Saturday, December 22, 2012

East River Esplanade Exhibition and Initiative Move Forward

Hunter F. Armstrong 

Reimagining the Waterfront competition winners, including (from left) Joseph Wood, Darina Zlateva, Takuma Ono and Nestor Lebron Gonzalez, at the Museum of the City of New York on June 5, 2012. Photo by Karli Cadel. 

In June, CIVITAS opened the Reimagining the Waterfront exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, and is taking steps toward developing a vision for improving the East River Esplanade between 60th and 125th Street. Over spring, summer and fall of 2012, CIVITAS organized community visioning discussions, published a full-color exhibition booklet and developed proposals for improving the waterfront. 

As CIVITAS has pointed out many times, great things are happening in waterfront parks across New York. In order for the Upper East Side and East Harlem esplanade to provide recreational and environmental experiences comparable to Hudson River Park or Brooklyn Bridge Park, a comprehensive planning process and political and community support are critical. CIVITAS is actively working towards that end. 

More than 200 individuals attended the opening reception for the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Speeches were given by NYC Council Member Jessica Lappin, Brice Peyre representing Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Sarah Henry, the museum’s deputy director, and CIVITAS president Felipe Ventegeat. 

In her comments, Ms. Henry pointed out the appropriate correlation between the CIVITAS exhibition and the museum’s Activist New York exhibition which focuses on grassroots advocacy. Councilmember Lappin, Congresswoman Maloney and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito sponsored the waterfront initiative with CIVITAS. 

Also attending the opening reception were many CIVITAS and waterfront supporters. Among the many guests were six of the eight winning teams including designers who traveled from as far as Spain, British Columbia and Puerto Rico and as close as Brooklyn and Chelsea. The top eight were selected from the more than 90 design teams that entered the juried competition. 

CIVITAS Chairman Genie Rice noted: “Having 90 responses from over 20 different countries illustrates that the world is flat, a concept described by Tom Friedman about how interconnected we are worldwide. The design team from Spain described how their submission was in part inspired by their children’s Legos.” 

The exhibition was curated by Andrea Renner and includes design panels and descriptive text from the top three prize winners and five honorable mentions selected by the competition jury. (An overview of the exhibition and NYC waterfront is in Andrea’s piece on page 8.) In addition, the exhibition includes a monitor with a rotating display of the 80 additional designs that were not selected as finalists but have intriguing and relevant ideas for an improved East River Esplanade waterfront. Further, there are comment cards available for exhibition visitors to provide feedback on their favorite designs and suggestions for an improved park. 

Other wonderful features of the exhibition are historical photos of the East River waterfront from the Museum’s collection. They include such varied selections as a 19th-century rural landscape of Gracie Mansion, and later photographs of the commercial and industrial development along the Yorkville and East Harlem waterfronts. Mid-twentieth century images document the demolition of the shipping piers and warehouses, and the construction of the FDR Drive, Carl Shurz Park and current Esplanade. In this writer’s opinion, the exhibition does an effective job of showing the historic evolution of the East River waterfront from rural and agricultural to commercial and industrial and finally to the barrier to waterfront access created by the construction of the FDR Drive. The visionary ideas from the competition show the enhanced recreational, cultural and ecological purpose the Esplanade could serve in the future. 

The Museum also published in September a full color catalog of the exhibition. Funded by CIVITAS, the catalog allows the community to consider the exhibition well into the future and extends the lifespan of the exhibition into the many years it may take to develop the park. In addition to designs by competition winners and historical photos of the waterfront, the catalog features quotes from notable park builders including August Heckscher, CIVITAS founder; Adrian Benepe, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Robert Hammond, Phillip Lopate, Regina Myer and Betsy Barlow Rogers. 

Using the competition and exhibition as a conversation piece and touchstone, CIVITAS stayed busy with public programming and visioning workshops through summer and fall. In June, jurors from the competition participated in a panel discussion at the Museum to discuss their decision-making process in deciding the winners and to offer advice for CIVITAS in moving forward. The panel was moderated by Erik Engquist, an editor at Crain’s New York Business

Notable quotes from the panel included this from architect Rob Rogers: “The winning scheme showed incredible ambition in the waterfront. It’s not just about the water, but in fact it’s about the entire city… I think one of the things about an ideas competition is you really want something that not only pushes the project forward, but raises the bar as high as possible.” He went on to say that “of course, in the end, this is New York, and I think this scheme did the most for real estate value in terms of the riverfront…And one of the challenges perpetually in trying to deal with the design and public projects and public ground in New York is that this town runs on real estate, and this one brilliantly included an economic impact aspect.” 

Al Butzel, an environmental lawyer and former Friends of Hudson River Park president, gave this perspective of how New Yorkers view our waterways: “I think the idea that we are a city of water means a lot. To be able to look out at the water which you couldn’t do 30 or 40 years ago. But it also means a lot to connect with the water, to be able to get into boats to get out in the water, to fish, or just to touch the water.” 

