Revitalizing the East River


The designers proposed a series of temporary and permanent improvements.
Courtesy Citvas/Mathews Nielsen

Reclaiming the waterfront as public open space has been one of the most prominent and transformative design initiatives in New York City for the past decade. In 2011, the East River Esplanade became a focal point of that vision when CIVITAS, a non-profit neighborhood advocacy organization, sponsored the competition Reimagining the Waterfront. The competition solicited ideas to redesign the East River Esplanade between East 60th and 125th Streets, and drew in more than 90 submissions by landscape architects and designers, setting high expectations for a challenging sliver of the city.

Adjacent to the Esplanade is the FDR Drive, a six-lane highway skirting the eastern Manhattan shoreline that leaves little space for recreational or ecological activity between the land and the water. The existing East River Esplanade is usable, but its cracked sidewalks, empty tree pits, and crumbling pieces of the seawall reveal deteriorating conditions and make for an unpleasant experience in the park. Moreover, rising sea levels will eventually submerge parts of the Esplanade.


CIVITAS focuses on planning, zoning and environmental issues that improve quality of life in their catchment area, the Manhattan neighborhoods of East Harlem and the Upper East Side. Building on the momentum generated by the competition, CIVITAS received a New York Community Trust grant and retained Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects to do a feasibility study and explore design solutions for implementation within the complicated regulatory framework and physical constraints of the site.


CIVITAS Project Manager for the Esplanade, Maura Smotrich, explained that there are several other non-profits, institutional organizations, and community groups with a vested interest in the waterfront design, and the best way to promote the transformation is to advance the design development through a community based planning initiative. Mathews Nielsen distilled months of analysis to develop a comprehensive study of the site and preliminary design solutions. They found the key issues to be the noise from the highway, the condition of the esplanade, the quality of the experience, identity, connectivity and sea level rise/flooding. They also came up with short-, medium- and long-term opportunities and presented their ideas at two CIVITAS sponsored community educational meetings.


Signe Nielsen, principal at Mathews Nielsen, explained that the short-term opportunities are site-specific design interventions that could make a big impact right away, while also acting as catalysts to transform the entire project area over the long term. One of the obvious choices is to establish a boating node where 96th street meets the river. Currently there is a simple boat hoist that is used to take small paddleboats in and out of the water, so there is already a constituency with a specific vested interest in that node.

Now the challenge is to find funding to implement the transformation that everyone agrees is necessary. Considering the current focus on waterfront landscape design in New York, including AECOM’s esplanade to the South, Nielsen believes that the tide is turning in their favor, and hopes that New Yorkers will support the proposed landscape improvements. The next iteration of Mathews Nielsen’s designs will be presented at the third CIVITAS sponsored community educational meeting on September 22. CIVITAS has already applied for another grant to continue their community based planning initiative, and they intend to keep the inspired vision of Reimaging the Waterfront alive until it eventually becomes reality.

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