High Rise to Replace Park on the Upper East Side

The life of a New Yorker is no walk in the park. And for 217,000 Upper East Siders whose one and only public park was shut down last month, the metaphor has become an unwelcome reality.

Ruppert Park was sold by the city in 1983, only five years after its construction, to the Related Companies, a private developer, as part of an urban renewal plan. It was to remain open to the public for 25 years, according to the agreement.

Ruppert Park on Upper East Side has been closed down to make room for a high rise/citynoise.org

Related maintained its part of the deal for three years longer than promised. But it has finally closed down the park to build a 49-story high-rise.

Park patrons are extremely distraught by Related’s plans but are experiencing a renewed hope now that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced last week that a discussion to preserve the park is in the works.

“For decades, the Ruppert Playground has served the Upper East Side of Manhattan as an important place for children, parents and all to enjoy,” Quinn said in a press release. “Therefore, we must all work together to keep this resource for our children.”

New York City Park Advocates, an organization dedicated to protecting the city’s parks, and hundreds of Yorkville residents have been determinedly working to put a stop to Related’s plans. They’ve held several protests and are planning a march from Ruppert Park to one of Related’s buildings in the near future.

“This area has the least amount of publicly available space,” said Geoffrey Croft, director of New York City Park Advocates. “It’s one of Manhattan’s most densely populated areas and what it doesn’t need is another high-rise.”

Due to its basketball, tennis and handball courts as well as its playground and tot lot, Ruppert Park is heavily used. The park’s sitting areas serve people from different generations and ethnic backgrounds.

“My son doesn’t have a place to learn how to ride his bike,” complained Oscar Fernandez, who has lived adjacent to the park for 12 years. “The park has a daily impact. It’s woven into the fabric of the community.”

Fernandez is concerned that his block will not receive any sunlight after the high-rise is built. The area already receives very little sun because of the tall buildings surrounding it.

Although Debbie Dickinson doesn’t live directly next to the park like Fernandez, she can see it from her apartment on 95th Street. She used to frequent the park with her son and dog. It’s irritating to her that instead of her son playing basketball for free in the park, she’ll have to pay money for him to go to the movies or do something else. “How would you like to be shut out of a place where you play?” she asked.

When a spokeswoman for Related, Joanna Rose, was asked about the company’s plan for the park, she didn’t offer any new information besides the fact that preparatory work on the site is what’s precluding public access to it.

But people well versed on the park’s development know there’s more to the story. They’ve heard that Related is asking for millions of dollars in tax breaks on another one of its properties. If granted, the company will give the playground back to the city.

Politicians are recognizing people’s concern and joining community leaders to try and preserve the park. In addition to Quinn, City Councilors Daniel Garodnick and Jessica Lappin, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Assemblyman Dan Quart, and Sens. Liz Krueger and José Serrano have joined the fight.

Elsbeth Reimann, who has lived in the area since 1968 and helped create the park, is worried not only about the possibility that another high-rise would bring additional traffic and pollution to an already congested area, but also that if a disaster were to occur, there would be no open space for people to evacuate to.

“Money is always more powerful than anything,” she said. “If you build high-rises, it will affect the health of the city. Keeping open space is crucial for the future.”

(Written Oct. 19, 2010 for Reporting and Writing class)

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