Esplanade Emergency

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East Siders hope to fix crumbling riverfront as idea of path circling Manhattan moves closer

By Ashley Welch

A deteriorating seawall, crumbling bulkheads, cracked asphalt and giant potholes have characterized the East Side esplanade for much of recent memory.

Residents who use the waterfront for exercise and recreational purposes complain not only of the eyesore it has become over the years but of the safety hazard it poses.

The deteriorating East Side esplanade has become a top concern for many residents of the community.

The deteriorating East Side esplanade has become a top concern for many residents of the community. Photos by Andrew Schwartz.

“It"s in really bad condition, said Gil Lopez, who often rides his bike on the esplanade, which runs along the East River from East 60th to 125th streets. “You can get into an accident very easily.

Though Lopez has so far avoided that misfortune, he said has witnessed many near misses as bikers swerve off the path to avoid potholes that are blocked off with metal barriers.

While fixing the esplanade is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg"s “Vision 2020: The New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, a proposal released last year to revitalize the city"s waterfront, many residents and community groups feel it is too far off.

“I don"t know what they are waiting for, said Steadford Virgil, who rides his bike along the esplanade daily. “Some of these potholes have been here since last winter.

Jennifer Ratner, an Upper East Sider and community activist, is establishing a conservancy to raise awareness and funds for the deteriorating esplanade.

“Our mission is to work with government officials and private corporations to fix areas of the esplanade in need of glaring repair and to help come up with a plan for longer-term issues, she said.

One elected official Ratner has worked with is City Council Member Jessica Lappin, who recently secured $900,000 in funding in the city budget to begin repairs on the esplanade. Though Lappin said she supports the future vision of a revamped waterfront, she said it"s more important to address the immediate safety concerns on the esplanade that exist now.

“We"ve been talking for years about building a blue necklace around Manhattan, but we have a piece of that puzzle that"s literally being washed away, she said.

The money will be used to repair the potholes along the esplanade, but Lappin said it is also needed to help fix a deeper issue.

“There are serious structural problems with the esplanade, she said. “The sinkholes you see are a visible manifestation of the crumbling of the infrastructure below.

The New York City Parks Department is conducting an engineering study to learn more about the esplanade"s underlying issues. The study is funded by a task force that Lappin, along with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, formed last year to address the problems facing the dilapidated esplanade.

Though Ratner said she"s thrilled the waterfront will receive this much-needed assistance, it is just the beginning of a long list of improvements that need to be addressed.

Rust and wear eat away at many parts of the esplanade"s infrastructure.

Rust and wear eat away at many parts of the esplanade"s infrastructure.

These longer-term issues include some plans outlined in Vision 2020, such as easier pedestrian accessibility and the refurbishment of the 107th Street pier. However, no funding has been allocated for these projects, or any relating to the waterfront between East 60th and 125th streets, in the mayor"s three-year outline of the plan.

“We feel like we"ve been left out, she said.

The conservancy group, which Ratner said should be incorporated later this summer, will be called Friends of the Esplanade (E. 60th–125th Streets). After reaching out to the community through meetings and events like It"s My Park Day in May, she said she received positive feedback and a good deal of interest. If all goes accordingly, fundraisers may begin in the fall.

Other community groups are looking to the future as well.

The East River C.R.E.W. (Community Recreation and Education on the Water) is also advocating for a facelift for the esplanade. The group offers free open-water rowing sessions every Tuesday at 5 p.m. that launch from the East 96th Street esplanade entrance. According to C.R.E.W. member Mary Nell, its goal is raise the profile of the East River through rowing and estuary education. Nell said that in the future, the group would like to see safer, more clearly marked pedestrian entrances, shade harbors installed near their boat launch site and educational signage dispersed throughout the esplanade.

CIVITAS, a nonprofit organization that works for improved land use and transportation policies on the Upper East Side and East Harlem, is organizing a design competition that will launch this fall to develop creative concepts for the esplanade between East 60th and 125th streets.

Hunter Armstrong, the executive director of CIVITAS, said the purpose of the competition is to inspire the community to envision new possibilities for the esplanade.

“The repairs that are currently happening in sections of the park are long overdue and welcomed, but I think everyone in the community will agree that the esplanade holds much more potential, he said.

The vision for a new waterfront extends below 60th Street as well, with many elected officials working together to one day build a continuous esplanade along the East River.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that may make that a possibility.

Under the new law, the United Nations has the opportunity to construct a new building on a portion of Robert Moses Playground on First Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets. The land transfer would only happen if an agreement can be reached by Oct. 10 to replace the lost parkland, provide greater access to the East River and develop a pedestrian and bicycle esplanade between 38th and 60th streets to close the gap in the East Side greenway.

On Thursday, Aug. 4, State Sen. Liz Krueger, Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh and City Council Member Dan Garodnick hosted the first of three public forums to seek community input on an outline for the plan.

“We are at the threshold of a unique public planning process, said Garodnick in the opening statements of the evening.

The forum, he said, “will allow for a community-driven vision for the future of the East Side"s open space.

Maloney, who co-sponsored the forum along with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assembly Member Micah Kellner and other elected officials, was also in attendance.

“The West Side has a beautiful esplanade, but the residents of the East Midtown area really have absolutely nothing at all, she said. “This is an opportunity to change all that.

The law also stipulates that Con Edison give the city $13 million to rehabilitate the pier between East 38th and East 41st streets, which has been defunct for several years. When Con Ed originally leased the pier from the city to construct a power plant, the agreement stated that, at the end of the lease, the utility would return the pier to the city in its original condition. Lawmakers saw this piece of legislation as an opportunity to force the utility into action and for the city to take on the rehabilitation.

Many of the community members who spoke out at the meeting last week supported the plan, though a couple were reluctant to give up the portion of Robert Moses Playground, noting that it is the only park space in the area where children can play sports, such as roller hockey. But the sentiment of the majority was that much more will be gained if the land swap occurs.

Other concerns brought up during the forum include the maintenance of the esplanade once completed, and one Upper East Side resident pointed to the deteriorating waterfront north of East 60th Street. Others questioned how enforceable the law would be, fearing the park space would be given up in exchange for an empty promise of an esplanade that might not be built.

The lawmakers in attendance assured the community that the contract would be binding. Maloney encouraged that the final proposal be made even more “airtight.

The legislators have created a website,, to provide information about the project and updates on its new developments. Community members can post their opinions there as well.

Two more public forums will take place before the Oct. 11 deadline, on Sept. 8 and 20.

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