City Bigs, Local Electeds Back Deal to Bridge East River Greenway Gap

On Sunday, a group of city officials and East Side electeds made their case for a deal to close the gap in the East River Greenway, addressing a full auditorium at the Schottenstein Cultural Center on East 34th Street. The deal has several moving parts, but the major takeaway was that the Bloomberg administration and a large group of legislators want to make the greenway happen.

greenwaybikemap.jpgClosing the greenway gap would provide an uninterrupted bike path from Ward’s Island to the South Street Seaport. Image: The East River Greenway Initiative

Currently there is no greenway between 60th and 37th Streets — a huge gap around the United Nations campus that forces cyclists on the East Side into some of the most harrowing traffic in the city. The linchpin of the deal unveiled Sunday involves trading city land for U.N. financial support to build the greenway connector.

The city would sell the western part of Robert Moses Playground, a rectangle of asphalt at the corner of 41st and First Avenue. An area that attracts occasional recreational use would be annexed. Space used for a dog run, handball and basketball courts would not be touched. In turn, the U.N. would pay the city $150 million, mainly for the right to construct a new building the same height as the current U.N. tower. The funding would be used to complete the East River waterfront esplanade and plug the greenway gap.

A succession of local electeds spoke in favor of the deal, including State Senator Liz Krueger, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, City Council Member Daniel Garodnick, and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who told the crowd, “I want to ride my bike there.”

The details of the plan were fleshed out by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Madelyn Wils of the NYC Economic Development Corporation.

Benepe said the new greenway segment would be a no-frills affair, like the recently completed connector on the Hudson River near Riverside Park. He also emphasized that without funding from the U.N. land deal, the project could not move forward. In addition to closing the greenway gap, he identified a package of public space enhancements the city can provide to offset the loss of part of Robert Moses park:

  1. waterfront_connections.jpgAs part of the deal to close the greenway gap, the city could improve pedestrian access to the waterfront at several points.

    Expanding Asser Levy Park into the roadbed of Asser Levy Place, between 23rd and 25th Street, which adds roughly the same amount of parkland as would be lost;

  2. Converting the former Con Ed site at the 38th Street pier into a park, which could be paved over and devoted to the same uses as the annexed segment of Robert Moses Playground;
  3. Improving pedestrian access to the waterfront, including, potentially, an overpass at 51st street;
  4. Greening certain areas of the Queens Midtown Tunnel plaza, which might make those areas suitable for some form of recreation.

According to Wils, the window of opportunity to act on this deal is brief. The U.N. is looking to decide where to build their new tower this year, and while they prefer the Robert Moses Park site, they have other options at their disposal.

When it came time for the public to weigh in, comments applauding the deal outnumbered opposition by about two to one, according to my rough tally. (Full disclosure: I testified in favor of the deal in my capacity as a member of Upper Green Side.)

Most opposition stemmed from nearby residents who claimed that Robert Moses Playground is an irreplaceable space for playing ball games — uses that would seemingly be preserved in the deal described by Benepe. A few others lumped the new U.N. building together with towers planned by developer Sheldon Solow for a nearby site, which they argued would change the character of the neighborhood.

The next step comes tomorrow, when Community Board 6 discusses the proposal and is expected to put forth a resolution including the conditions they would place on their support for any plan. If the conditions are too onerous to be feasible, it could scuttle the deal. If they’re practical and reasonable, legislators can say they have the full support of the community for a specific plan, which they can enshrine in the legislation necessary to enable the completion of the greenway.

  • Ed Ravin

    Glenn, to clarify “the legislation necessary to enable the completion of the greenway”, that would be a new state law that “alienates” the NYC parkland so that it can be legally sold or otherwise used for non-park purposes. Similar laws were passed by the state legislature to alienate parkland in the Bronx for the Yankee Stadium rebuild and for the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. I believe there also has to be a resolution from City Council.

  • Ed – that is correct – it would be all the terms and conditions on the alienation of Robert Moses Park. I think the City Council can be asked to pass a home rule message, but the critical piece seemed to be the State legislation. With legislative representatives from all those bodies present, it seemed they were prepared to formulate that legislation when necessary and sponsor it in their respective bodies.

