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Tudor City Residents Protest East River Greenway Project

By Mary Johnson | September 13, 2011 7:07am | Updated on September 13, 2011 8:49am
Currently, the East River esplanade ends at East 38th Street, with locked gates preventing access beyond that point.
Currently, the East River esplanade ends at East 38th Street, with locked gates preventing access beyond that point.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

TURTLE BAY — A plan for an East River greenway would block river views and cut of precious parkland in Turtle Bay, according to furious Tudor City residents who turned out in force to oppose the plan.

The protestors turned out last week for the second of three public forums about the East River greenway project.

The event, held in the Sutton Place Synagogue, was overflowing with a standing-room-only crowd of at least 315 people. It was expected to last three hours but went on for more than four.

In total, 77 people were given two minutes each to testify at the forum.

“The idea is for people to be heard,” said Brian Thompson, chair of community development for the Tudor City Association.

Thompson said that people are generally in favor of creating the waterfront esplanade. But the method of achieving it has led some Tudor City residents to believe that quality-of-life issues for their complex, located between First and Second avenues from East 41st Street to East 43rd Street, have not been taken into consideration.

Under the Bloomberg Administration's long-term waterfront vision, the East Side would see much development.
Under the Bloomberg Administration's long-term waterfront vision, the East Side would see much development.
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“It’s the improvement of the neighborhood that’s really kind of up in question,” Thompson said.

The project at issue on Thursday night is a complicated one that has been decades in the making. The overall goal is to extend the East River Esplanade from where it currently ends, at East 38th Street, to East 60th Street, where the greenway resumes and continues north toward Harlem.

If it were just a matter of constructing a riverfront park, that would be easy as support for a greenway that runs the length of the east side of Manhattan is widespread.

But the situation is not that simple.

The city is looking to fund the creation of the esplanade by making a deal with the United Nations. Under the terms of the deal, the UN will purchase the western portion of Robert Moses Playground and build a tower of offices in place of the dreary stretch of black-top that most area residents agree is rarely used, save for by a roller hockey team.

Once that building is constructed, the UN will vacate two city-owned buildings across the street. Funds from the sale of those buildings and that of Robert Moses Playground will finance the extension of the waterfront.

Officials have until Oct. 10 to agree on the terms of the deal, or else “the whole thing disappears as a fascinating community process exercise that never came to agreement,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, who attended the event along with Councilman Daniel Garodnick and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh.

The politicians distributed materials to those who attended the event, even sending staffers out to print more copies when the crowds descended upon the synagogue. Included in those documents was a list of frequently asked questions, as well as a detailed outline of the project.  

“We heard many people from the community testify that they thought this was a wonderful idea,” Krueger said.

But accolades alone didn't fill the four-hour forum. Members of the Sutton Area Community voiced concerns about having an esplanade too close to their riverfront apartments.

“The good news is that isn’t going to happen,” said Krueger, adding that the esplanade would be built alongside the FDR, which runs under the Sutton Place area.

The Tudor City contingent had multiple concerns. For one, the alienation of Robert Moses Park posed a problem for some, even though the politicians have proposed constructing a replacement park at Asser Levy Place, a two-block stretch along the East River from East 23rd to East 25th streets.

“That’s great, it’s just like a mile away,” Thompson said. “So when you want to teach your kid how to ride a bike, do you want to get on a bus and take your kid a mile away? And the answer is no, you don’t want to.”

Another concern for Tudor City residents is the possible obstruction of their East River views if the United Nations builds on the site of Robert Moses Playground.

The UN is legally allowed to build up to 39 stories, according to documents distributed at the event. Such a height would impact multiple residents, and lost views diminish property values and quality of life, said Thompson, who is also a real estate broker.

In addition to a lack of views, Thompson said residents are concerned about having an influx of people in the area because of the new UN tower.

“When you put an office building across the street,” said Thompson, “it’s going to put, let’s take a guess, another 1,000 people into the neighborhood.”

Thompson said that the gardens within Tudor City are already a popular lunch spot among UN employees, and more people in the area will mean more foot traffic and more garbage in the gardens.

“Tudor City needs some relief from that,” he said.

Thompson said he would like to see a portion of the money the city will get from the building sales— anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million — be donated to the Tudor City gardens. That could help preserve what he called “a critical aspect of that neighborhood.”

Despite their concerns, Thompson did say that the forum may have changed some minds on Thursday night and left more residents leaning in favor of the project. The elected officials offered detailed presentations, and a representative from New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy organization that is almost always opposed to any kind of park alienation, testified in support of the project.

District 4, the area in which Robert Moses Park is located, “is the most under-resourced neighborhood in the entire city when it comes to parks,” said Alyson Beha, director of research, planning and policy for New Yorkers for Parks.

But Beha said she has yet to hear a convincing argument for keeping Robert Moses Playground, and she dismissed the complaints laid out by Tudor City residents as “NIMBY-ism,” referring to the acronym for “not in my backyard.”

Beha added that from a large-scale perspective, the proposed plan will do the most good for the most people.

“This seems like it’s kind of a win-win all around for a lot of the parties,” said Beha. “It’s a trade up, as far as the open space goes.”

The third and final forum will take place on Sept. 20.

“We won’t complete this exercise unless we know that the interests of the community are being represented correctly and protected into the future,” said Senator Krueger.

“We want to make sure that we are signing off on a deal that outlasts us and offers guarantees that these fairly long-term projects come to completion.”