East Harlem residents and business owners debated the merits of building a new pedestrian bridge to Randall’s Island during a public workshop held at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center on December 6.
The “Bridge the Gap” forum was the second in a series co-sponsored by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, CIVITAS Citizens, Inc., and the NYS Department of State.
T. Gorman Reilly, President of CIVITAS, opened the meeting by referencing the agency’s 2000 “East 125th Street Enhancement Study,” in which planner Geoffrey Roesch first issued recommendations for a pedestrian bridge to the Randall’s Island sports complex.
Cora Shelton, a member of Community Board 11 and CIVITAS, then expressed her support for the proposal and described how visitors to Randall’s Island must presently cross from either the Triborough Bridge at 125th Street Bridge, which is not easily accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, or the 103rd Street footbridge, which remains raised much of the time.
Afterward, consultant Jackson T. Wandres of the RBA Group outlined the proposal for a new pier and pedestrian bridge to be built over the Harlem River near 117th Street. “Something needs to be done to get there from here,” he quipped.
An alternate site at 120th Street had also been considered, Wandres said, but the southern location was preferred because of the nearby 116th Street retail corridor, the forthcoming East River Plaza mall, and convenient access to the subway and cross-town buses.
According to the plan, developed by the engineering firm of Hardesty & Hanover, pedestrians and cyclists would connect to a reconstructed dock via a new footbridge to be constructed at the end of East 116th Street over the FDR Drive. They would then travel north to the new dock and bridge at 117th Street.
Since Hardesty & Hanover are also involved in the planned rebuilding of the 100-year-old Willis Avenue Bridge, Wandres said, the engineering firm has proposed using leftover parts from that landmark to build the pedestrian bridge to Randall’s Island.
Rick Muller, a policy analyst for the Manhattan Borough President, elaborated. “What they propose is almost a park above the water, with a very interesting design. Why shouldn’t Community Board 11 have a beautiful bridge with access to Randall’s Island?”
Asked whether anything would have to be “condemned” to make room for the project, Wandres indicated that a small segment of the rear yard of the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics might have to be used – while adding that school officials are in favor of the plan.
He also cited environmental concerns about construction near an old gasification plant located under the high school building, but assured the audience that the area in question would not be touched.
Wandres said his group surveyed business owners along East 116th Street, noting that they received 50 responses mostly favoring the idea. They also met with Community Board 11, neighboring schools, the 25th police precinct, the Wagner Houses, and East River Landing/1199 Plaza, he said.
Johnny Rivera, the East Harlem liaison to Congressman Rangel, said he favors the project. “As a parent, I think that Randall’s Island ought to be available to us too. I think it’s a grand idea.”
Dimitri Gatanas, co-owner of Dimitri’s Garden disagreed. “Why not fix the existing bridge at 103rd Street so local businesses can increase their traffic on that end?” Gatanas countered.
“The 103rd Street Bridge doesn’t serve Randall’s Island,” said CIVITAS board member Raymond Plumey. “That bridge goes over to the southern end of the island where a lot of institutions are while all the recreational activities are at the northern end,” noted Plumey, referring to agencies such as the Fire Department training facility, Manhattan State Hospital for the mentally ill, the Charles Gay Men’s Shelter and the Ward’s Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Added Plumey, “I see the need to have a bridge. I think 116th Street is a good location but it has its drawbacks, what with the traffic from the FDR and the new shopping center. From a quality standpoint, having pedestrians coming on and off the bridge onto all that traffic could be an issue of air safety.”