First Tentative Steps to Open Up East 90th Pier

Upper East Side residents enjoy “Summer Sizzle,” sponsored by the Friends of the East River Esplanade, on August 7. | JACKSON CHEN
Upper East Side residents enjoy “Summer Sizzle,” sponsored by the Friends of the East River Esplanade, on August 7. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | The determined efforts by the East River Esplanade’s conservancy group to open up the East 90th Street pier for public recreational use finally bore some fruit this summer with the decision by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to offer limited open hours until Labor Day.

Though the pier once served as a ferry stop on a route that traveled from Yankee Stadium to Wall Street, the Upper East Side pier has mostly been unused in the years since service was discontinued, with only sporadic ferries running from 90th Street to the stadium. On most days, the pier, which overlooks the East River with views of Randall’s Island, Roosevelt Island, and Queens, is gated off and largely ignored by esplanade users.

In an attempt to create more open space for a community where it is in short supply, the Friends of the East River Esplanade several years ago approached the Department of Transportation, which owns the pier, and the Parks Department, which maintains it, with their public pier pitch.

“We’re so starved for open space on the East Side and everyone says the waterfront should be a priority,” Jennifer Ratner, the founder and board chair of the Friends group. “If they’re not using it and it’s literally sitting there in almost brand new condition, how come we can’t open it and use it?”

After first engaging the city agencies in late 2014, the conservancy peppered officials with dozens of correspondences before finally given the green light to hold two Sunday events this summer.

During the Friends’ “Summer Sizzle” events on July 24 and August 7, Ratner said, crowds that exceeded 200 on each day, including Parks’ first deputy commissioner Liam Kavanagh, enjoyed a welcoming pier that offered live Latin music and free Häagen-Dazs ice cream. According to Ratner, the feedback her group heard was that people wanted to see the pier open all the time.

“It was like one of those hot, 100-degree days and people, most of them strangers, came,” Ratner said of the July event. “Everyone said, ‘Why can’t this be open all the time, I don’t understand.’”

Impressed with the results from the Friends’ events, the Parks Department decided to keep the pier open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the remaining Sundays through Labor Day Weekend. But with such short notice about Parks’ intentions, Ratner explained, her group did not have enough time to plan for additional “Summer Sizzle” events. However, the Friends group is already working on similar events with music and food for two days in the fall.

Ultimately, the conservancy chair said, she hopes the pier can be dedicated for public use full time. With other waterfronts in the city having open piers, Ratner hoped the Upper East Side could secure space for people to relax and enjoy the East River’s breeze.

“We would love to add to the open space on the waterfront and it’s just an extra addition,” Ratner said, referring to the adjoining esplanade. “What’s so fabulous about it is you just feel closer to the water, the view is much prettier, and it’s something different.”

One potential hitch comes from the Citywide Ferry Service plans for redeploying the East 90th Street Pier as a working pier as part of the East River Soundview line, which is planned to open in 2018. The Friends are hoping they can work out a partnership with the ferry’s operator, the San Francisco-based Hornblower, and are planning to meet company officials in September, Ratner said.

A spokesperson for Hornblower said, “We look forward to meeting with the Friends of the East River Esplanade in the near future to promote access and activity along our growing waterfront, including when Citywide Ferry starts servicing the Upper East Side in 2018.”

The parks department did not respond to a request for comment as of the time this story was posted.