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East Harlem Lacks Open Space But Not Options to Increase It

By Jeff Mays | November 16, 2012 10:44am

HARLEM — East Harlem may be short on open space, but it's big on parkland potential.

According to a new study by New Yorkers for Parks, East Harlem has 1.2 open acres of space for every 1,000 residents — less than half the recommended level. The Open Space Index standard, developed by the group, is 2.5 acres for every 1,000 residents.

But there's plenty of room to improve that ratio by maximizing space at public housing developments, community gardens and on nearby Randall's Island, the report found.

"There is good raw material," said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. "This isn't a place where there is nothing to work with."

East Harlem includes parts of Central Park and the East River Esplanade, yet only 82 percent of its residents live within a five-minute walk of a neighborhood park, the study found.

The key to increasing open space is to better utilize East Harlem's smaller spaces while improving access to larger open land, Leicht said.

"One of the things we are pleasantly surprised by is, although there are not a lot of large spaces, there are a lot of small spaces," Leicht said.

For example, East Harlem has 2.7 community gardens for every 1,000 residents, well above the standard of one community garden per 1,000 residents. The gardens are the result of residents claiming vacant, abandoned space during a period of disinvestment in the neighborhood.

East Harlem also has a higher number of fields, courts and play areas for children and residents than the index standard.

"Where you start to see it lacking is the larger spaces such as Central Park, the East River  Esplanade and Randall's Island," said Leicht. "For Central Park, it's a question of proximity. How accessible are Randall's Island and the Esplanade?"

The 103rd Street footbridge to Randall's Island re-opened this summer after a two-year $16.8 million renovation that will allow it to remain open 24 hours a day. Still, Leicht said, access via the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge at 125th Street is difficult, as is finding one of the four FDR crossings to the esplanade.

"It's not easy to find the Esplanade or bridges to Randall's Island. There's not enough signage or  markings on the pavement to tell pedestrians, 'This is how you find this open space.' But there can be relatively easy interventions to create access," Leicht said.

Adding signage, and making the street crossings safer, are two low-cost initiatives that could begin immediately, she said. The group is also in communication with the Randall's Island Sports Foundation about improving lighting.

Area advocates have long complained about access to Randall's Island for residents of East Harlem and the South Bronx. The city has transformed the island, adding various playing fields and tennis courts with help from public and private partnerships. The city rents the fields to private schools and SPORTIME, a private tennis center that includes an academy run by tennis champion John McEnroe, who manages the tennis center there.

Geoffrey Croft, of NYC Parks Advocates, said the re-opening of the 103rd Street footbridge has drastically increased access to Randall's Island. The issue now is making sure the space is used in a way the public wants, including specific sports fields and space to barbecue and picnic.

"Having the bridge open has been a true asset to the community," said Croft. "A lot of the issues now are related to programming."

Other ways to increase open space for East Harlem residents includes developing an open space plan for NYCHA's public spaces, Leicht said.

East Harlem has 200 acres of NYCHA property, less than 20 percent of which is covered by the footprint of a building. That is a tremendous amount of space that can be used for recreation and gardens, the report found.

NYCHA has been open to discussing uses for the space, Leicht said.  But maintenance costs and NYCHA's plan to develop more affordable housing and other income-producing developments on the open space also has to be taken into consideration.

The community gardens also need to be truly public, according to the report. New Yorkers for Parks found that many gardens were locked during hours they were supposed to be open and some functioned as "semi-private social clubs."

The data collected from the report also will be used by Mount Sinai to help analyze the health of children in East Harlem. The area suffers from higher rates of obesity and diabetes than other parts of Manhattan.