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Plans to Lock Sutton Place Park Anger Locals Who Fought to Open it

By Mary Johnson | September 7, 2012 6:45am

SUTTON PLACE — The landscape architect tasked with turning the private backyard of an exclusive Sutton Place co-op into a park has designed it with gates to lock out the public which fought for it to open.

The plans for the block-long stretch have an undulating walkway evocative of the East River below, a raised grassy area for quiet recreation — and gates that can shut off entry at either end.

The design caused anger among several people who spoke out against it at a Community Board 6 meeting this week.

“Why are you putting [up] gates which are closing off the public park? I don’t understand that,” Gail Haft, president of the Sutton Area Community neighborhood organization, asked David Kamp, of the landscape design firm Dirtworks.

“That’s an issue.”

In outlining his vision, Kamp noted that the gates in the open space behind 1 Sutton Place South were not his idea.

He explained that the memorandum of understanding between the city and the co-op at 1 Sutton Place South, a legal document that successfully secured the space as public park land, dictates that gates with locks must stand at the park’s northern and southern access points.

“We’re simply following the MOU,” Kamp told the committee on Tuesday. “It’s what the MOU requires us to do.”

The origins of the fight over the backyard at 1 Sutton Place South, which sits on top of the FDR Drive between East 56th and 57th streets, date to 1939, when the city granted the co-op a 50-year lease for the outdoor space for $1 a year in exchange for building the FDR.

That lease expired in 1990, but no one came to collect until years later, when the FDR Drive’s renovation came up for review.

The co-op filed a lawsuit to keep any groundbreaking at bay, but politicians and local advocates continued fighting to have the park space opened to the public.

That came to pass in November, when city officials announced that an agreement had been reached that would allow the residents of 1 Sutton Place south to keep a chunk of the park that abuts the rear side of the building, while about 10,000 square feet of the lawn would be turned into public open space.

“We've done what people said we never could," City Council Member Jessica Lappin said at the time. "It's a very special piece of waterfront property."

Lappin secured $1 million to help fund the renovations, and the co-op chipped in another $1 million.

Kamp said he hopes to use that budget to create winding paths, to plant patches of shade trees and to incorporate colorful and diverse grasses into the space.

Community members approved of the aesthetics but rejected the prospect of installing gates with locks on both entrances to the park, which will be opened and shut every day by employees of the co-op building.

Operating hours for the new park have yet to be determined, but community board members are planning to ask for the park to remain open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Several people raised concerns about entrusting the opening and closing of the park to 1 Sutton Place South, which has fought for so long to keep the public out of its backyard.

Others worried that gates would give the illusion that the park remains private, thus discouraging people from taking advantage of the new space.

“It lends itself to the appearance that the cooperative still has control of what is a public space,” said board member Lou Sepersky.

“The property line fence separating the park from the privately owned property of 1 Sutton Place South is perfectly appropriate. But that’s it.”

Gary Papush, chair of the Community Board 6 parks committee, noted that the MOU allows for changes to be made if both the city and the co-op can agree to the amended terms.

In light of that, board members opted to support the park’s design on the condition that the gates be removed and drafted a resolution asking the city to revisit the issue.

That resolution will go before the full board for a vote on Sept. 12.