MANHATTAN — The city took a major step Wednesday toward closing the gaping hole in the East River's greenway that has cut residents off from the waterfront between East 38th and 60th streets.
Mayor Bloomberg is expected to announce that the city signed an agreement with Albany paving the way for a complicated deal in which the United Nations could buy the western portion of the city-owned Robert Moses Playground to build a new tower.
The UN could then move its employees out of two city-owned buildings across the street, freeing up the city to sell or refinance those structures and use part of the sale to fund the greenway project.
Under state legislation passed in June, the city had until Oct. 10 to ink an agreement before it would become null and void and halt plans that have been discussed for years.
The agreement, Bloomberg said, "puts in place a critical missing link" to complete Manhattan's 32-mile greenway and allows one of the city's largest employers "to grow, thrive and create more jobs."
East Side elected officials, including State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh (who sponsored the legislation), State Sen. Liz Krueger and City Councilman Dan Garodnick, held a series of public forums inviting residents to comment on the plans.
Some locals were opposed to losing part of Robert Moses playground, which is on First Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets. Among the foes were roller hockey players, who have been playing there since 1972, and other residents who use the blacktop.
Many residents from the nearby Tudor City also expressed concerns ranging from blocked views and added traffic to security fears and potentially rising insurance rates with a UN tower across the street.
But many New Yorkers spoke out in support of creating a new chunk of waterfront esplanade.
"This process has not been simple, nor is it over, but residents should feel confident that this is a secure plan with safeguards to ensure that projects move forward with adequate funding for completion and maintenance," Krueger said, "and that local elected officials will have a continuing oversight role in the coming years.”
The ball is now in the UN's court.
If the international organization decides to move forward it would make payments totaling $73 million to a special fund — the Eastside Greenway and Park Fund — to purchase the site, which will be used to help build the waterfront esplanade, city officials said.
In all, with the sale or refinancing of One and Two UN Plaza, the deal could result in more than $200 million in open space improvements, officials said.
If the UN nixes the plans, however, the city would not have the capital funding for the esplanade.
The esplanade would be built in three stages.
The segment from East 38th to 41st streets, previously occupied by Con Edison, would begin shortly. Construction of the portion between 53rd and 60th streets would likely begin in 2016. The final section, between 41st to 51st streets would likely be built starting in 2020.
Building the esplanade will likely be expensive and tricky given the engineering challenges with the FDR Drive cutting off the area from the water and security issues with part of the greenway going along the UN.
"This agreement is a critical step in moving the esplanade forward and is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to secure public open space on our long-neglected waterfront," Community Board 6 Chair Mark Thompson said in a statement.
"We will face tough choices during the coming months and must continue to work very hard to achieve our goals, but together we can accomplish something great."
The area's open space would be increased by 130,000 square feet, or four times the size of what will be lost at Robert Moses Playground, city officials said.