Battle Brews Over Marx Brothers Playground in Path of NYC Tower

  • A $1 billion Upper East Side apartment building is at stake
  • Opponents fear precedent would gobble up precious open space
Rendering of the tower on 96th St. and 2nd Ave. Source: Perkins Eastman Architects

Groucho Marx once said that politics is the art of looking for trouble. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have found it in a playground named for the comedian and his brothers in their old neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The two officials support a developer’s $1 billion plan to build a 760-foot-high tower -- the tallest north of 60th Street -- on 1.5 acres of land where kids have played ball for generations. The project would include as many as 1,200 apartment units in one building, as well as the first schools to be built in the neighborhood in almost 50 years.

The developer, AvalonBay Communities Inc., has spent more than $300,000 on lobbyists, filings with the city clerk show, and won state legislature approval to move forward in June. Then neighbors and open-space advocates got Governor Andrew Cuomo to slam the brakes after arguing that the parcel isn’t just a school playground; it’s parkland protected from development. That question awaits a determination by his state parks commissioner.

“The discontinuation of the Marx Brothers Playground as parkland circumvents a 100-year-old zoning principle,” said Caroline Harris, an attorney representing Carnegie Hill Neighbors, a group that opposes the project. “The proposed actions unfairly favor a private development.”

High-Rises

The dispute has emerged in the context of a broader citizens’ rebellion against the rise of luxury towers casting shadows on their neighbors. A lightning rod for public outrage stands almost 1,400 feet above 57th Street at 432 Park Avenue, with 104 condos that have attracted billionaire residents, including Saudi property developer Fawaz Al Hokair, who last year purchased the penthouse for a reported $87.7 million.

AvalonBay has said it is committed to bringing affordable housing to East Harlem. In exchange for the ballfield, it agreed to make about 300 of the 1,200 units “affordable,” with rents for a two-bedroom at about $800 to $2,400 a month. Median rent on a two-bedroom Upper East Side apartment is about $6,700 a month, according to the real-estate website Trulia.com.

New Schools

In addition to the 68-story tower at the corner of 96th and Second Avenue, three new schools would be built at no cost to taxpayers, said David Simpson, a company spokesman. The city’s Educational Construction Fund would issue $300 million of tax-exempt bonds, and the developer would pay the debt service with revenue from residential and retail rent.

Rendering of Marx Brothers Playground with Park East and Heritage High Schools.

Source: Perkins Eastman Architects

Though AvalonBay plans to build a new playground in the center of the complex, the existing one would be closed during construction, which is expected to take five years. Neighbors also worry that the recreational area would be overcrowded by the influx of students and residents, and cast in shadow.

Cuomo expressed broader concerns, saying that the project would set a precedent that could allow more than 250 similar city-owned properties to be gobbled up by developers. His halt to the project is the latest of many feuds with de Blasio.

“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,” Cuomo said in an Oct. 23 memorandum.

Groucho Marx

The playground, which opened in 1947 and was named after the Marx brothers who lived on East 93rd, has been used by an adjacent vocational high school. Carter Strickland, a former city Environmental Commissioner who is New York state director for the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, said it’s the “only full-size playing field for five miles on the East Side.”

“As more people move to New York City we must plan to add more parkland, not less,” Strickland said.

Silve Parvianen, 52, a participant in East 96th Neighbors, a community group, said the project makes her concerned for her neighborhood. “It’s humongous, taller than anything between midtown Manhattan north of 60th Street and Boston, and totally inappropriate for our space,” she said.

Mark-Viverito, the council president whose district includes the site, said she saw the AvalonBay development as a way to provide one more lasting benefit to her Latino political base. One of the schools to be built on the site would vacate a building that also houses the Julia de Burgos Performance & Arts Center, giving it room to expand.

The decision could come any day, said Mark-Viverito, who leaves office Dec. 31 after 11 years. Park advocates, though, don’t expect the issue to be decided until the legislature returns to Albany in early 2018.

“I understand that some people don’t want to see it happen but I believe the community benefit outweighs any concerns that have been raised,” Mark-Viverito said. “The investment is the legacy I leave behind.”

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