Upper East Side Lacking In Greenery: Residents Look to Sutton Place

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Residents fight for better open space near Sutton Place

The results of a recent open space survey found that the Upper East Side is one of the worst neighborhoods in the city for fresh air. At a recent community board meeting, panelists talked about ways to improve upon the lack of greenery in the community. But many residents seem to think that the answer lies within already-existing open space, like the Sutton Place Park along the East River - the esplanade in desperate need of a clean-up, and in public land being leased out for private use like the Queensboro Oval, located near the 59th Street Bridge.

"We have plenty of open space. What the public does not have is access to existing public land," said Monica McLaughlin, an Upper East Side resident. "We do not have a shortage of open space on the Upper East Side. We do have an alienation of public lands by the wealthy."

Residents are particularly frustrated with the yet-to-be-built new Sutton Place Park, which would run behind One Sutton Place apartment building and connect already-existing open spaces from 56th to 57th Streets. Up until a few years ago, the supposedly public land had been used as a private backyard for residents of the apartment building. But in 2011, community members said "enough is enough" and after four years of trying, won a lawsuit against the Sutton Place South Building Corporation, which requires the building to share the costs with the city of building a brand-new public park on the 10,000 square foot property.

Two years later, however, ground still has not been broken on the project because of negotiation issues with the architect, and the residents association at One Sutton Place.

"We are very keen to make sure the open space comes out of the negotiations. It has to serve the community to the maximum extent possible. We can't let the community be short changed," said Lou Sepersky, the vice president of the Sutton Area community organization. "I don't know where else you'd find space for active use in the community. The area was so densely built, it has become a serious problem."

According to Sepersky, the problem lies within the co-op owners wanting to build a gate around the park, and have it close at dusk, instead of 9 p.m., which is the norm for city parks. These designs, he said, defeat the purpose of having the public park. The design for the new park was recently rejected a second time by Community Board 6, and by the Design Commission. So it's back to the drawing board for Sutton Place, and the community organization is meeting with local City Council Member Jessica Lappin this week to discuss the next steps.

But this rectangular piece of land is not the only greenery worth tapping into, according to residents. At the Upper East Side open space panel, many residents brought up the constant question of the Queensboro Oval, a piece of land near the 59th Street bridge, which for most of the year, is enclosed under a dome and leased out to a private tennis club. For the summer, however, the dome is uncovered, and the space is used as a softball field. Residents feel, however, that only letting community members use the supposedly space for two months out of the year is not fair. Patricia Scharlin Taylor, a member of the Sutton Area community organization, thinks that the space could be used as an outdoor market, or as a playground with equipment for adults.

"I would say we've got a high proportion of seniors who live in this area and no place for them to go except sit in these hard park benches with very little greenery," she said.

Sapersky agrees that it's not just a matter of the lack of green space, community residents need places to be active, as opposed to passively enjoying small gulps of fresh air.

Either way, the NYC Parks Department is not budging on the Queensboro Oval, and says that the tennis club has a licensed agreement with the Parks Department to operate on that site.

Community Boards 6 and 8 are continuing to work on strategies for healthier living on the Upper East Side.

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