They Plan to Pave Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot
Highly Regarded Park on Lower East Side Awaits Demolition, as Protestors Push for New Plan
Alina Shen, an organizer with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (with microphone), leads a May 23 protest against the pending demolition of Rutgers Park, in the Two Bridges neighborhood.
A coalition of Lower Manhattan residents is mobilizing to fight the planned destruction of a much-loved local park. In the Two Bridges community on the Lower East Side, Rutgers Park (bounded by South Street, Cherry Slip, and Rutgers Slip, in the shadow of the FDR Drive) is slated to be demolished and repurposed as a parking lot, for up to five years, while construction for a pair of controversial, super-tall high rises proceeds nearby. Rutgers Park is a treasured local amenity containing within its 20,000 square feet a playground, a full-sized basketball court (rare in Manhattan’s cramped environment), more than a dozen old-growth trees, and plentiful seating that is much prized by seniors who live nearby.
Under ordinary circumstances, it would not be legally possible to eliminate a park in this way. But Rutgers Park falls into a nebulous category known as “privately owned public spaces” (POPS), which means that the facility is operated for the public benefit by a commercial owner.
That noted, such POPS amenities are often legally required of their private operators, usually because an agreement with the City has conferred some other benefit on the developer. Rutgers Park is no exception to this pattern. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the two high rises adjacent to the park enshrines promises that facility will be “enlarged and reconstructed and dedicated as publicly accessible open space.” This document makes no mention of Rutgers Park being demolished and used as a parking lot. Nor does it disclose that such as use might endure for up to five years, the time that the developer of the high rises projects it may take to complete construction.
Residents gathered at Rutgers Park on May 23, the day that demolition was originally slated to begin, to protest the closure of their park. The demonstration was organized by a local advocacy group, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV).
Alina Shen, the lead organizer for CAAAV, says, “there has been no community input, and the planning documents never disclosed that park would be closed and demolished. The kids of billionaire developers are not going to grow up here, so why should they be allowed to take this away from our kids. These developers are taking resources away from our community to facilitate their drive to maximum profit. And they are doing so on the backs of the working-class people who live in Two Bridges.”
Another protest leader, Trever Holland (a co-founder Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side, or TUFF-LES), says, “it seems absurd to take this park away from our kids, who will be too old to use it by the time it comes back—if it ever comes back.”
He also sees a subtler agenda at work, beyond the land’s use as a parking lot. “For zoning and planning purposes, a park is not the same thing as ‘open space,’” Mr. Holland (who is also an attorney) explains. “Open spaces are a broader category, and these developers are required by the zoning code to provide it, because of the number of new residents their towers will bring here. But the use of open space can be very different from that of a park. Open spaces usually don’t have fences or operating hours, for example, although parks generally do. And removing the fence around Rutgers Park to make this an open space, with no opening or closing hours, is a mistake in this neighborhood—especially given the recent rise in crime.”
“The Two Bridges community did not want their park converted to open space when City Planning was considering this plan several years ago,” he adds. “We need it to remain a park.”
After the May 23 protest, bulldozers did not arrive as originally scheduled, and Rutgers Park remains open—at least for now. “Because of the public outcry,” Ms. Shen believes, “officials appear to be considering the possibility of not demolishing the Rutgers Park and not building a parking lot there. We have successfully delayed demolition for two weeks.”
“Right now, we’re at a standstill,” Mr. Holland observes. “So we are cautiously optimistic. But this looks like it’s going to be challenging. The developer is still saying they want to begin work as soon as tomorrow.”
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National Museum of the American Indian, Diker Pavilion
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