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City Could Open Swath of East River Waterfront to the Public

By Amy Zimmer | April 14, 2011 2:38pm

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

MURRAY HILL — As the city works to revitalize Manhattan's waterfront with green space, one large stretch has remained cut off to the public.

But now plans are inching forward to open the area along the East River from East 38th Street to East 60th Street, where the FDR Drive and the United Nations have blocked residents' access to the waterfront.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's long-term waterfront plan, Vision 2020, called for significant improvements to this greenway gap.

Bloomberg's plan echoed the community's desire for a public park at an East 38th Street pier, which has been sitting fallow since Con Edison sold the site in 2005.

It also raises the possibility of making a deal with the United Nations, in which the city would allow the UN to build on a part of Robert Moses playground on First Avenue between East 41st and East 42nd streets in exchange for a public waterfront esplanade.

The plan also called for an esplanade to be built on existing piles — left behind from a 2002 temporary FDR Drive roadway — between East 53rd to 59th streets.

It did not, however, set aside any money to build any of these projects.

But there is money now to do a study on what could actually be built in the area, and how much it will cost.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney secured $475,000 in federal funding from the Surface Transportation Program and state funding from the Department of Environmental Conservation for a feasibility study of the engineering, design, landscaping and other planning related to the new esplanade for her East Side district.

The city's Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for the study on Tuesday.

"The mayor has been staunchly advocating a green belt around Manhattan, but so far there has not been much concrete action in the east Midtown area," Maloney said in a statement. "This study will help us gain a better understanding of the costs and complications involved in building a new esplanade at this location."

Since Community Board 6 is among the areas most bereft of open space in the city, residents here have long sought new parks, and have eyed the 34,000-square-foot Pier 38 as a spot for one.

The former Con Edison site, from East 38th to East 41st streets, was originally built to receive coal deliveries, before it was transformed into a parking lot.

The structure would have to be renovated or reconstructed, according to the RFP. The Municipal Art Society is expected to host a design summit this summer with architects to envision how this pier could become a public jewel in the future, the RFP noted.

The only way to get to this part of the waterfront now is through a cavernous urine-stenched passageway at East 37th Street.

The feasibility study would also focus on improving this connection to the waterfront as well as others, including at 42nd Street and possibly turning an existing elevated deck structure at East 48th Street that is part of the UN campus into a waterfront esplanade.

Building the esplanade in front of the United Nations, of course, has another set of sticky issues. For one, coordination with the UN and NYPD on security issues would be necessary, the RFP pointed out.

Despite the looming bureaucratic issues, residents think the study is a step in the right direction.

"Rather than hiding our waterfront behind chain link fences and highways, we hope to see the day when we can actually enjoy the East River's shore," said Mark Thompson, chair of Community Board 6.

"It's a lot of money for a study, but this is a lot of work. It's not small potatoes," said Ellen Imbimbo, chair of CB6's waterfront committee. "It's a huge area and it will be a while before anything comes of it. But this will be a giant step forward in assessing the needs."