Testimony on East 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge

Council Member Ben Kallos

Testimony to the New York City Public Design Commission

East 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thank you for allowing my fellow elected officials and I, as well as members of Community Board 8, the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association, and community representatives to testify today on the proposed designs for the East 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge. My name is Ben Kallos and I represent Council District 5, which covers 81st Street and the FDR. I give testimony today to ask the Public Design Commission to delay approval of this project so that the City may review the design and construction of the 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge with the aim of addressing community concerns and implementing a design consistent with the future plans for the East River Esplanade.

The 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge Project is a necessary fix to a crumbling bridge, but it is also an opportunity to upgrade our aging infrastructure to make our waterfront more accessible to all New Yorkers, to make the Esplanade more inviting to pedestrians, and to integrate the bridge into the long-term plan for a 21st-century park along the full length of the East River.

The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), community groups such as CIVITAS, and Community Board 8 have completed much tireless work to construct a seamless, long-term vision for the East River Esplanade. And on this project alone, representatives from Parks, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) have met repeatedly with community members to address concerns and alternative proposals. We thank them for their time and attention to the particulars of this project.

These discussions, however, have been hamstrung by the fact that the initial feedback provided by Community Board 8 starting in 2012 was ignored, with a contract already awarded for designs that were rejected by the Community Board and not approved by the Public Design Commission. As a result, the current design for this bridge, which encompasses two access ramps as well as the bridge between the promenade and the river-side ramp, still raises significant concerns. It is because these design concerns have gone unaddressed for so many years that it is most appropriate for the Public Design Commission to delay approval of this project.

Before obtaining approval from the Commission, the City should reconsider the design of three elements of this project.

First, the City should examine the feasibility of relocating the river-side ramp from its currently planned location at 81st street, to a location further north that would tuck it underneath the East River Promenade, and better distribute access. The current design puts a 400-foot ramp from 81st street to almost reach 79th street, just one block north of the 78th street ramp that runs to 77th Street, essentially replacing the East River Esplanade with nothing but access ramps from 77th Street to 81st Street (Illustration enclosed). This means losing three blocks of park land, in what the New Yorkers for Parks’ Open Space Index lists as one of the neighborhoods with least park land. The Public Design Commission has an opportunity to reject poor design that harms a community by taking away precious park land in favor of design that works and will improve our parks.

In terms of design, we can do better. In a March letter I asked DPR, DOT and DDC, to shift both ramps one block north to 82nd Street, where there is already an existing ramp on East End Avenue and where the river-side ramp could be built without requiring a costly bridge, and where the ramp itself would not only tuck nicely under John Finley Walk but provide additional park space. In April, DPR provided a response, an excerpt of which is enclosed, which shows how nicely the new design would complement the East River Esplanade, while simultaneously raising several regulatory concerns regarding the State Department of Transportation, which could have been addressed in the three years since this project was initially brought to Community Board 8. The Public Design Commission should delay approval of this project for a full investigation of the feasibility of this improved design.

Second, we have requested a determination of which agencies, community organizations, or other entities could be given responsibility for the maintenance of alternative fencing materials, so that we can build a bridge that would better blend in with the neighborhood than would the currently designed wire mesh model.

Third, please consider, as you have already agreed to do, locating the street-side access ramp at 82nd or 83rd street, where it could be shorter and more easily accessible to individuals in wheelchairs, as well as less expensive and a less imposing structural addition to the local community. It is absolutely essential that, in the case of any redesign, disabled access be fully protected, preserved and, if possible, improved. If both ramps were moved north by one block, the disabled access would be shorter and require fewer setbacks. Community Board 8 Manhattan, the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association, and CIVITAS have all expressed concerns and a desire that the bridge design be changed on numerous occasions.

I sincerely appreciate the time that DOT, DDC, and DPR have invested in presenting this project to the community, including the willingness of city agencies to meet with Community Board 8 and neighborhood residents in recent months. However, the project has been opaque. Designs were brought to the Board and met with thorough, critical feedback, and yet years later, DPR and DDC brought the same designs back to the Board, and by the time the Board had time to respond, we found out that the contract for the project had already been issued. Ever since, community proposals to improve the design of the project have been rejected on the basis that the contract was already awarded.

Our office and the community thought that we had a voice in the process but now feel that our voices have been ignored. Despite the clear concerns and objections raised, the information received from the city has continued to change.  Starting in October of 2012, the Community Board passed a near unanimous resolution urging that DOT and DDC make changes to the project.

According to Community Board 8 Manhattan, on October 17, 2012, “Community Board 8 Manhattan (CB8M) passed a resolution that ‘urges the DOT and the DDC to make further changes to the 81st Street pedestrian bridge so that it blends into the surrounding neighborhood in a better way and to ameliorate the impact of the eight foot high fence facing the buildings in the area’ (by a vote of 39 yes, 0 no, 1 abstention, 1 not voting for cause).”

As of May 2013 a notice was given that the project was on hold, with the assurance of design changes. As of June 2014 the construction contract was approved without many of the community’s concerns addressed. Community Board 8 and the City then convened two helpful but inconclusive meetings on December 17, 2014 and February 19, 2015. All of which developments are well documented in numerous resolutions and letters from the community objecting to the project.

I along with our friends on the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association, Community Board 8 and CIVITAS, call upon the Commission to delay approval for this project so that the City can stop work and look for possible redesigns of the 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge to address the concerns of the community, provide better accessibility, and work to fit this project into the future design of the East River Esplanade.

Please vote today to deny the approval of the 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge, to allow an immediate community scoping session involving Community Board 8 Manhattan, Carl Schurz Park Conservancy, CIVITAS, East 79th Street Neighborhood Association and representatives for buildings on the east side of East End Avenue at 83rd Street, 82nd Street (also known as Gracie Terrace) and 81st Street, as well as our offices, in order to develop a new design including but not limited to: consulting on the drafting of a new Request for Proposals and reviewing proposals after their submission. I look forward to working with you in order to upgrade this $12 million from an overdue repair to a proud investment in our parks and waterfront.

Sincerely,

 

Benjamin J. Kallos

Council Member, District 5

 

 

Enclosures

Current Proposed 81st Street Pedestrian Bridge and 78th Street Pedestrian Bridge.

Red indicates ramps.


 Ramp Sloped Lawn Ramp Figure 1. This illustration shows one proposal, with both ramps beginning at 82nd Street.

 

 Ramp

Sloped Lawn

 

Figure 2. An river-side ramp beginning at 82nd St could tuck underneath the current Promenade. As pictures the necessity for fencing on both sides is replaced with a sloped lawn on one side and walkway that could receive a similar treatment as the rest of the Esplanade.

 

Department of Parks and Recreation April 13, 2015 Response, Page 9

 

Department of Parks and Recreation April 13, 2015 Response, Page 10

 

Department of Parks and Recreation April 13, 2015 Response, Page 11

2015-04-30 13:56:52 -0400