81st Street bridge nearly done

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A decade after its conception, the East Side pedestrian walkway opens


  • The new 81st Street pedestrian bridge links John Finley Walk and the East River esplanade. Photo: NYC Department of Design and Construction

  • City officials just prior to the ribbon cutting at the new East 81st Street pedestrian bridge Thursday morning. Left to right, Jim Clynes, the chairman of Community Board 8; Yissely Ortiz from the Manhattan Borough President’s office; Council Member Ben Kallos; Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver; and Eric Macfarlane from the Department of Design and Construction. Photo: Richard Khavkine

It took $16 million and 18 months longer than anticipated, but the 81st Street pedestrian bridge linking John Finley Walk and the East River esplanade is nearly complete.

The 452-foot-long, ADA-accessible span over the FDR Drive and down to the East River esplanade replaces a structure built in 1942. Although a few punch-list items remain, including the installation of glass panels on the upper section, the bridge is finished, a Parks Department spokeswoman said.

On a clear but frigid morning off the East River Thursday, city officials gathered on the structure just off John Finley Walk and cut a symbolic green ribbon. Council Member Ben Kallos hailed the project’s completion, calling the span a crucial component of a makeover, now underway, of the entire esplanade. “It’s a beautiful addition,” Kallos said following the ribbon cutting.

The bridge gives bicyclists, and walkers, extended access to the riverfront, he said. “Now folks will be able to get all the way from the Sutton area to East Harlem and Randall’s Island” and from there to Queens, he said.

“This particular area has been a pain point for the community,” he said of the bridge and nearby. “The sad truth is that you can’t have a new esplanade without rebuilding it.”

Talk of replacing the bridge and ramp began about a decade ago, with discussions involving neighborhood residents, members of Community Board 8 and city officials, including from the Departments of Design and Construction and from Parks & Recreation.

Construction began in 2015 but an anticipated completion date of June 2016 could not be met for several reasons, among them the need for additional retrofitting of a support column near the southeast corner of John Finley Walk.

Members of CB8, officials from the city’s Public Design Commission and residents also had concerns and requested that DDC reconsider some design elements, and lobbied for a pedestrian viewing window on John Finley Walk, softer lighting and redesigned access at 81st Street.

DDC responded by fitting the bridge for glass panels on its southern side, removed some light fixtures, reduced the wattage of the bulbs, and eliminated an accessible ramp from the design.

Charles Whitman, who lives nearby and is one among an ad hoc group of residents that discussed the project with city officials as it advanced in both planning and execution, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“The design is generally good,” said Whitman, whose wife uses a wheelchair. “It’s less intrusive than I expected.... We walked it the other day and I was pleased to see that it’s going to be manageable.”

Whitman credited city Parks and DDC officials, as well as fellow residents Harvey Katz and Ira Shapiro, for coming to the table in good faith. “They were sensitive to our needs,” he said of agency representatives.

The nearly 10-foot-wide structure, atop several bridge bearings, has stainless-steel railings and 8-foot-high fencing custom-made at the site. Below, on a slim section of the East River esplanade, are new shrubs and other plantings as well as decorative boulders.

“This is a community that is really starving for open space and the esplanade is one of the great outdoor resources this community has,” Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said after the ribbon cutting. “To have more people having access to the esplanade is a good thing. We want people to walk, to get health and enjoy the beautiful views of both Roosevelt Island and the beautiful river.”

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