Fight Over East Harlem Playground, Targeted For Rentals, Heats Up

January 2, 2018

NY Curbed reports that makes a park a park? That’s the question at the center of a lawsuit, filed by several preservation groups (including the Municipal Art Society, New Yorkers for Parks, and Carnegie Hill Neighbors), that aims to stop the rise of a 68-story rental building on East 96th Street.

In order to construct the building, set to occupy a full block between First and Second avenues, developer AvalonBay will need to build over Marx Brothers Playground, which currently sits on the site. The developer has agreed to rebuild a playground as part of its larger project, which will include more than 1,000 apartments (330 of which will be affordable), two schools, and retail.

But locals and preservationists aren’t happy about that, arguing that it sets a “terrible precedent,” as former NYC Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe put it in an interview with the New York Times. “Parks are not development sites,” he continued. “They’re parks.”

And there’s the rub: The groups that filed the lawsuit argue that Marx Brothers is a park, and as such, should be subject to stricter approvals before it can be absorbed into the new development. The city claims it’s a playground, and thus doesn’t need the extra approvals.

At the heart of the semantic quibble is, the Times notes, a larger issue: that of where, and how, developers can acquire land and build in the city. Those on the preservation side see this as another example of the city ceding land to developers at the expense of parkland; MAS is, after all, one of the groups that has been the most vocal about supertalls pitching shadows over Central Park.

But the city, and supporters of the project (including former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents the district the building would sit in), disagree—especially since the playground (or park! who knows!) will be replaced “inch for inch” when the new development rises. And the project has gotten the backing of the local Community Board, along with the City Council and the mayor’s office.

The hubbub over the park/playground fight has also prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to step in: He’s assigned the state parks commissioner “to investigate the site’s historical records and determine its legal status,” though that measure may be little more than lip service at this point. According to the Times, “Mr. Cuomo has already signed a bill granting permission to repurpose it, provided no other legal challenges prevent its designation.”

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