  • vnm

    Interesting to note that the overpass at 51st Street exists already – to feed a two-block unconnected section of the greenway that exists today between 51st Street and 53rd Street.

  • Christopher Stephens

    I’m hoping that city leaders can learn from the mistakes made on the West Side, mistakes that led to a nearly 30-year delay in completing Hudson River Park. I also hope that the concerns of a handful of users of what is essentially a glorified asphalt parking lot will not hijack a project that will benefit the entire city. Given that none of the politicians present were actually willing to take a stand in favor of the land swap at this meeting, I’m not overly confident. Any plan that relies on action in Albany is one that I would not bet on, given the gridlock and incompetence that is the halmark of the legislature. And that’s even before the question of money is addressed.

    Still, it is encouraging that someone in city government (Parks, EDC) is willing to propose a grand scheme that would have a lasting impact on the city. My only minor beef with the plan is that I would like to see more access points to the greenway.

  • There were several entry points discussed as options. I think the idea was to improve some of the existing ones and make them more useful since they would have more ped/bike traffic.

    We have asked for the presentations but they are not distributing yet. I did take photos so if Ben gets a chance to upload them, we’ll provide a link.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This is wonderful news. Let’s hope the state doesn’t screw it up.

    And once again the lesson for me is that bicycles work in times like because they are cheap relative to the health and mobility benefits they provide. So expanding their use is something that can actually be done.

    The completion of this major right of way for bicycles would apparently cost the equivalent of a small subway station rehab, or painting a bridge.

  • Boris

    This is an interesting, unique-to-New York way to launder federal money for non-highway purposes. (I think the UN is largely US-sponsored). A piece of Robert Moses Playground becoming non-US territory has certain poetic justice as well. I hope this deal works and there are more like this.

  • momos

    I work at the UN campus and can report that the entire area east of 2nd Ave between 50th and 40th is a car-dominated nightmare. A ghost bike memorial at 49th and 1st, just north of the UN, is tragic testimony to this.

    This territory is ripe for redesign and there is no shortage of serious proposals. There is a Manhattan Waterfront Greenway Master Plan dating from 2004 (see here: http://eastrivergreenway.org/gap/the-united-nations-consolidation/)

    Even more compelling is the proposed East Side Waterfront Park: http://www.eastsidewaterfrontpark.org/

    The UN is completely renovating the Secretariat, which hasn’t been touched since it was built. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The UN has no money and there will not be another renovation in decades. (Yes, Boris, 30% of UN funding comes from the US — but the US never pays its dues on time and there have been crunch periods where even UN staff don’t receive scheduled paychecks as a result.)

  • It is extremely important that we accelerate facilities for bicycles and much more advanced lighter-than-human-weight transport and transit in this city to meet the accelerating environmental crisis.

    This comes from Joseph Romm’s climateprogress.org

    Arctic death spiral: Naval Postgrad School’s Maslowski “projects ice-free* fall by 2016 (+/- 3 yrs)”

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/06/06/arctic-death-spiral-maslowski-ice-free-arctic-watts-goddard-wattsupwiththat/

    Which means that the Arctic can be ice-free as soon as Sept 2013.

    Most likely this planet is now in a state of runaway climate change and extensive deployment of transportation with less than one percent the environmental footprint of cars will be one of the most important ways to mitigate this extremely dangerous global catastrophe of unimaginable scale.

  • It is long overdue that the Bloomberg administration proceeds with relentless advocacy of The City State Model adapting to and mitigating the accelerating environmental catastrophe tens of millions of people at a time. A million people planting three trees a day will plant a billion trees in a year’s time!

    In techno-geek speak this feeds off the concept of this planet strategically populated by the human equivalent of extremely powerful multi-core microprocessors ready and waiting for crucial instructions to broadly deploy highly disruptive positive change tapping directly into extraordinary natural capital in the form of human capital deeply entrenched in the engines of human civilization.

