Residents of the Lower East Side and the East Village have been waiting for almost ten years to get their largest park -- East River Park, between Jackson Streets and 12th Street -- back in tact. And it’s still not finished.
One day in late June of 2001, the mile-long dilapidated riverfront promenade was suddenly shut down. The Giuliani administration feared it might collapse under the weight of the thousands of people who were expected for the Fourth of July fireworks just days later.
The city has reopened the park -- snuggled between the FDR Drive and the water -- segment by segment, as each segment is finished. The playing fields were revamped several years ago. A long stretch of the promenade opened earlier this year. But the three or four southernmost blocks are still shrouded behind a chain link fence.
James Raily, a medical assistant trainee who grew up nearby, welcomed the improvements.
“The railings to the poles right near the water, they used to be black,” he said. “The pavement had cracks.”
Raily used to ride his bike up and down the promenade with his father back in the 1990s. Now, 26-years-old, he visits with his girlfriend.
“It’s completely different now. It has more lights now. It’s more open, more exposed, like hey, everybody should have a good time,” he said.
But Raily and other East Village and Lower East Side residents have had to be patient.
Henry Stern, Mayor Giuliani’s parks commissioner, predicted the promenade would be closed for two years. That’s grown into something more like ten years.
Mayor Bloomberg’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, actually had his first summer job cleaning up beer cans at East River Park. He returned to the Parks Department years later and worked his way up to Borough Parks Commissioner for Manhattan, the position he held when the promenade was shut down. He said he’d taken a close interest in the reconstruction.
“Quite frankly, I’m not satisfied with the pace of this project,” he told WNYC. “There have been times when I’ve gone there and thought I don’t think they have enough people on the job.”
The Parks Department chose the contractor, Pile Foundation Construction Company, in 2004 because it was the lowest bidder. According to an internal memo at the time, a database check uncovered some issues that came up during previous jobs that contractor conducted for the city, but nothing that disqualified the Long Island firm.
Benepe said the Parks Department considered defaulting the contractor, but decided against it because doing so would probably result in litigation, and more delays as the job was bid out again and a new company hired.
During the five years since construction began, Pile Foundation several times ran afoul of state laws intended to clean up New York’s waterways, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Inspectors have cited the contractor for dumping dirt from the construction project into the East River, or failing to take steps to prevent such erosion from happening.
The DEC provided WNYC with a video that inspectors took that shows a dilapidated barge floating in the East River, with a large piece of Styrofoam about to fall off. Another video shows a back hoe dumping potentially contaminated debris into the East River.
“This is an unusual situation,” a DEC official, Regina Seetahal, said in an e-mail. “The number of violations, their duration, and the level of gross negligence and misconduct encountered during this construction project are rather unusual and not comparable to most other projects.”
Anthony Rivara, the company’s president, wouldn’t return phone calls. In 2007 and again in 2009, he waived his right to dispute DEC’s allegations and agreed to pay a total of $350,000 in fines.
The DEC has also cited Rivara for sinking barges that he had been using at other construction sites in New York waterways -- though none of those events took place before the bids for East River Park were opened.
Neither the violations, nor the park’s delays, have gotten much attention. Perhaps that’s because the East River Park is easily confused with a much flashier new park planned for the riverfront immediately to the south: the East River Esplanade.
Emir Lewis, a filmmaker who grew up on the Lower East Side, had another theory. He moved back to the neighborhood several years ago and goes running in the park frequently.
“I don’t think people ever expected it to get done in a prompt fashion,” he told WNYC. “I don’t think there’s a lot of anger. If this was happening on the Upper East Side, there would be people burning draft cards in the street.”
Benepe said the park’s reconstruction should be completed by next July.