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City clashes with community over Upper East Side playground’s future

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The Marx Brothers Playground is once again at the center of a debate about what constitutes an NYC Park

The Marx Brothers Playground is at the center of a debate about constitutes an NYC Park.
Via Google images.

Parks and Education Department officials clashed with City Council members, and neighborhood and parks advocacy groups at a meeting on Monday. The source of contention is the Marx Brothers Playground, located on 96th Street, at the intersection of the Upper East Side and East Harlem. Developer AvalonBay Communities wants to bring a 700-foot tower to the full-block between First and Second Avenue, and has the support of the city administration.

The project will bring nearly 1,000 new apartments to the neighborhood, of which 330 will be affordable. The project will also create two new schools and retail. They will however lead to the loss of a beloved neighborhood playground. The administration argues that it is well within its rights to demolish the park for the new development.

For one, it argues, the developer has agreed to build a replacement park that will be the exact same size as the current park. Two, the administration says the playground isn’t technically a park. It’s instead a Jointly Operated Playground (JOP). JOPS were created in conjunction with the city’s Department of Education beginning in 1938. They are basically extensions of schools, and were largely meant for the use of schools and the city, a parks department representative argued at the meeting on Monday.

There are a total of 263 JOPS across the city, and many City Council members were alarmed to learn in recent weeks that these playgrounds aren’t technically designated as parkland, and as such could be co-opted for development in the future.

“From every indication, jointly operated parks are treated like parkland,” said City Council member Ben Kallos, who represents East Harlem, and the Upper East Side, among other neighborhoods. “In fact, the Marx Brothers Playground went through New York State authorization as if it was, in fact, parkland. Seems like everyone involved, including the City and State, believe this playground was, in fact, a park. Government must eliminate the baseless distinctions between parks in order to protect our playgrounds and green spaces from overdevelopment,”

Parks and Department of Education representatives could not find a situation where JOPS had previously been used for any other type of development other than a school expansion, and many opposed to the AvalonBay project have argued that the proposed conversion of the Marx Brothers Playground would be unprecedented.

In fact, the playground and the development are the subject of a lawsuit jointly filed by a host of preservation groups including the Municipal Arts Society and the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District. The Parks Department representative at Monday’s meeting said the ongoing litigation was the reason he was unable to answer many of the Council members’ specific questions concerning the Marx Brothers Playground and the development at the site.

Those opposed to the development however had no such qualms, and testified about their concerns at the meeting. Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of MAS, said the city was placing local residents in the unreasonable position of choosing between schools, affordable housing, and parkland. She also argued that the new park replacing the existing one wouldn’t be the same in value even if it were the same size considering its new location, and the fact that it would be servings hundreds of new residents from the residential development.

The JOP issue was up for debate at an oversight meeting convened by the Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation. Based on the testimony they heard at Monday’s meeting, City Council members could introduce legislation that would specifically identify JOPs as parkland, which typically has no development rights associated with it and cannot be replaced with large-scale development.