UPPER EAST SIDE — The stretch of the East River esplanade from East 60th to 125th streets is often underused and difficult to access. It's suffered neglect over the years and is dotted with sinkholes. It's narrow in many places and noisy from cars on the FDR buzzing past.
Phillip Lopate has walked this stretch of Manhattan's waterfront.
In fact, he's walked along the island's entire perimeter, chronicling his journeys in the 2004 book "Waterfront." That's why Civitas, a community group trying to jumpstart the revitalization of this crumbling part of the East River shoreline, invited him to kick off its design competition re-imagining a new life for the space.
"We need not just a land policy, but a water policy," Lopate said to a crowd at the Park Avenue Armory Wednesday night. "We need to encourage people as much as possible to use the water, whether it's for boating or fishing. … I wish there were more opportunities to get to the water and stick your hand in it."
Lopate is an advocate for a waterfront with a mix of active and passive uses. He talked about the possibilities of a "soft" river's edge with marshes or beaches.
"There are all sorts of things you can do if you let your imagination run wild," he said.
He imagined a waterfront with clam or mussel boats tied up selling fresh catch, or movie theaters along the river. Or, for those who find private use of public space distasteful, he suggested a waterfront post office, school or police precinct.
"We need a way to weave [the waterfront] into the normal street life in New York City," he said. "If we can re-knit the vibrant city and bring it to the river's edge, that's very useful."
Upper East Sider Barbara Rudder, who co-chairs Community Board 8's parks committee and has been a staunch supporter of fixing the waterfront, has long dreamed of ways to create more space for a waterfront hemmed in by the FDR Drive. One idea she had was to remove some tree pits along the esplanade and then add a wall full of foliage next to the highway to muffle the noise.
Rudder asked Lopate if there was a way to use the water itself.
"The FDR is the original sin. It's not going to go away," Lopate said.
He acknowledged the difficulty of finding new space to expand this part of the esplanade, which he thought was hemmed in at points by the area's hospitals. He suggested floating pools or beaches.
Lopate was happy to hear that the greenway gap between East 38th and 60th streets may be closed, if a complicated deal goes through where the United Nations would build an office tower on Robert Moses Playground in exchange for opening the waterfront.
The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives and the arts group d3 held a design competition for that segment of the waterfront, announcing Thursday that submissions from pla.net Architects and the design team of James and Madeline Stokoe won for their ideas of how to fill in 22 blocks of the esplanade.
As the Bloomberg administration has been focusing on redeveloping the waterfront, residents on the Upper East Side and East Harlem hope their corner of the East River isn't forgotten.
Civitas is hoping to draw attention to their cause by soliciting bold ideas from designers, artists, landscape architects and others by Jan. 15, 2012. The ideas will then be used to launch a series of discussions about their waterfront's future.
"While I'm all for creating a green necklace around Manhattan, we have to maintain the parks we have," Upper East Side City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin said, in her remarks introducing Lopate.
"My goal and our shared goal, I think, is that this will inspire people to think big and let our imaginations run wild and bring some attention to this part of the esplanade that has been neglected," added Lappin, whose office is helping sponsor the contest that carries a $5,000 first prize.
Lappin secured $500,000 for an engineering study of this part of the esplanade to determine the extent of the damage and the cost of the repairs. While that study is "almost finished," she noted that complaints of sinkholes that resulted in gushing water warranted emergency repairs in the East 60s.
"Everything comes back to sinkholes," Lopate said. "The shipworms returned when the rivers were cleaned up. That goes under 'no good deed goes unpunished.' The infrastructure is being nibbled away."