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A Park Under Siege
The United Nations Wants To Build a 35-Story Tower in Robert Moses Park
By Bruce A. Silberblatt

Robert Moses Park is one and a half acres of greenery with a large active playground surrounding a six-story high Queens Midtown Tunnel ventilation shaft. It is located between the FDR Drive, 1st Avenue, 41st and 42nd Streets. In a community woefully short of parks, it provides the only local playground serving teenagers and adults. Moses Park has been under assault twice before, once in the late 1960s when the United Nations wanted to put an eight-story glass clad structure within its precincts, and more recently, when developer Harry Helmsley hoped to build on it. Both aspirations failed, the latter because of an aroused community led by Assemblyman Steven Sanders.

Early last fall the United Nations announced that its 39-story Secretariat tower had lapsed into such poor condition that only a total reconstruction displacing its staff of 4,000 could correct matters. Notwithstanding a surfeit of vacant office space in nearby Midtown, the U.N. decided that the solution would be to usurp the west half of Moses Park-three quarters of an acre including the entire playground-and erect therein a bulking 35-story, 850,000 square foot mass 20% larger than the Secretariat. Once the Secretariat was repaired, the staff would return and the U.N. would gather its operations quartered elsewhere in the City into the new edifice. The $1,350,000,000 cost would be financed via bonds issued by the United Nations Development Corporation (UNDC). In exchange for the Moses Park site, worth in today's market between $50,000,000 and $70,000,000, the U.N. offered a paltry $15,000,000 to help build a waterfront esplanade from 38th to 51st Street. While the esplanade-in reality a dressed-up walkway/bikeway-is part of a long-standing city plan to make the entire Manhattan waterfront accessible, it is neither in form nor function the equivalent of an active park. Both the city and our neighborhood would be egregiously shortchanged.

The Turtle Bay Association acted immediately. On October 3, 2002, it adopted a resolution opposing the U.N. proposal unless an equal facility was provided and open to the public prior to closing Moses Park. This was read to Community Board 6 (CB6), which then issued its own resolution exhorting the State legislature, which must approve any taking of public parks, not to so act. An opportunity in November for CB6 to learn in detail from UNDC about the U.N. plans came to naught. UNDC CEO former Senator Roy Goodman made a pitch which, while loquacious and insistent that "time was of the essence," was utterly noninformative-no brochures, no models, no drawings, no specifics. There was no mention of a replacement for Moses Park. The Board was not pleased.

The Turtle Bay Association, together with the East Midtown Coalition for Sensible Development, next organized a neighborhood coalition including the Murray Hill Neighborhood, Midtown East Community Association (MECA), Tudor City Association, Beekman Place Association, and the Sutton Area Community - the entire East Side from 34th to 59th Street. It called for a Town Hall meeting for the evening of February 6, 2003.

In the meantime another public corporation, the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), entered the scene. EDC has a long history of circumnavigating city-zoning processes. Given the enormous bulk of the proposed U.N. building, such a short cut would be most useful for its goals. On February 4, just two days before the Town Hall meeting, it showed CB6 a rendering of the esplanade, including a miniscule extension encompassing a paved play area, a mere one third of what the U.N. wishes to take from Moses Park. Once again, there was no mention of an equal in form and function replacement, not even a provisional site that could be used during the many years it would take to finance, get government approvals, design, and build the esplanade.

Co-sponsored by State Assemblyman Jonathan Bing as well as TBA President William B. Curtis and Vice President Bruce A. Silberblatt, the Town Hall meeting, held at the Sutton Place Synagogue auditorium, drew a large, angry, and concerned crowd. Speaking were State Senators Liz Krueger and Tom Duane and State Assemblymen Steven Sanders and Jonathan Bing. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Council member Eva Moskowitz sent their representatives to make known their views. All emphasized their full support for the community and total opposition to the as-existing U.N. plans. Many present observed that there is an equal, vacant space immediately available at 685 First Avenue, which could be quickly converted into an appropriate Moses Park replacement. The theme-the esplanade is no replacement for Moses Park; Moses Park must not be taken unless another park is provided before the U.N. puts a shovel in the ground-was repeated over and over again.

A representative of EDC, which had been invited to the Town Hall meeting, could not answer questions but assured those present that his agency would work with the community. There will be two more EDC presentations by EDC to the CB6 Parks Committee in early March and April. After that, the Board will adopt a final resolution, which, it is hoped will back TBA and its coalition.

The roles of the City and State governments are critical. The park cannot be closed without approval by the State Legislature and Governor. The State should look to the City Council for a Home Rule Message. The city should demand, in any case, that any new building must undergo the Uniform Land Use Review Process.

There will be enormous pressure, local, national and international, to yield to the United Nations. Its politics aside, its presence is important to New York City; it generates billions in jobs, tourism and services, far offsetting the cost of security and diplomat scofflaws. An opposition that will be formidable and powerful must not intimidate our community. In the immediate future, TBA will organize more rallies, probably in Moses Park and at City Hall. We will make known to those whose decision it is to make, that they cannot ignore our community. If our elected representatives and we stand firm and declare, "they shall not pass,"—we can win!

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

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