(Opinion) East River Waterfront North & South: One Community, One Stewardship Entity, One Unified Plan

East River Waterfront. File photo.
East River Waterfront. File photo.
East River Waterfront. File photo.

This article was submitted by Victor Papa, president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council; Aixa Torres, president of the Alfred E. Smith Houses Resident Association; and Nancy Ortiz, president of the Vladeck Houses Resident Association. Opinion pieces on The Lo-Down represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the point-of-view of this publication. The Lo-Down welcomes unsolicited submissions, including different viewpoints on this topic, at: info@thelodownny.com.

North of the Brooklyn Bridge, the esplanade remains incomplete; where progress is stop and go and seemingly in perpetual “construction” stagnation, while south of the Brooklyn Bridge, along the waterfront edge of that same uninterrupted East River streaming past both communities, the other esplanade thrives, all spiffed up to be what it was envisioned to be.

As early as 1997 leading up to the tragic event of 9/11, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council was engaged in hosting community‐initiated discussions with city agencies, residents and other stakeholders to address the many issues of a seriously deteriorated and abandoned waterfront along South Street. Almost twenty years since those initial planning sessions, fourteen years hence since 9/11 and almost four years since the devastation along the East River from Sandy on that fateful night of October 29, 2012, the Lower East Side esplanade, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the East River Park, including Pier 35, Pier 42, the promised Rutgers Slip Pavilion and other landscape improvements can only claim near completion.

What is it that so starkly produces this north/south contrast, where revitalization, aesthetic improvements, added amenities, vital open spaces, unimpeded access to cultural, commercial and recreational use seems to have been considered a priority for one community over the other.

There are technical reasons for sure and new environmental concerns arising from Sandy which currently impede construction progress, but it’s not hard to imagine that this contrast manifests, in an overall sense, a persistent historical perception about how one community continues to be viewed a priority over the other, perhaps because one is the financial center of the world and includes a section of surviving eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture; precious historical maritime treasures to be sure, while the other is largely residential, much abutting NYCHA housing. If that perception, and all of what it suggests, is to be denied by the Economic Development Corporation, the LMDC and the Parks Department, entities largely responsible for the improvements, then they all need to explain more why it so looks so evidently that way.

What is of particular dismay and could perhaps serve as an example of disparity is laid blatantly bare in a recent EDC report to Community Board #3 in February. The EDC reported that there were apparently no viable responses to the Rutgers Pavilion RFEI in 2011. In fact, Two Bridges did submit a commercial plan to operate the community facility with a twenty‐year lease, fortified no less, with a commitment from the esteemed East Village Veselka Restaurant to sublease a 700 sq. ft. seating area for commercial use.

For the proposed community use aspect, Two Bridges also assembled a host of partners comprised of local community based organizations: Hester Street Cooperative, LES Ecology Center, Hamilton‐Madison House, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and two local public schools among them –all to partner and operate daytime exercise and wellness classes and Two Bridges’ own after school program focused on STEM and environment study subjects. The proposal also included the endorsement of Council Member Chin, State Senator Daniel Squadron and Congress Woman Nydia Velazquez.

This submission was followed by two promising follow‐up interviews. Since then, not a word, nor has the EDC through the courtesy of a letter done the least to convey acknowledgement of the process, nor its final determination. Instead it now claims no viable proposal was ever submitted.

In relation to their declared intention to engage communities in common projects, how much the EDC complies with that principle and appreciates these bona fide efforts and those of the many organizations that were so enthusiastically committed to make the pavilion project work will always be a question. But the matter should not go unanswered. The community board, the waterfront residents, Two Bridges and its associates all deserve some degree of accurate accountability –even to the extent that the community board, the EDC and Two Bridges should revisit the pavilion proposal, understand what impedes its development if to salvage a prospective entity that can enliven the esplanade and benefit the local community even with jobs.

One of the reasons for the recent formation of the South Street East River Community Development Corporation (“CDC”) is to foreclose unilateral decision making by city agencies, i.e. what seems to be how the Rutgers Slip Pavilion was handled. To put in a more positive way, this is not because city agencies don’t have a rightful role, but because decision making about the transformation and planning of the waterfront calls for the city to rather foster and enable the local communities ‐both the Lower East Side together with the South Street Seaport community ‐ to engage each other for acquiring a common autonomous stewardship over its operation.

The CDC will hopefully resolve a compelling need to bridge both diverse communities in planning recreational, social, educational and cultural engagement, including the urgent need to address storm resiliency measures. It will also establish a better exchange of ideas and communication between the community and city agencies on the progress of matters.

Underlying the formation of the CDC is an intention to synthesize overlapping and uncoordinated plans into a comprehensive and feasible master plan as well as conduct an economic impact study that demonstrates the potential of its equitable implementation. A synchronized and implementable plan developed in concert with all stakeholder groups, north and south of the Brooklyn Bridge, will produce a far greater end result than individual and often contradictory efforts, especially, as we have witnessed, in the mix of city agencies having differing jurisdictional authority over parts of it.

This is a call for the EDC to recognize and seriously engage the CDC, to be more forthcoming specifically about the Rutgers Slip Pavilion and to provide more routine progress reports on the stalled construction projects on the Lower East Side waterfront. But most of all to engage the CDC in fostering a unitary plan that satisfies the needs of both waterfront communities ‐north and south of the Brooklyn Bridge –as one.