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Mind the Gap
Park joins New York's long-divided Upper East Side and East Harlem riverfronts.
A view south on the East River Esplanade.
Tom Stoelker / AN

After the city sealed the deal to sell Robert Moses Playground to the United Nations to finance the waterfront park between 38th Street and 60th Street, the East River Greenway moved a step closer to completion. But once the Greenway links upriver at 60th Street, a host of issues await. There, stretching from 60th to 125th, the 60-year-old East River Esplanade languishes.

The esplanade runs approximately two miles between the Upper East Side and East Harlem gradually shifting from lush and refined at Gracie Mansion to rough and tumble at the 96th Street divide, long a psychological demarcation between the haves and have-nots.

In late October, citizen action group CIVITAS announced its Reimagining the Waterfront ideas competition charging architects, planners, and landscape designers to develop concepts for the entire esplanade, or in sections. According to executive director Hunter Armstrong, key challenges are a dangerous crosswalk at the 96th Street entrance and two vacant lots beneath the FDR. As with SHoP’s redesign of the East River Esplanade in Lower Manhattan, Armstrong envisions a park that embraces the highway, both beside and beneath.

A detail of the area to be redesigned with access points noted (left) and a proposed 111th Street bridge crossing the FDR (right).
Courtesy CIVITAS and Guy Nordenson

At a kickoff event, CIVITAS invited Columbia professor Phillip Lopate, author of the 2004 book Waterfront, to lure Upper Eastsiders into a conversation at the ornate Park Avenue Armory about a future for the waterfront and 96th Street. “It’s kind of choppy over there,” he told AN. “It’s beginning to be gentrified, but not at the far east end—not that gentrification is the solution.” Besides by means of 96th Street, East Harlem has access to the esplanade via three caged-in pedestrian bridges. Lopate suggested that something less stark, like a platform over the highway, similar to East Side’s Carl Schurz Park, “something that’s not punitive,” he said.

On a tour of the esplanade’s north half with Armstrong, views were stunning, but the promenade itself was bleak. Teens smoked pot near the Wards Island Bridge, now shuttered for repairs until early 2012. A series of sinkholes crumbled into the river, and rusted railings sat on decaying concrete. The charming 107th Street Pier with its cast iron railings sat empty except for one senior. On exiting the esplanade at the 120th Street overpass, a fistfight threatened the tour as Armstrong quickly redirected attention to the subject to the new CUNY buildings by SLCE, snazzy condos, a convent, and the original Patsy’s pizza parlor.

The lower section of the promenade below 96th Street may not face the same social challenges, but the promenade infrastructure is just as bad. John Natoli, chief engineer at Parks, said that every few hundred feet the support systems change from traditional pile supports, to log-cabin cribbed wood pilings, and concrete blocks sitting atop landfill.

the 107th Street pier (left), one of many sink holes along the northern section (Center), and remnants of industry along the esplanade (right).
Tom Stoelker / AN

For years, the esplanade’s jurisdiction remained convoluted, with Parks, the DOT, and DEP randomly dashing in to make repairs. Upper East Side Council Member Jessica Lappin credited Parks for “graciously accepting responsibility.” Natoli described the problem: “In some cases, we’re doing fixes that wouldn’t be right, but we have only limited funds. We know it needs tens of millions but we only have thousands.” Based on $68 million worth of comparable work at the East River Park below 14th Street, Natoli guesstimated that an uptown revamp could exceed $100 million. CIVITAS hopes the competition will help jumpstart some financing once the ideas start to flow, and the community gets excited.

Council Member Lappin’s office has already allocated $1.4 million toward renovation and repair, of which $500,000 went toward studying the infrastructure. There are bright spots. “Con Edison owns a building in the 70s and they may be willing to give that land over to the city,” said Lappin. To the north, the CIVITAS competition has the support of Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who also happens to chair City Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney is also on board. The deadline for the competition is January 15, 2012.

Tom Stoelker