Dueling visions in UES park plan

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Should an oasis on the river’s edge feature a quiet “senior space” or an active exercise yard or some combination of both? Disagreements abound


  • John Jay Park on Sept. 9, a rainy Sunday afternoon. A battle is raging over the underused southeast section of the park facing the East River as residents clash over whether it should be reconfigured for active or passive uses. Photo: Douglas Feiden

  • Residents are battling over future of an underutilized .15-acre sliver of John Jay Park on the Upper East Side. Some seek more passive uses, while others want more active uses. Photo: Douglas Feiden

“The art of compromise is something of a lost art, but we’ll try to revive it. My job is to make everybody happy!”

Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner William Castro

A little corner of John Jay Park should be transformed into a quiet and relaxing place to sit, rest, chill and enjoy the gentle East River breezes, community activists, senior advocates and elected officials argue.

Wrong, local fitness buffs say — it could be better positioned to serve the exercise needs of residents who work out on the monkey bars, pull-up bars and other existing equipment in the same area of the park.

At issue is the future of an underutilized 0.15-acre sliver of the 3.31-acre expanse of green, which sits atop a plateau on a 15-foot retaining wall off East 77th Street and Cherokee Place on the Upper East Side.

It’s a battle over a public domain in which mostly older stakeholders seek passive uses and a tranquil space, while others park-goers, mostly younger, prefer active uses and a more energetic vibe.

Seeking to meld these clashing visions is the city’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation, which presented its plans to renovate the park’s southeast corner to the Parks Committee of Community Board 8 on Sept. 6 at the New York Blood Center on East 67th Street.

Its design tried to strike a balance between facilitating passive uses, preserving river views and reconfiguring the seating area on the one hand — and upgrading active workout uses by installing new fitness units on new safety surfacing on the other hand.

But if there was a bottom line the rival groups of residents could agree on after the briefing, it boiled down to this: Nobody was happy. Nobody particularly liked it. Most felt it should go back to the drawing boards.

The peace-and-quiet advocates were upset that plantings, flowers and other landscaping didn’t figure in the plans, giving the area the feel of a concrete pathway — instead of the “John Jay Garden” they’d hoped for.

“I was shocked and disappointed,” said Betty Cooper Wallerstein, the civic activist and president of the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association who for nearly a decade had fought to create an “adult space” in the area.

“The idea was that it should be a quiet, attractive space where people can sit and relax and read a paper or play cards or have a sandwich without loud music or boom boxes or people running back and forth,” she added. “This is not the park that our residents need.”

But the exercise mavens were also angry: Some of the older equipment they value, like the monkey bars, would be removed, while some of the newer equipment that would be installed fails to meet their needs.

“The exercise area is probably one percent of the size of the park so it’s disappointing that they want to cut back on the equipment,” said Craig Starr, a nearby resident who works out in the area starting at 6:30 a.m. every morning.

“The claim that exercise interferes with the peace and quiet of other park users is nonsensical,” he added. “If they want to sit and face the river, they have room to sit and face the river. Look, this is New York, the bottom line is you have to get along with everyone and share with everyone.”


In an interview the day after the meeting, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner William Castro said he believed the proposed design balanced the public interests of “both the people who use the exercise equipment and the people who go there to relax.”

But he also said he listened very carefully to the critical comments that were made and would consider them seriously before returning to CB8’s Parks Committee for a follow-up briefing at some point this fall. He also made it abundantly clear that he had not promised a redesign.

“Everybody has their own opinions at a community board meeting, and that’s fine, and that’s why we go, and that’s what America is all about,” Castro said.

“The art of compromise is something of a lost art, but we’ll try to revive it,” he added. “My job is to make everybody happy!”

Still, the initial reviews were not positive: “I don’t think anybody was fully satisfied with the plan,” said Tricia Shimamura, the co-chair of the Parks Committee. “I wouldn’t call it perfect. It’s not an end, it’s not a solution. We’re not there yet. But I would call it a good start, and I think we can get there.”

The project is being funded in part by East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos, who allocated $350,000 in 2017, on top of another $50,000 in 2015, that was earmarked for the creation of a “senior space” that largely dovetails with the initial Wallerstein proposal.

Specifically, the discretionary funds were intended for park “fitness equipment removal,” fill materials, excavation, concrete and granite ADA pavers, seating, game tables, landscaping and tree pruning, budget documents say.

“This was the first opportunity we all had to see the design, which unfortunately, fell short of residents’ expectations,” Kallos said.

He noted that “50 or so members of the community came out in the rain” to help turn this portion of the park into a more viable amenity for the community.

“I believe it’s important to preserve a passive recreational space for our community’s seniors,” Kallos said. And he pledged to continue to work with CB8 and the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association in hopes that the Park Dept. plans can be updated to “green-ify this area.”

Meanwhile, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also weighed in in support of the Wallerstein vision for the little corner of the park:

“I would say it would be much more appropriate to have a quiet area where you could sit and read a book than to have exercise equipment which I don’t really think is used very much,” she said.

“You’d need a substantial amount of thriving greenery that doesn’t die — almost kill-me-nots — and benching that’s inviting and makes you feel like you want to sit there,” Brewer added. “It’s an oddly situated space, but if it’s done correctly and creatively it could be very, very attractive.”


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