City Should Protect LES Heritage by Preserving 1939-Era East River Park Buildings [OP-ED]
The following editorial was written by Richard Moses, president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.
Last Friday, the City’s East Side Coastal Resiliency team sent out its final report (i.e. Amended Programmatic Agreement) on the East River Park’s historic Art Deco Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station, two beautiful architectural gems that were part of the park’s original construction in 1939. The team resoundingly rejected the proposal to restore and renovate the buildings, and instead confirmed that both would be demolished as part of the Park’s upcoming reconstruction.
For the last two years, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI) has been imploring the City to reconsider this decision, based in part on the buildings’ eligibility for the State and National Registers of Historic Places. With the assistance of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, we hired an independent team of architects and engineers to perform a preliminary assessment of the cost and scheduling implications of restoring, moving and re-using the buildings versus demolishing and building new. Their assessment, which included specifying all new interiors and designing additions sympathetic to the original structures, found that the structures were in good condition and, in light of the scope of the overall park reconstruction project, restoration would not significantly impact project cost or schedule.
(Community Board 3 supported the restoration plan in November 2020.)
Clearly, a full feasibility study of restoration versus new construction needs to be done. An independent preservation architecture firm, rather than the City’s own team, must perform this assessment. This would be in the true spirit of the City’s oversight responsibilities for these National Register eligible buildings.
The City’s demolition plan will erase a significant link to Lower East Side history. These buildings, the only two of an original group of five, were designed especially for East River Park, as part of the overall plan that included a new East River Drive, this waterfront recreational area, and what was then leading-edge public housing along its border. This was the grand vision of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, with funding provided by New Deal programs.
The Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station are unique on the Lower East Side, with their site-specific ornamentation referencing the waterfront and the area’s maritime past. They will be replaced by structures that follow a standardized Parks Department design template. Why destroy something unique, that reflects the special character of our neighborhood? Should a project that’s intended to battle climate change turn its back on the greener solution of restoration over new construction?
These two buildings are but a very small part of the massive ESCR plan. With the impetus to protect our heritage, the City must at the very least enlist an independent analysis before they are torn down.