You could practically hear the neighborhood’s sigh of relief. “I’ve lived near here all my life,” one woman exulted, at the unofficial opening of Sutton Place Park (SPP) overlooking the East River. “I was brought up here. And there were times I thought the construction would never end.”
Never mind that SPP isn’t quite finished. The new enlarged park is bookended by what had been two smaller parks at 56th and 57th Streets. They are now connected by a promenade of nearly a quarter acre of new public land.
For famously park deprived Manhattan Eastsiders, just having access represents a major accomplishment.
Entering through 57th Street, you’d see that the grand old trees were saved, as was the boar statue. Benches line the perimeter. The original sandbox, once a haven for toddlers, is closed off. Since it had been consistently used by a few inconsiderate dog owners, its future use is in doubt.
Sitting on one of the benches facing the East River is seductive. The expansive view includes the 59th Street Bridge. There’s a delightful, cool breeze. July 27th, the first day the lock on the construction fence was opened, many parents were guiding small children while others sat on benches reading newspapers or listening to music or podcasts through ear buds.
"Where's the Greenery?"
Walking to the rail, you can look through to 56th Street through the Connector, a section of about 10,000 square feet of new park space. It’s mostly a concrete promenade, but there’s a large patch of grass where people can sit, braced on low cement walls. Benches are set up throughout, but there are no shade trees.
When you come to the 56th Street section, there’s a bit of a shock. As one visitor noted: “Of course it’s great that it’s open. But why is the 56th Street portion and the connection area so barren? Where’s the greenery?”
Alex Hart, of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, said the way the land is situated over the FDR presented many challenges. There are legal limits to how much weight can be added over the drive, he said. Still, he insisted, “the Connector has 26 small new trees and hundreds of shrubs. There should be lush greenery in a few years,” he said.
City Council Member Ben Kallos said: “We’re working with the Sutton Place Parks Conservancy (SPPC) on a vision for the two end areas of the park.” Kallos said he expects the community to bring proposals to him and, he said, he is committed to providing funding.
Years of Haggling
The troubled history of the park goes back decades, as a result of disputed claims to the land behind the luxury co-op at 1 Sutton Place South. The treasured rear garden of the building had been extended in a 1939 agreement with New York City, in connection with the construction of the East River Drive, now the FDR. The city leased the land on top of the drive back to the co-op for the symbolic payment of a dollar a year for 50 years. When the lease ran out in 1990, the co-op said nothing. Then, in 2003, major rehabilitation of the FDR had become necessary.
What followed were years of haggling, negotiation, and a lawsuit, with the city claiming it wanted to take back what was public land being privately controlled. Finally, in 2011, an agreement was reached. The City Council Member at the time, Jessica Lappin, secured $1 million in city funding, and the co-op agreed to contribute another $1 million for the park project.
An original design, with fences closing off the central part of the park, was fiercely resisted by the community. At a 2013 hearing of the city Public Design Commission (PDC), a representative of Community Board Six, and Gail Haft, representing Sutton Area Community (SAC), presented forceful objections to the plan. The PDC agreed, and the design was changed. Finally, in 2017, construction began in earnest. Thus, years behind schedule, but finally — though still not completely finished — Sutton Place South Park, now called Sutton Place Park, is unofficially open. There will be an official ribbon cutting some time after labor day.
Current 1 Sutton Place South board president Joshua Berkowitz said the co-op hopes to complete the landscaping of the private land that remains behind the building. He said a decorative fence would replace the link construction barrier that now separates the public park from the co-op’s backyard.