National News

Park or Playground? Semantics Dispute Illuminates Preservationists’ Fight

Posted January 1, 2018 8:11 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Whether an East Harlem ballpark will give way to what could be the tallest building between Midtown Manhattan and Boston may hinge upon the definition of a park versus a playground.

The latest battle between New York’s preservationists and developers is being waged over a 1.5-acre parcel of jungle gym and soccer and baseball fields, known as the Marx Brothers Playground.

Preservationists say there is no question that the space is a park. The city Parks Department has maintained the lot, wedged between 96th and 97th streets on Second Avenue, since 1947. The department’s leaf symbol adorns a plaque affixed to the gate.

But city officials, who plan to partner with the developer AvalonBay to turn the site into a 68-story tower with school facilities, retail space and a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, insist the space is a playground.

That seemingly minor quibble of semantics is crucial. Parks require the state Legislature’s and the governor’s approval before they can be modified. Playgrounds do not.

Preservationists worry that the transformation of Marx Brothers Playground would encourage developers to target other parks, too.

Both the project’s proponents and its critics say the dispute illuminates not just the future of this one patch of synthetic turf, but also an existential question facing New York City as its growing population jostles for housing, schools and a place to breathe.

“It comes down to, ‘What kind of city do we want to live in?'” said Carter Strickland, the New York state director for the Trust for Public Land, a parks advocacy group.

Strickland’s organization is backing a lawsuit filed by several preservation groups and neighborhood associations on Dec. 22 seeking to block the project.

In a sign of how contentious the issue has become, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who must approve the repurposing of any parkland, plans to assign Rose Harvey, the commissioner of the state parks department, to investigate the site’s historical records and determine its legal status.

The unusual move stems from Cuomo’s concern that developers could exploit the status of parkland as state rather than city property, which makes it exempt from city zoning rules, said Alphonso David, Cuomo’s chief counsel. That status could be a boon to developers who want to circumvent height limitations on new construction, he said. And yet should Harvey find that the Marx Brothers Playground is indeed parkland, Cuomo has already signed a bill granting permission to repurpose it, provided no other legal challenges prevent its designation.

“Classification as a park or parkland should not provide zoning bonuses to private industry,” Cuomo wrote in a memo for the bill. “Confirming the status and nature of the land has significant legal implications for New York City and residents who want assurance that they will have access to outdoor recreation.”

Parks advocates said the decision would send a signal about how the city values common space at a time when every inch of real estate is precious.

“Giving a private developer a public park to develop primarily market-rate housing is a terrible precedent,” said Adrian Benepe, who served as the city’s parks commissioner from 2002-12.

Benepe, now the director of city park development at the Trust for Public Land, said he could not remember another instance of parkland being repurposed for mostly private use.

“Parks are not development sites,” he said. “They’re parks.”

Benepe said the planned development would create a “terrible and dangerous slippery slope,” by which any playground and parkland could become vulnerable.

Joanne Cawley, executive director of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, one of the neighborhood associations behind the suit, was explicit about where she thought that slippery slope could lead.

“This could really open the floodgates for Central Park being in shadow in 10 years,” she said. “Any parkland is up for grabs. It’s up to the highest bidder.”

City officials dismissed preservationists’ arguments as alarmist. Wiley Norvell, a City Hall spokesman, called Cawley’s concern about Central Park “ridiculous hyperbole.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, whose district includes the playground, said protected parkland would remain exactly that. But the Marx Brothers Playground, she said, had never been in that category.

The city plans to relocate and replace the playground, inch for inch, elsewhere on the block, she added.

Mark-Viverito said the city had worked to expand park space in recent years, including in her district. On Dec. 18, Mark-Viverito and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an $83 million investment to add 7 acres to the East Harlem Greenway. The announcement came six days after the opening of a new park on Staten Island, which brought New York’s parkland to a record high of more than 30,000 acres.

Along with the City Council, the local community board and the Manhattan borough president signed off on the Marx Brothers project — an unusual degree of consensus for a land-use proposal, Alyssa Cobb Konon, an assistant commissioner at the city’s Parks Department, said.

“That is not your typical set of approvals,” Konon said. “And I think it speaks to broader support for the project.”

Of course, the newly filed lawsuit is evidence that the support is far from unanimous. Lynn Kelly, executive director of the group New Yorkers for Parks, said the promised new playground would not be an adequate replacement, even if it replicated the original exactly. The new playground would be used by three schools rather than one, she said, and would also stand in the shadow of a skyscraper. Kelly acknowledged that the need to add housing and educational infrastructure was pressing. But she called the perceived choice between those benefits and conservation a false narrative.

“To continue to minimize one over the other creates this impression to New Yorkers that parks and open space are an amenity as opposed to critical city infrastructure, just like a school and just like affordable housing,” she said.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society, another group behind the suit against the city, said the wrangling over terminology misses the broader point.

Whether Marx Brothers is a playground or a park — in either the legal sense or a more colloquial one — has no bearing upon its value to the community, Goldstein said.

“There’s a bit of disparagement going on here that’s inappropriate and also attempts to disadvantage playgrounds, which are incredibly vital resources,” she said. “This idea that playgrounds are somehow different from other kinds of parkland — that’s not the case in New York City.”