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Crumbling East 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge Set for Makeover

By Amy Zimmer | March 9, 2012 8:47am
Photo of a rendering of the the two-block-long ramp to be built along the East River, connecting the esplanade to where it ends about East 81st street with stairs leading to a promenade.
Photo of a rendering of the the two-block-long ramp to be built along the East River, connecting the esplanade to where it ends about East 81st street with stairs leading to a promenade.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

UPPER EAST SIDE — Months after cutting the ribbon on a stainless steelpedestrian bridge at East 78th Street, the city is moving forward with tackling the next decaying walkway connecting the neighborhood to the East River waterfront.

The bridge spanning the FDR Drive at East 81st Street is set for a roughly $10 million overhaul that would include two sections. A new span with a ramp would replace the existing bridge, and a nearly two-block long, 10-foot-wide ramp along the waterfront would connect the East River esplanade to the promenade at Carl Schurz Park.

That junction is now linked by stairs, which have made it difficult for wheelchair users, cyclists and stroller pushers to enjoy an uninterrupted swatch of the waterfront.

"It would be bike-friendly, pedestrian friendly and ADA friendly," said Drew Jones, an architect at H2L2, a firm working with the Department of Design and Construction on the project. "Right now, its impossible for a good number of these folks."

DDC officials presented a final version of the new pedestrian bridge at a Community Board 8 meeting on Wednesday night, saying the design had been in the works since 2005, but that construction had been delayed until the East 78th Street pedestrian bridge was completed.

Just like its counterpart a few blocks south, the East 81st Street replacement bridge would be built offsite and delivered by barge, officials said.

Several residents and community board members, however, blasted the plan's designs.

Some said it wasn't beautiful enough for the Upper East Side and worried it blocked views.

"We're trying very hard to make it light, to make it transparent," Jones said as he showed a rendering of the ramp with wire mesh fencing. "We're trying to have this thing melt into the environment."

Some were incensed that the renderings showed cyclists and already said they would fight to have bike riders dismount on the bridge.

Residents in the building at 45 and 33 East End avenues feared the smaller ramp leading to the bridge along the cul-de-sac on East 81st Street would block their service entrances. One resident said she thought the long fenced-in ramp — with one side 10-foot high and the other roughly six feet — along the waterfront would invite crime.

"What happens when someone is attacked?" asked a resident and occasional jogger, who has lived in the area for 25 years and worried that someone would be trapped on the ramp.

"You're almost inviting crime," she said. "It looks like a cage to me. I would never run down it."

She said in an emergency situation now along the esplanade, someone could at least run onto the FDR, if needed.

"Transparency is a major part of the design," said Community Board 8's transportation co-chair A. Scott Falk. "You're not in any narrower space [than what's now on the esplanade] and you're not hidden from view."

One board member wondered if the city could add emergency phones to the ramp. DDC officials said that would be up to the Parks Department, which will maintain the space.

The ramp along the waterfront would essentially replace that strip of the esplanade, and while the city would put plantings in underneath, that space would be off limits to the public.

DDC officials said they would reevaluate the smaller ramp on East 81st Street and whether it blocks buildings' services. They said expected to begin construction in the spring and the project would take an estimated 18 months to complete.