Park-Replacing Development Sets 'Harmful Precedent': Opponents
September 18, 2018
By Brendan Krisel
The debate surrounding plans to build a massive development on top of an East Harlem playground as a state investigator reviews the project, according to City Council records.
City officials and advocacy groups delivered testimony Monday in front of the City Council regarding a $1 billion plan to build a 760-foot-high tower with 1,200 apartments atop what is now known at the Marx Brothers Playground on East 96th Street between First and Second avenues.
The city and state legislature approved plans in 2017 to allow private developer AvalonBay to develop the site at no cost to the city in the condition that AvalonBay offer 300 of the 1,200 units. AvalonBay also agreed to provide new space for the three schools — COOP Tech, The Heritage School and Park East High School — and the playground that currently occupy the site, according to City Council records.
The Municipal Arts Society, which is currently suing the city to stop the development, claims that project sets a "harmful precedent" that will allow development on more than 200 park spaces. The lawsuit is supported by groups such as New Yorkers for Parks and the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.
In testimony submitted to the City Council's committee on parks and recreation, the Municipal Arts Society called the city's actions in securing approvals for the development "fatally flawed for multiple reasons."
"The City's decision to assign development rights to a park is illegal and unprecedented. Parks do not have development rights and Marx Brothers Playground should not be an exception to the long-standing City policy," the group's testimony reads.
The Municipal Arts Society also claimed that the space replacing the Marx Brothers Playground would be inferior and unprotected from development. The community is expected to lose public space for five years during the construction of AvalonBay's development, according to City Council records.
The advocates seem to have an ally on the council in local representative Ben Kallos, who advocated for the end to "baseless distinctions between parks in order to protect our playgrounds and green spaces from overdevelopment," Curbed reported.
Most city representatives refrained from answer questions regarding the Marx Brothers Playground development during Monday's hearing due to the pending lawsuit against the city, Curbed reported.
The Marx Brother's Playground is known as a Jointly Operated Playgrounds (JOP), of which there are currently about 267 in the city. The city started creating JOPs in the 1930s when the city Department of Education agreed to provide land next to school spaces to be maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation for recreational purposes, according to City Council records. All JOPs are still maintained by the Department of Parks and recreation and most are located in low-income communities. Abot 116 of the remaining JOPs are located in Community Parks Initiative zones that are described as low-income and high-density.
The city acquired permission from the state legislature to "alienate" the Marx Brother's Playground site — use the site for non-park purposes for an extended time — but that process is currently on hold pending a review from the Commissioner of New York State's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Opponents of the city and AvalonBay's plans urged the City Council to pass legislation that would protect JOPs like Marx Brothers Playground from future development by declaring the sites as "implied" parkland, which would make approving the sites for development a much more rigorous process.
"Allowing developers to claim air rights from JOPs challenges the protections that parks should have in New York City. The action affecting Marx Brothers Playground has harmful implications for the city that puts all 268 JOPs at risk of becoming development sites," the Municipal Arts Society said in its testimony.