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Residents Sound Off About Planned East Side Esplanade Makeover

 Some Upper East Side residents are critical about the Rockefeller University's proposed renovation to the esplanade.
Rockefeller University Expansion Meeting
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UPPER EAST SIDE — The Rockefeller University's plan to improve a neglected public park along the river as part of a campus revamp has some neighborhood residents worried the overhaul will destroy the East River Esplanade.

At a recent Community Board 8 meeting, the university released conceptual plans for a forthcoming campus makeover, part of which includes rehabbing the esplanade segment ranging from East 63rd to East 68th streets.

The improvements have been pitched mainly because the new campus buildings will be built over the FDR Drive — a space for which the school has air rights — and support beams will extend into the park area.

Area residents and open-space advocates have long lamented the esplanade's current condition, demanding an East Side equivalent of the West Side's Riverside Park — especially because the Upper East Side lacks open space, they claim.

Sydney Nielsen, the landscape architect contracted by the university, said some improvements directly along these beam bases include shrubs and some seating near the drive. Along the rest of the esplanade, other improvements include more plants and clearer demarcation between pedestrian and cyclist areas on walkways.

Though the reception to the plans was more positive than other institutional projects on the Upper East Side — such as the controversial CUNY-MSK hospital-college project — some CB8 members worried the overhang would make the area too loud and exhaust-fume filled for residents.

They pointed to other other portions of the esplanade with overhangs, saying the conditions had made them amenable only to homeless populations.

"Homeless people seek it out because no one wants to be there," said CB8 member Teri Slater, who is otherwise supportive of Rockefeller. "This will be lost no matter how beautifully planted it is because of the noise. It's overwhelming."

One CB8 member even shouted that the plans would be a death blow to the area.

"It's an outage!" the member screamed. "You've killed that esplanade!"

Officials from Rockefeller University defended the plan, telling concerned residents the construction would include the installation of a 5-foot thick sound barrier — even predicting a one or two-decibel reduction in noise.

Rockefeller's proposals also ruffled the feathers of some neighborhood open space advocates, who believed the university could do more to include the community.

"The East River esplanade is a public park, but as far as I can tell, the public hasn't had a chance to have input into this," said Peggy Price, co-chairwoman of CB8's parks committee.  "We hadn't heard anything about this. We don't know how this fits into the bigger picture."

But Nielsen said the plan was in its early stages.

"This is very conceptual thus far," Nielsen said. "Don't feel left out."

Another attendee asked Rockefeller officials whether it would consider putting a new public park on the private campus.

George Candler, Rockefeller University associate vice president, replied: "I'll have to dump that one a little bit by saying it's over my pay grade."