Upper East Side Residents Fight to Save Precious Green Space

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Proposed mixed use construction on Ruppert Playground site draws dissent Last week's Community Board 8 Land Use meeting grew heated as Upper East Side residents were faced with the potential loss of what they deem sacred green space in a neighborhood that sees very little of it. The site of Ruppert Park and playground, on East 92nd Street, is owned by real estate company Related Companies. When the company purchased the land in 1983, it made a deal with the city that it would maintain the space as a public playground for 25 years before developing it. Now that time has passed, and Related Companies, having fulfilled its part of the agreement, is moving ahead despite community opposition. Applicant Jerry Johnson, of Wachtel, Masyr and Missry, representing Carnegie Park Land Holdings, presented CB8 and members of the public with three specific actions in transforming Ruppert Park and playground into a mixed use zone. These actions include a zoning text amendment, a minor modification to lift open space regulations and a certification for a public plaza. Gary Handel of Handel Architects explained the building on the zone would be as far to the west as legally permissible and would incorporate a landscape buffer. The proposed building itself would incorporate a health club facility, a school, underground parking and 28 stories of residential space as well as an open, mixed use courtyard. Steve Whitehouse, the team's landscape partner, described landscape plans for the plaza including open access, inviting seating arrangements, planting and other features. The plaza would be open to the public 24/7. "The goal is to meet usability criteria while making it aesthetically pleasing and fun," said Whitehouse. Eli Zabar, known as a prominent restauranteur around the City, then introduced the Windward School which would be moved from its current location in White Plains to the Ruppert Park land. Zabar said he has been a community resident for 40 years and his wife is chairman of the Windward school board. Zabar explained 650 people, including parents of Windward School students, have signed a petition asking that the school be moved to the proposed location. He then read from a letter written by John J. Russell, the head of the school, addressing the board and community members. The four years students spend at Windward, Russell explained, give them the skills they require to return to a mainstream school. Windward focuses on giving students with learning disabilities the focus and assistance they need to thrive in the traditional school system. "The commute to White Plains is arduous," Russell explained, "and many students are currently turned away due to lack of space." Moving the Windward School to the proposed mixed use space would allow an additional 350 children to attend the school, including some from the local Upper East Side community. Additionally, more teachers in the City would have access to the school's unique teaching training institute. "The Windward School changes lives," he wrote. The applicant and his associates presented a video to the public depicting the Windward School's mission to be a place where students can achieve when the atmosphere and teaching style elsewhere fail them. At Windward they can learn differently and build their confidence, they explained. Alex Gendzier lives in the neighborhood and has two children at the Windward School. "This is a unique school," said Gendzier. "Other excellent schools failed my children. There are massive implications for kids who fall behind and fall into a black hole from which they cannot escape." The public's reaction, however, was less than favorable. They accused the Related Companies real estate firm of attempting to bypass the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in order to bring their project to fruition. Protesters who lined the auditorium to speak on behalf of the Ruppert Park asked why the school must be placed in this location and added suggestively parents who claim to live in the community and favor the project tend to live "on Park Avenue." One protestor, Howard Goldman, representing the Ruppert House, explained this project is not a "minor modification" as the applicant states. "This is a tower replacing a park," he said. "There's no rationale for calling this minor." Goldman added the developers were using the term "minor" in order to cut City Council out of the review process. Second, he added, the project is not "as of right" as the applicant claimed. "Nothing can be developed on that site without a discretionary land use approval," he said. Oscar Fernandez, a resident of the area, also spoke out in opposition. "We have the least open space in all Manhattan," said Fernandez. "This text change takes power away from entities like the Parks Department. We cannot bypass that process." "The history of the Ruppert playground was decided by the community," he added. "People in the area and residents should be the ones to make this decision." Geoffrey Croft of the New York City Parks Advocates called the proposal a "behind closed door land deal." "They have left out details and these things impact us," said Croft. "This park is used by the community." Further, he added, "The applicant spent only eight minutes talking about the luxury building and 24 minutes talking about the school. Frankly I'm confused by this presentation." "The school can be built elsewhere, anywhere, the park cannot," said Croft. "We will fight this to the end." Another resident, Peter, noted, in response to the applicants' video of former students praising the Windward School, "parks also change lives." "I wish we could show a video of children playing in the park," he said. "Hundreds of families live in that area."

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