East River greenway inches forward

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Sutton Place residents push back on proposed 54th Street access point


  • A rendering of the planned expansion of the East River Waterfront Esplanade between East 53rd Street and East 60th Street. Image: NYC EDC

  • A rendering showing the layout of a typical stretch of the planned East River esplanade expansion. Image: NYC EDC

  • A map showing the proposed esplanade access bridge at East 54th Street, in Sutton Place Park South, which is opposed by some neighbors. Image: NYC EDC

The city’s plan to build eight new blocks of pathways along the East River is moving closer to realization, but the location of one proposed access point to the riverfront greenway has emerged as a point of contention for some residents.

In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced $100 million in city funding for the second phase of the project, which will create a new stretch of elevated path raised on pilings over the East River from East 60th Street to East 53rd Street. Construction is expected to commence in 2019 and last three years.

When complete, the East Midtown Waterfront Esplanade project will add 1.1 miles of new, uninterrupted esplanade along the East River from 38th Street to 60th Street, narrowing one of the largest remaining gaps in the network of riverside pathways that officials hope will eventually encircle the island’s entire 32-mile waterfront. Officials from the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the lead agency on the project, updated the public on the status of the project at community board meetings last month.

Typical stretches of the new esplanade will be 40 feet in width, with pedestrians and cyclists traveling on separate pathways divided by planters and seating areas.

The project also includes the construction of new access points to the esplanade across the FDR Drive. One of the proposed upland connections, a pedestrian bridge at East 54th Street, has aroused opposition from some residents of nearby Sutton Place. As currently planned, the entrance point to the bridge would be within Sutton Place Park South, a block-long strip of shaded open space at the south end of Sutton Place. Some neighbors have complained that the bridge would take up much of the existing park.

“This would completely change the nature of a park that serves as a mini-oasis in the southern portion of Sutton Place,” said Charles Coutinho, the president of Sutton Area Community, a nonprofit that represents the neighborhood’s residents and businesses. “On ground level, you’re going to have something which completely distorts, if not destroys, what you have there now.”

Coutinho suggested that a more suitable location for an esplanade access point could be found one block south, where there is an exit ramp from the FDR Drive onto East 53rd Street.

“We’ve worked thoughtfully and closely with the local community on the East Midtown Waterfront Esplanade project, and we continue to welcome their important feedback as the long-stalled project finally moves forward. We’re working closely with a designer to reflect the needs and priorities expressed by the local community and their elected officials,” EDC spokesperson Shavone Williams wrote in an emailed statement. “We look forward to taking the next steps to provide [an] ADA compliant ramp for bicyclists and pedestrian access to the waterfront and improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers.”

The EDC plans to create themed “nodes” near access points like the one proposed at East 54th Street, which will serve as centers for activities, programming and educational installations.

Public art installations will also be integrated into the esplanade design. The EDC, in collaboration with Stantec, the private design firm contracted for the project, is currently soliciting public input on the public art component. Residents are invited to recommend local artists who should be invited to apply, as well as nominate community members to serve on an artist selection committee by emailing EMidtownGreenway@stantec.com. Suggestions will be accepted until December 4, and artists will be selected by March 2018.

The completed first phase of the esplanade project runs from 38th to 41st Streets; the third final phase of the East Midtown project calls for the construction of new esplanade from 41st to 53rd Streets, bypassing the United Nations complex and connection the southern part of the greenway to the northern portion, which will run uninterrupted along the waterfront to East Harlem.

Work is currently under way to repair a portion of the esplanade between 88th and 90th Streets in Carl Schurz Park that collapsed into the river during a May 2017 rainstorm. In November, the Parks Department released new guidelines for waterfront park development that include best practices for designing parks that preserve and improve access to the city’s waterways while mitigating risks posed by storms and accounting for projected sea-level rise.

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