Park Life: The East Side’s Landless Gentry Fight for Every Scrap of Open Space

It's not like they have a better option! (Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)

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.

Park Life: The East Side’s Landless Gentry Fight for Every Scrap of Open Space