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Huge New UES Medical Complex Winning Support With Promise of Park

UPPER EAST SIDE — Putting a 1-million-square-foot medical center and college complex on the Upper East Side would be like "a fat lady trying to squeeze into a too-tight girdle," opponents of the proposed health facility said.

The criticism was leveled at the City University of New York and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center project at a recent community meeting.

But while opposition to the CUNY-MSK setup slated for a onetime garbage truck garage at FDR Drive and East 73rd Street remains strong, a vocal contingent of the community now supports controversial zoning changes that would make possible the development.

That's because developers of the CUNY-MSK project, which entails an ambulatory cancer care hospital and nursing school, promised in February to "fully fund design and construction" of Andrew Haswell Green Park — so long as the city approves zoning changes that would allow them to build as big as they'd like and secure more parking spots. 

The proposal would include repairs of deteriorated pilings — necessary to stop the park from falling into the East River — as well as planting new trees, shrubs, plants and grass, and putting in new hardscape such as pavement, stairs, walls, benches and game tables, Department of Parks and Recreation officials told DNAinfo.com New York in February.

CUNY-MSK backers have billed the deal as a win-win, saying restoration of the park — located at the East River between East 59th and 63rd streets —  addresses open space concerns while meeting the institutions' need for space.

Roberta Tarshis, a lawyer who lives in the area, said the Upper East Side has already been "bombarded" with dense, institutional development and should embrace promised park improvements.

"We have virtually no park space on the East Side," she said. "Sometimes, we have to get out of the concrete jungle and sit in the sun a little, and a park benefits the entire neighborhood."

Dave Gillespie, a 30-year Upper East Side resident, said that some area green spaces were simply too far away to enjoy, prompting him to support the proposal.

"I'd love to be able to take my grandchildren to the park rather than schlepping them all the way to Central Park with my cane," he said.

"This is a wonderful way to get contributions from the project to complete the park that was planned," said another resident, Geraldine Corbett, of the proposed zoning changes.

The majority of those present at the meeting, however, still vehemently opposed the developers' pitch, largely because Andrew Haswell Green is not directly adjacent to the area most impacted by construction, they said.

"This project, to me, is like a fat lady trying to squeeze into a too-tight girdle," said Upper East Sider Mina Greenstein. "The people who have written these things have never walked in the neighborhood and have never lived here."

Greenstein said the park would be "wonderful if you live under the 59th Street Bridge," but worried about long-term costs.

"Who's going to take care of it? The Parks Department, they barely have enough money for the neighborhood parks as it is," she said.

"Think again — it's all pie in the sky. I'm just delighted at their Walt Disney imagination."

George Alexiades, who previously compared living next to the CUNY-MSK project to sitting next to a "morbidly obese man" in an economy-class seat on a plane ride to Japan, said the developers were a "well-oiled," power-bearing machine that threatened the community.

While he supported the idea of a park, he reiterated the common concern that it "is not going to benefit the [community] members that are going to be particularly impacted by this building."

"Do we have a democracy, or do we have corporatism here?" he continued. "We are being railroaded by corporations who are spreading their money or influence."

Community Board 8 member Barbara Rudder, one of the neighborhood's staunchest open space advocates, said she worried about precedent that might be set by the proposed zoning changes.

Rudder read the zoning text amendment in question, and said it seemed to allow for open space in CB8 or a mile within the region — meaning it might not benefit the most impacted community whatsoever, she said.

"I have spent a very long time analyzing this, and it scares me," she said.

CB8 member Elizabeth Ashby described the park proposal as a "red herring" distracting the community from the issues at stake — such as long-term solutions to open space and density concerns.