KIPS BAY — A plan to convert a portion of the East Side waterfront into a continuous greenway is being hailed by local joggers, cyclists, dog walkers and stroller pushers — but it's getting slapped down by a group of roller hockey players who say it'll take away their practice space.
But now the park on First Avenue, between 41st and 42nd streets, is at the center of a complicated deal where the city would offer the playground to the United Nations in exchange for rights to land to fill in the mile-long gap in the waterfront between East 38th and 60th streets. The UN would use the playground to build an office tower.
Jack Collins, the hockey association's director, said the tradeoff isn't worth it.
"It's an asphalt ball field for roller hockey," said Collins, who lives in the East 50s and spoke out Thursday as part of a public forum about the land swap proposal. "It's a place where people learn to ride bikes."
Juliana Nash, who lives on East 38th Street, agreed.
"That piece of asphalt gave my son and his friends the most wonderful Saturday mornings playing roller hockey," she said of her adult son, who died two years ago of a brain tumor.
"There was no [other] place for kids their age to do what they were doing. To go 20 blocks to Asser Levy. No, I'm not buying that."
Now her grandson plays roller hockey on the space, she said.
Many locals, cyclists, dog owners and even a kayak enthusiast from the Bronx hoping for more river access across the city spoke in support of forging an agreement to get an esplanade in exchange for the blacktop on Thursday, at the first of three public forums that elected officials held to solicit community input on the deal as the terms are being hashed out.
But Collins told the crowd gathered at NYU's Langone Medical Center that the UN's need for office space didn't merit the taking of parkland. "We support building the greenway only when it can be morally and economically built," he said.
If a deal with the city on Robert Moses Playground isn't reached by Oct. 10, the law that Albany passed in July to give it to the UN to build its office tower — which would be connected to the Secretariat and the rest of its campus via a tunnel under 42nd Street — becomes moot.
There are also security concerns that need to be worked out before anything is inked, officials said.
The legislation also calls for turning the nearby former Con Edison parking lot pier between East 38th and East 41st Streets into a new park — which is on track to happen regardless of everything else. Con Ed recently agreed to pay $13 million to rehab the pier's infrastructure and City Councilman Dan Garodnick secured $1 million to get the park started.
The law also calls for a replacement park and improvements to nearby parks. One possibility would be converting Asser Levy Place, near the East River between 23rd and 25th streets, into a park — which officials hoped would appease the roller hockey players.
The deal would leave the eastern part of Robert Moses playground — with basketball and handball courts, restrooms and a dog run — unaffected.
Building an esplanade would be extremely costly — U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who also attended the forum, estimated it would cost $190 million.
The Oct. 10 agreement would also require a framework for funding, which would come from the sale of two city-owned buildings used by many UN-related tenants and the fees for selling Robert Moses Playground. Half of that sale would go to community open space projects, with the other half going to the city's general coffers.
"We would not be here if we didn't think this was a real opportunity," said state Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, who hosted Thursday's event with state Senator Liz Krueger and Garodnick.
They all said they wanted to make sure the deal would be solid enough in terms of community gains before giving up a piece of a park, and they created an interactive website to provide information and to receive feedback on the plan.
"We've all heard a lot of empty promises. In my opinion, it has to be far superior than what we're losing," Maloney said.
"This will be a beautiful project, but it will be expensive," she added. "It requires bold thinking. Bold does not mean naïve or risky. We want to make sure that the community sacrificing the park receives the benefit."
Edan Unterman, a Tudor City resident and president of the East Midtown Coalition for Sensible Development, also blasted the plan, fearing a UN tower built across from his complex, along with another project south of it in the works, would "wall" them in.
But Bruce Silberblatt, of the Turtle Bay Association, said getting the esplanade is "something we've been waiting for years. It is a more than ample substitute for a playground that's been neglected and hardly used."
"We don't have green open space and we don't have safe bicycle lanes. This solution could provide both of those things," Rachel Tenney, a lifelong resident who grew up on East 51st Street, said. "I never went to Robert Moses Park because it was a cement block. It was not an appealing place to play. [The agreement] is such a great gain for this small piece of cement."
The other public forums will take place on:
- Thursday, Sept. 8, 4 – 7 p.m., Sutton Place Synagogue, 225 East 51st St. (between Second and Third Avenues)
- Tuesday, Sept. 20, 5 – 8 p.m., NYU Langone Medical Center, 550 First Avenue (enter at First Avenue at 31st Street)