Further, CIVITAS staff and volunteers actively engaged key players in discussing future plans for the waterfront and plans for moving forward. Summer intern Lauren Begen developed preliminary design proposals and concepts for improved access and use at the East 96th Street access point. A graduate architecture student at the University of Virginia and former Upper East Side resident, Lauren worked with volunteers who actively use the waterfront at that location. Among the organizations that participated was East River C.R.E.W., which organizes summertime rowboat launches for the community, and is actively working to repurpose the open area and unused space underneath the elevated FDR Drive at East 96th Street. 

On September 29, CIVITAS organized a community visioning workshop at the Museum. Attended by park activists and users, participants focused on key locations along the waterfront, which included the 107th Street pier, access points between 64th and 125th Street and the design challenge of the FDR Drive’s heavy traffic, pollution and noise. The morning session opened with remarks by Councilmembers Lappin and Mark-Viverito and Senator Liz Krueger. Parks Department Planning Director Nick Molinari gave an overview of inspiring waterfront parks that have been constructed across New York City, and Jonathan Martin, a Pratt professor and consultant with BFJ Planning, presented examples of world-class waterfronts across the globe, including Stockholm, Barcelona, Auckland and others. In a sobering and moving testimonial, Jaysen Smith spoke about his son’s drowning in East Harlem in May and how the design of the Esplanade—with its high fence and concrete bulkhead edge—made it impossible for the boy to rescue himself. 

After the speakers, the workshop participants set to work in breakout groups focusing on key locations between 60th and 125th Street. The groups were facilitated by volunteer designers and planners from Grimshaw, Dattner Architects and the Pratt graduate planning program. The design materials created by workshop participants are viewable online and are being drafted as a companion piece and explanation of the planning process. 

In order to translate this ambitious project into an improved Esplanade, funding for a comprehensive planning process is needed. CIVITAS is continuing to organize design workshops for the community and other meetings for stakeholders to discuss the waterfront’s future. We are also continuing to publicize the issue of improving the Esplanade, as well as bringing attention to current concerns and future visions to community organizations and institutions that line the East River. CIVITAS is working diligently toward this end, and we need your support to put this in motion. 

To read the complete fall 2012 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

Friday, December 21, 2012

Support CIVITAS in 2012

As CIVITAS’s 31st year of serving our community comes to a close, we need your support to continue our work to improve quality of life on the Upper East Side and in East Harlem.  Please consider making a year-end gift.

An update on some of our 2012 accomplishments is below and in our recently published newsletter.

A Call for a World-Class East River Esplanade Park:  CIVITAS sponsored an exhibition of the winning designs from the _Reimagining the Waterfront Design Ideas Competition for East 60th to East 125th Streets_ at the Museum of the City of New York from June through October. Throughout the year, CIVITAS also organized community visioning discussions, published a full-color exhibition booklet and developed proposals for improving the waterfront. Superstorm Sandy served as a reminder that the Upper East Side and East Harlem must develop a comprehensive plan to prepare for the future of our community's waterfront. The issues of rising sea levels and climate resilience were explored conceptually in the competition and exhibition. CIVITAS plans to continue community outreach for a better park in 2013.

Working to Improve Air Quality: CIVITAS sponsored a series of air quality and heating oil community workshops. Attendees were given an overview of the harmful effects on air quality of No. 6 heating oil. The East Side has the worst air quality in New York, and much of that pollution comes from the heating oil burned in neighborhood buildings.  Stay tuned for additional meetings in 2013.

Up-to-Date and Contextual Zoning In East Harlem: CIVITAS and Community Board 11 partners are pursuing an initiative to plan for East Harlem's future and bring modernized, appropriate zoning to the neighborhood. CIVITAS and CB11 met with hundreds of East Harlem neighbors to discuss the needs of the Madison, Park and Lexington Avenue corridors. Additional public meetings and outreach are scheduled for 2013.

Reducing Sidewalk Clutter: CIVITAS has called for improved enforcement measures for the frequently vandalized and often empty newsrack boxes that litter so many sidewalks in New York. Volunteers located more than 150 newsrack box violations between 59th Street and 96th Streets, York and Fifth Avenue. CIVITAS will continue to push for a NYC Council oversight hearing on maintenance and better legislation in 2013.

Thriving Street Trees: CIVITAS sponsored tree stewardship workshops to educate community members on topics including mulching, weeding, and cleaning up tree bed soil.

We hope you’ll send support for these important initiatives and our other work. To donate via credit card, visit or call (212) 996-0745.  Or mail a check to CIVITAS, 1457 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128.

Thank you and happy holidays.


Hunter F. Armstrong
Executive Director