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Civic Group Seeks Bold Ideas for Crumbling East River Waterfront

By Amy Zimmer | September 27, 2011 7:02am

MANHATTAN — Architects, artists, urban planners and dreamers of a glittering East River esplanade have the chance to share their visions for how the East Side can revamp the crumbling waterfront from East 60th to 125th streets.

Civitas, a community group covering the Upper East Side and East Harlem, recently put out a call for submissions — being accepted through Jan. 15, 2012 — for “dramatic and original concepts” for the waterfront park, including ideas for new landscapes, sculptures and lighting.

“It is ripe for bold, innovative and coherent ideas,” the proposal said.

The esplanade, which is often underused and difficult to access, has suffered neglect over the years and is dotted with sinkholes and deteriorating bulkheads. It is very narrow in many places and not yet designed for recreational waterfront activities — something that Civitas wants to change.

The organization is hoping to inspire plans for renting boats, selling food, feeding ducks and sitting closer to the water in more “alluring surroundings.”

“The public engagement part of this project is incredibly important,” said Civitas' Hunter Armstrong. “We’re doing this competition essentially so residents of the Upper East Side and East Harlem can be inspired.”

To shore up support for brainstorming sessions, Civitas will be awarding $5,000 to the first place winner, $3,000 for second, $2,000 for third and $100 for five honorable mentions.

The organization is also hoping to make a splash with a lecture on Oct. 26 by award-winning author Phillip Lopate, who wrote “Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan." This event, at the Park Avenue Armory, will launch the competition.

Though the winning design may never be realized, Armstrong sees the competition as a "one of the first steps where we're hoping to excite the community and get the word out for anyone who uses the esplanade and realizes it can be so much better."

The next step, Armstrong said, is to begin having community discussion about where and how money should be spent once it’s secured.

Before the area can be redone, however, it first needs to be stabilized. Sinkholes have become a bigger problem, and the esplanade will soon be getting some repair work. City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin had secured $900,000 in capital funding from the city budget for repairs.

There has been a recent groundswell of attention on this section of the East River esplanade, including a newly formed conservancy called "The Esplanade (E. 60th – 125th Street),” which just won a grant from Partnerships for Parks to build a website and will be hosting an event promoting the group on the waterfront on Oct. 22.

“I’m thrilled Civitas is involved,” said Jennifer Ratner, of the Upper East Side, who started the conservancy. “I think it’s a great way to build awareness about our stretch of the waterfront.”

Armstrong recognized that revamping the waterfront would be a long-term project.

“The Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park — they have their roots going back decades,” Armstrong noted. “People in the neighborhood came together and demanded a new park and started going through the steps necessary to build support. That’s what we’re doing.”

The contest is being funded through a grant from Lappin’s office and the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.