    First and foremost is extensive implementation of bicycle systems as never before — even more than in China except in numbers with 430 million cyclists and 120 million using electric bikes — and much more advanced quick-build highly-modular hybrid human-electric lighter-than-human-weight transport and transit in partnership with this country’s industrial powerhouses such as IBM and Caterpillar required for extensive vehicle and infrastructure builds.

    One natural and ongoing concern is that mass migration to this much better form of extremely low-cost human mobility will devastate the United States and global economies. This may only be a distant possibility as an extraordinary unprecedented amount of work will have to be done even more extensive that what was achieved during World War II which wiped out the long lingering effects of the 1929 crash and depression, increased life expectancy by an unprecedented seven years, and created zero unemployment. Further, as successes progress resources will be freed up to advance other extremely important pressing efforts.

    Cities are built to solve the transportation problem by bringing everything close together. They are also built to very efficiently take full advantage of the enormous wealth provided by human capital with concentrated hyper-mobile face-to-face populations requiring tremendous resources for food, housing, educations, libraries, the arts, religion, sciences, etc., etc.

  • Steve Vaccaro

    A reliable source advises that Community Board 6 will NOT vote
    tonight on the proposed UN land swap proposal for building a
    continuous East Side Greenway, but rather will table that issue until
    the fall. (I know the publicly-posted agenda for CB6’s meeting does not reflect this).

    The tabling of this vote is a positive development. The complex UN
    swap proposal was laid out only three days ago; it seems unlikely
    that CB6 could conduct a well-informed vote on the proposal
    only three days later.

    TA’s East Side Committee will continue to build support for the
    East River Greenway over the summer, by hosting a group bike
    tour to assess conditions (tentatively scheduled for July), and in other work. Keep an eye out for announcements of ways to get involved!

  • I have to differ with the President of our Transportation Alternatives Eastside Committee, Steve Vaccaro a little bit when he says the resolution to table the proposal to exchange Robert Moses Park for a completed Esplanade (at least through the most expensive U.N. portion) and possibly other parkland, is a good thing. It is not a good thing when we have no other realistic means of funding the expansion of the esplanade, and when there is a finite life to the caissons in the East River, and when bikers are literally dying because they have no alternative but to mix with traffic on First and Second Avenues in the Gap area (to remind people: 9 bikers were killed 1995-2007 around the Gap area and hundreds injured).
    The clock is ticking and DEC will not wait forever to determine the use of the caissons.
    The U.N. will make other arrangements too, if we cannot make a deal, and we will lose that source of funding.
    Ideally, we should be relying on a Land Value Tax that would tax the landowners for the value of the increase in their Land from the Esplanade completion. Anyone who thinks this will not happen should look at the property values before and after the Highline Park was built (still unfinished), and they will see there is more than enough to spare – but these community-generated profits are going into private hands now, instead of back to the community that created them.
    Scott Baker
    President of Common Ground – NYC

  • It seems to be quite easy to implement at least temporary protected and or bufferd bike paths along Second and First Avenues through the use of traffic cones overnight as done during the last transit strike to accommodate one-half million cyclists, jersey barriers as during the Koch Administration, or simply painted as extensively done by Sadik-Khan’s DoT with the goal to get it out there, accommodate the vast needs of current and want-to-be cyclists to build use sufficient to achieve significant power to transform this city into a replicable model for the future.

  • Steve Vaccaro

    Scott, I agree completely that the current opportunity to fund the East River Greenway with the UN swap is liimited in duration and requires demands some urgency. On the timing issue, I’d agree with you if the inability of CB6 to reach closure before the fall could stall the project. But Commish Benepe and a number of the electeds at the Town Hall made very clear that this is not the case–that we are at the start of a long dialogue-filled process. Since delaying CB6 action in fact won’t prejudice the proposal, my thinking is that delay is better than getting a hasty, ill-considered vote at the very start of the process.

  • I think the key point that I hope was impressed on CB6 members at Sunday’s event, is that if they stay within the options provided by EDC & Parks, they probably get what they ask for. If they go too far outside that, they might get nothing or the city might sidestep them entirely and deal directly with the legislators that need to pass the necessary legislation.

  • Robin Locke Monda

    I think it’s a great idea!