The overhang structure above the East River Esplanade at 83rd Street, enveloped in pigeon netting. The Brearley School uses the overhead platform as a playground for its students and is ready to commit to repair it. Photo: Douglas Feiden
It was 1939, construction was wrapping up on the East River Drive, the waterfront was being reinvented and dozens of property holders were cutting deals as their riverside rights began to vanish.
Case in point: The Brearley School. It limited its claim for the loss of air and light and the surrender of riparian rights to a symbolic $1 when the city obtained an easement for its playground and pier.
It did not, however, walk away empty-handed: In return for getting out of the way of the highway, Brearley got the city to build a new elevated structure above the promenade deck for its use as a play space.
And for the past 79 years, the private all-girls school has been leasing the 3,720-square-foot, steel-and-concrete platform that rises above the East River Esplanade’s John Finley Walk between 82nd and 83rd Street.
Unfortunately, for the past half-century, the city-owned hulk — called “The Pier,” for the jetty it replaced, and “The Overhang,” because it juts out over the Esplanade — has become one of the most detested and unsightly visual objects on the Upper East Side.
“I have spent my entire life walking up and down the Esplanade, passing under this overhang — and watching it fall apart,” said 37-year-old City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the area.
Indeed, the underbelly of the 100-foot long, 40-foot wide structure is blotched with concrete cracks. Its steel columns define the word “rust.” Darkness envelops passers-by. Leaking water is bountiful. And roosting pigeons are undeterred by the pigeon-control netting.
“The floodlighting is horrible, the chicken-wire fence is ugly, the netting is ugly, it is dripping and chipping, and it drops — I don’t know what — on people’s heads,” Kallos said.
All of that is about to change. In October 2015, Brearley’s latest 20-year lease expired. At the time, it was paying only $8,022 annually, lease documents indicate, and the holdover terms remained in effect.
Subsequently, Kallos contacted the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services, which handles negotiations with private parties leasing city property, asking it to “ensure” that any lease renewal require Brearley to make capital improvements, take responsibility for maintenance, provide accountability and enter into a viable public-private partnership.
It took two years, but after back-and-forth talks between Brearley, DCAS and Kallos, a breakthrough deal was reached: The school says it “voluntarily” agreed to invest roughly $1 million for a structural and aesthetic rehabilitation of The Pier, a project it says it could not take on under its expired lease.
Brearley hopes to sign a new lease by the end of May, according to its construction and facilities department. Capital construction could begin by June 2019, and project completion is anticipated prior to the start of the school year in September 2019, the school said.
“We are thrilled to have obtained the city’s permission to repair and upgrade The Pier and proud to take on this new responsibility for the benefit of the whole community,” said Rahul Tripathi, Brearley’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
The school, which was founded in 1884 and moved to its present home at 610 East 83rd Street in 1929, didn’t disclose lease terms, deferring to Kallos and DCAS.
But a preliminary, undated 78-page lease document reviewed by Our Town indicates a $32,000 annual rent for the waterfront aerie, with annual minimum increases of 3 percent, which is deemed to be “fair-market value.” DCAS confirmed the figure.
The lease period is 20 years with two 10-year renewal options, DCAS said, meaning that Brearley could retain tenancy of its elevated playground until at least 2058.
In past years, the city was responsible for maintaining The Pier’s infrastructure. Not anymore: “All aesthetic and structural maintenance will be Brearley’s responsibility,” a DCAS spokesperson said.
What kind of work is envisioned? Leaks will be repaired, new green fencing added, netting stripped away, sleek lighting provided for public safety, and planters sporting seasonal plantings introduced, according to a draft of a release crafted by Kallos with input from Brearley.
Darkness will give way to light, new wire fencing will match the colors of the 81st Street and 78th Street pedestrian bridges, and the decrepit underside of the overhang will finally be repaired and maintained, project documents show.
“It was this dark, unwanted bleak kind of structure,” said Daniella Davi, the project manager for CIVITAS, the East Side nonprofit that has long advocated for the “holistic redevelopment” of the East River Esplanade.
“Now, it will have some color, a lot more light, it will be more open, and instead of the netting, there will be more a contiguous waterfront look with green, earthy patterning,” Davi added.
Bottom line: “Block by block, we are rebuilding the Esplanade,” Kallos said.