-go-rounds.” Mr. Croft stressed that he is thankful for what the city is providing, and it is indeed a huge benefit for the entire city, the completion of a circum-polar esplanade, but while everyone else gets generous parks, he and his neighbors are left with little more than a glorified boardwalk.
Part of the problem is that the East Side is lacking in much of the infrastructure enjoyed by the West Side and other parts of the city. Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park are among the notable riverside redoubts constructed on some of the old marine piers left over from the waterfront’s industrial days. East Siders point out that they once had such piers as well, but rebuilding them would be far more expensive. And while it has Central Park, the East Side lacks the benefit of a legacy waterfront park, like Riverside park or even the Moses-era East River Park on the Lower East Side.
The East Side is trapped between the river and a tall place: with all the development that has gone on over the years, there are an inordinate number of people clamoring for parks and public space and nowhere to build it.And by some measures, the East Side is losing as much as it’s gaining.
The press release championing the U.N. land swap crowed about an additional 130,000 square feet of public open space, four times as much space as what is being given to the U.N. at Robert Moses playground. But that is less than 3 acres of land. (The very nice but not huge. Bryant Park measures 8 acres, Union Square 6.5.) The project in question might be better termed a parklette. And obviously the neighbors, especially those in Tudor City, are not happy to be trading hard-top for a skyscraper.
Nor are the folks living on Ruppert Playgroundm who are experiencing a similar land grab without any of the benefits of their neighbors to the south. For 25 years, the lot between 91st and 92nd streets and Second and Third avenues has been home to Yorkville tennis and basketball games and kids frolicking on the jungle gym. Showing just how hard East Siders will fight for their parks, they are challenging efforts by one of the city’s most powerful landlords to exercise their very legal rights to redevelop the space.
The Related Company has had an option on the land, with the right to build what could well be a 50-story luxury tower, so long as it kept the park in place for 25 years. Neighbors and local politicians are desperate to hang onto the tiny space, so starved are they of parks. They are trying to negotiate an alternative plan, either another land swap or tax credits. Some complain that given all the public subsidies Related regularly receives, it should be compelled to give the city the park anyway.
“There are some temporary solutions, but it’s hard to make it temporary, because it’s such a shock when it comes to an end,” said Raju Mann, director of planning at the Municipal Art Society said. “In New York, open space is so valuable, you have to get creative to find more.”
This means such open space squabbles are almost always zero-sum issues.
East Siders are so desperate for new open space, they are even fighting with the august owners of Sutton Place, to take over the private park in the East 50s. Its lease on the land, which was awarded with the construction of the FDR, expired in 1990, but no one noticed until the roadway was being rebuilt early last decade. Still, it took years for locals to wrest control. A deal was actually struck last winter, following a lawsuit by the co-op that controlled the land. All this for a quarter-acre of manicured lawns.
Even where the parkland is fine, East Siders see threats. The city is prepared to reactivate a marine waste transfer station at 91st Street that was shut down in the 1990s, but it lies next to Asphalt Green, one of the few public recreational facilities in north of 14th Street. Some advocates like Croft agree with the mayor that every neighborhood should deal with its share of the city’s sanitation burden, rather than shipping it off to low-income neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. “Even on 96th Street or further south would be O.K.,” Mr. Croft said. “I used to coach softball over there, and we had a tournament, and some kids came down from the Bronx and complained how bad it was. They said, ‘This stinks, we’re never coming back.’”
Others take a harder line. “This has unfortunately devolved into, the politest phrase for it is environment or social justice,” neighbor Tony Ard said. “The advocates are lobbying for this site because of who lives there and what it represents.” As though it were a vengeful move of decades of dumping in the outer boroughs. Which is where Mr. Ard still thinks the waste should go. “Does it make sense to drive it all the way up the East Side from all over Manhattan, rather than over the bridge into Brooklyn?” he said. Or, better yet, give it to the West Side, at Hudson Yards. “But they don’t want to do that because it threatens their new development,” he said. “Just give it to the neighborhood that’s already fully developed.”
Mr. Croft believes there is a simple solution to rebalance the East/West divide. He said the Bloomberg administration is giving the neighborhood short shrift because only $223 million from the U.N. deal is going to the esplanade. The sale of the playground site and adjacent buildings could lead to a windfall worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but according to a clause in the memorandum of understanding, any extra money goes to the city’s general fund instead of to build additional park space on the East Side.
Assemblyman Kavanagh repudiated this plan, arguing the East Side is already getting more than most. “The expection always was that if the city was going to sell valuable assets that are producing income for the city, the general fund would benefit,” he said. “We drove a hard bargain, and got a substantial portion of the proceeds for the community, for open space.” Mr. Kavanagh added that it would be physically impossible to go much beyond the 30 feet of the shore and not impact the navigability of the East River.
Still, things could be worse. “If you’re comparing East Side to the West Side, we now have a Fairway, we will have a waterfront Esplanade, things are finally beginning to even out,” Mr. Garodnick said. “And, we still have the Met.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of money the East Side would receive for parks as a total of $150 million, not the actual $223 million. It also misspelled the name of Assemblyman Kavanagh. The Observer regrets the errors.