Esplanade project gets city funding

| 05 Jul 2016 | 11:08

The final piece of the funding puzzle that has been missing from the East River Esplanade project fell into place last month when the City Council approved roughly $2 million for several revitalization purposes. Combined with the $45 million rounded up by Councilman Ben Kallos from various sources in past years, funding for the project has reached just over $47 million, though that may not be the final tally.

“A lot of East Siders are envious of the West Side parks,” Kallos said. “When I came into office, the East River Esplanade was literally falling into the river and in some places still is.”

Kallos and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney are co-chairs of the East River Esplanade Task Force, which has negotiated several creative funding arrangements with nearby institutions. Because the city Parks Department originally estimated that the esplanade would cost $400 million to rebuild or $115 million to repair, the rejuvenation has necessitated a group effort.

Rockefeller University agreed to fund the restoration of the esplanade between East 64th and 68th Streets as part of their campus expansion. “The work we’ve done so far has been on ... repairing the seawall,” Timothy O’Connor, the university’s executive vice president, said. “That went extremely well. ... We even at the end got a request from the city to do a little bit more that was out of the scope of the original plan. But we readily agreed to do that in part because I have to say that this has been a very productive and positive partnership between our private university and the public entities.”

The university is spending $8 million on the seawall repairs and has contributed $150,000 to the Friends of the East River Esplanade, which is supporting efforts to restore the esplanade from East 60th to East 120th Streets, where it may one day end.

The Hospital for Special Surgery, at East 70th Street, also took on the renovation and maintenance of the esplanade between East 70th to 72nd Streets, and the Parks Department is working with the city Department of Transportation on the segment between East 78th and 81st Streets. That leaves what Kallos called a “gap tooth” section between East 68th and 70th Streets, as well as an as-yet-unfunded section between East 72nd and 78th.

The Upper East Side is notoriously short on green space. A 2013 study by New Yorkers for Parks did not sugarcoat the area’s lack of green: “Manhattan’s Council Districts 4 and 5 ... still fall short of meeting nearly all of New Yorkers for Parks’ (NY4P) 15 New York City-specific benchmarks for neighborhood open space,” the study concluded. “From overall active and passive open space to environmental sustainability, the numbers reflect an urgent need for improvement. Even when the area’s ubiquitous privately owned public spaces (known as POPS) are taken into account, the East Side still doesn’t meet our Open Space Index standards.”

CIVITAS, an urban planning citizens group, last week released the results of an in-depth survey they conducted of Upper East Siders asking for their input on how the John Finley Walk section of the esplanade from 81st to 84th Streets should look. “We felt that the whole waterfront was an underutilized park space,” said Maura Smotrich, the CIVITAS project manager for the esplanade. “As a community advocacy organization we’re taking the problematic areas that don’t necessarily have private founders attached to them and trying to show how they can be improved for the general good.”

CIVITAS’ 47-page survey revealed, among other things, mixed feelings about seating, with 82 responders in favor of adding seating to the section, 73 opposed, 11 unsure and nine not commenting. “The area as it is now is perfect for kids playing ball or a [sic] group exercise,” one community member wrote. “Seating would interfere with this.” The question of John Finley Walk’s “identity” being unique or resembling Carl Schurz Park resulted in an exact tie: 59 responders wanted something new, 59 wanted it to resemble Carl Schurz Park, 13 were unsure and 13 wrote “other.” “We’d like to see something similar to ... the High Line with meandering pathways that zig zag (vs [sic] a purely straight pathway),” wrote one community member who wanted the new walk to have its own identity. “[The] benefit is that it slows traffic flow and gives the area character. ... We picture vegetation to be [a] mixture of evergreen and colorful seasonal plantings.”

The $2 million recently allocated to the project will be split into $1.2 million for the section between 68th and 70th Streets, half a million for John Finley Walk from 81st to 84th Streets and $150,000 for 96th Street, in addition to a small amount to restore the crumbling playground at Carl Schurz Park. “It will be one seamless look and feel from 72nd Street all the way down to 62nd Street,” Kallos said, describing the esplanade’s future.

The restorations currently underway on the esplanade are projected to be completed in 2018.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at