Ruppert Playground, a sliver of open space on 92nd Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, is easy to miss, surrounded as it is by tall residential brick buildings. The acre-size site is home to a tot lot and playing courts that now sit behind a padlocked fence while developer Related Rentals tries to turn the popular playground into a residential luxury tower. Community Board 8 (CB8) is fighting back and the debacle of how Related was able to privatize a public space has become both a warning for the future and a worrisome precedent.
The crux of the issue is the 1983 sale of the site directly behind the playground, the last phase in the development of the Ruppert Urban Renewal Plan, part of the Mitchell-Lama housing program. Related Rentals offered to pay the city $10 million for that site with plans to build a residential high-rise, the present Carnegie Park. The sale hinged on CB8’s approval to amend the site for residential use, the city intimating that the developer’s funding was necessary to build the nearby neighborhood senior center, Yorkville Gardens. The controversial motion, accused as being “emotional blackmail” by CB8 member Sam Hamoy, was passed. A Land Disposition Agreement was then drawn, stipulating that Related maintain the two public recreation sites prescribed in the Ruppert Plan and built by the city in 1978: Ruppert Park for 10 years and Ruppert Playground for 25 years. In 1997, the park, three blocks away from the playground, was transferred to Parks & Recreation. The playground, a time-release bonus, became private property.
On review, the backroom deal was shortsighted. Community advocates have urged the city, in vain, to buy back the playground. Since the agreement expired in 2008, Related has opened the playground intermittently, based on public sentiment. While Related does not need approval to build on the site, it has other projects elsewhere in the city that need community support and so it is treading carefully. Its latest move was to announce an anchor tenant to its planned 35-story tower: a $240 million cancer radiation center.
The community’s countermove is to file for a full public review under the Uniform Land Use Process. The ball is in the Department of City Planning’s court.