Patchwork Upgrades Move Ahead as East Side Waits for Complete Greenway

The East River Greenway, stepchild of Manhattan’s bikeway network, currently consists of segments beneath, beside, and sometimes even above the FDR Drive. A report issued by New Yorkers for Parks yesterday acknowledged that East Siders awaiting a continuous path will have to wait decades before they can walk or bike on a full-length East River Greenway. In the meantime, an uncoordinated series of plans, studies, and development projects attempt to piece together sections of the route.

New Yorkers for Parks found East Siders could benefit from better access to the East River Greenway in four different surveys, but plans for its completion remain scattered. Map: NY4P

For its study, New Yorkers for Parks measured the quality of and access to open space in the council districts represented by Dan Garodnick and Jessica Lappin, who sponsored the survey.

New Yorkers for Parks has now completed four open space audits for neighborhoods from the Lower East Side [PDF] to East Harlem. Eastern parts of these neighborhoods, which are beyond easy walking distance from Central Park, “are situated along the East River Esplanade, which would better serve residents if it were more accessible, continuous, and well-maintained.”

“Anyone who has spent time in Hudson River Park knows that the benefits of a continuous esplanade are quite great,” NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht told Streetsblog. The Hudson River Greenway is the busiest multi-use path in the nation, and a critical route for bike commuters. “It’s very broken up on the East Side. It’s very piecemeal,” Leicht said.

The East River waterfront has been the subject of numerous studies and plans. The Department of City Planning released its citywide Greenway Plan in 1993, the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway Master Plan in 2004 and a citywide waterfront plan in 2011. There have also been vision plans that look at smaller sections of the riverfront, from the Municipal Art Society, CIVITAS, Hunter College planning students, and 197-a plans from community boards that looked at Stuyvesant Cove [PDF] and the area beneath the Queensboro Bridge [PDF].

In addition, the Blueway Plan lays out a vision from 38th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, and EDC is leading a planning process that could bring new sections of the greenway online block-by-block between 38th and 60th Streets from 2015 to 2024.

Even when projects make the jump from the pages of a planning document to reality, the result, for the time being, is still a patchwork. But a greenway becomes truly useful only when it is continuous. Will this patchwork coalesce over coming years to create a continuous route?

The latest section of the greenway to get finishing touches is at the southern end near Pier 11, where the city recently wrapped construction on an esplanade and bike path. Last week, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President announced plans for a new beach beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and Council Member Dan Garodnick promised funds for a kayak launch at Stuyvesant Cove.

A development project at 73rd Street by the City University of New York and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center would fund improvements to Andrew Haswell Green Park, located on the river between 60th and 62nd Streets. (This area was the subject of  a 197-a plan from CB 8 in 2006.) The CUNY/MSK proposal, which received support from CB 8 [PDF] and Borough President Scott Stringer [PDF], is on the City Planning Commission’s agenda for August 21.

Another Upper East Side development proposal, this one from Rockefeller University, is still in its early stages. It would deck over the FDR Drive between 63rd and 68th Streets and include some improvements to the esplanade below, including more distinctly separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians, vegetation, and seating. CB 8 hosted an informational meeting on the project last month.

Unlike the other side of the East River, where the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative has spearheaded efforts for a continuous waterfront greenway in that borough, there is no organized constituency continually advocating for a complete greenway from 125th Street to the Battery.

Greenways are not listed among the Manhattan campaign priorities for Transportation Alternatives, which instead focus on safer routes for cyclists and pedestrians on the borough’s streets. But the advocacy group says the greenway is an important issue. “We want to see it completed as soon as possible,” said Miller Nuttle, TA’s manager of campaigns and organizing. “It’s really important for candidates for borough president to make it a priority.”

Greenways receive only a token mention in New Yorkers for Parks’s election-year platform, which focuses on citywide parks policy and funding issues. Leicht said her organization tries not to tell neighborhoods what to do about specific parks or projects, instead aiming to provide data that communities can use to pursue their own goals. But she added that a project as large as the East River Greenway requires “a comprehensive advocacy approach” and must consider funding for maintenance well before it gets built. “Is there political leadership that can pull this all together? Could the next borough president make this their civic project?” she asked.

“There have been numerous inspired plans and studies for improving public access to the waterfront. It’s time to act on them to create a seamless waterfront esplanade along the East River,” the New Yorkers for Parks report says. “Creating a continuous esplanade along the East River… may be dozens of years and hundreds of millions of dollars away, but leadership is needed now.”