Midtown East residents, long envious of the lush riverfront parkland their West Side counterparts enjoy, got a sneak peek of the design plans for the East Side waterfront esplanade at last night's Community Board 6 land use committee meeting. The project is part of a plan to complete the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway (which surrounds the borough) by filling in the undeveloped gap between East 38th Street and East 60th Street along the East River. The esplanade, which is created to appear as if it's floating on top of the water with 30 feet separating it from the bulkhead, will have two distinct paths: one for bike riding, the other for pedestrian traffic. Cali Kay Gorewitz, Vice President of Development at NYC Economic Development Corporation explained that at certain points, the material used for the ground will allow pedestrians to see through to the water below "raising the uniqueness of the site."
NYCEDC has been working with community work groups to decide on other design aspects. Together they've come up with a plan that divides the esplanade into three sections: one running from East 38th to East 41st Street, the next from East 41st to East 53rd Street, and the third from East 53rd to East 60th Street. Planters and trees will run along the entire length, and there will be three major gathering places called nodes, each having "its own personality" said Ama DuSolier, lead designer for AECOM, the company contracted to design the esplanade.
The first node scheduled to open in 2015 is a waterside pier, which will be constructed from an old pier Con Edison formerly used for fuel deliveries. It will center on active recreation and include places to eat and socialize. Another section, called the ribbon, will focus on walking, biking, planting and seating. The 48th Street node will facilitate gatherings like outdoor shows and will have amphitheater seating, while the 53rd Street area will focus on environmental education and incorporate places to fish. All of the nodes are designed to be multi-functional.
In a post-Sandy world, thought also went into ensuring the esplanade will be able to withstand stronger storms. It will be built three feet higher than the 100-year flood line, which is about six and a half feet (Sandy's storm surge was 13 feet) and six to eight feet above the FDR Drive.
Community reaction to the design renderings was largely positive, with some residents calling them "wonderful" and "lovely." Joan Boyle, a 19-year resident of East Midtown, called the plans "gorgeous" and is looking forward to having a place where people could walk a dog, ride a bike, or just walk along the riverfront. But Boyle was concerned that the promises of a beautiful esplanade for the neighborhood would never come to pass. While "it's wonderful to look at this," she said, "I expect it won't ever happen."
True enough, considerable hurdles remain. The project is relying on anticipated funding by a United Nations deal. A Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the state allowed for the use of a portion of the Robert Moses Playground for a new UN building. In exchange, the United Nations Development Corporation agreed to pay the city $73 million toward the esplanade. However, Gorewitz estimates the full cost of the project to be about $200 million, so the sale of other property currently leased by the UN will be necessary to complete it.
Next steps for this project include filing permits with Department of Environmental Conservation, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard which are expected to take 12-18 months to get approved. In the meantime, as part of the Memorandum of Understanding, Asser Levy Place (the two blocks between East 23rd and East 25th Streets) has closed to traffic and will be turned into a park. It's expected to open to the public next year.