EXCLUSIVE: City Island Bridge: Will the People’s Voice Be Heard?

City Island Bridge | Image by Flickr user josepha
Current City Island Bridge | Image by Flickr user josepha
The following is a guest post by Richard Jannaccio, a resident of City Island.

The latest news about the “new” City Island Bridge is that the cable-stayed bridge pushed by the Bloomberg administration has been scrapped. In its place, a “plain vanilla” causeway bridge has been proposed.

Who’s idea was that? It turns out that the plan was hatched during a secret closed-door meeting  reportedly on Friday, May 2, 2014. The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) was there. Our local city and state public officials were there. A couple of people claiming to represent The City Island Civic Association and the City Island Chamber of Commerce were also there, both supposedly representing City Island residents and merchants who didn’t know what was going down.

The meeting would later be described in the DOT’s press release as “a major stakeholder meeting on Friday where DOT presented conceptual renderings of a new, causeway-style bridge design that received widespread support from elected officials and community leaders.”

It was, unfortunately, “a major stakeholder meeting” to which the major stakeholders — the residents, the business owners and the property owners of City Island — were not invited.
The public announcement of “the deal” came two days later. The public, including almost all City Islanders, had been kept in the dark the whole time prior to that. Yet both the civic and chamber had “endorsed” the plan in our name.

Imagine that.

The questions came quickly on Facebook’s City Islanders & Friends, a group which I started last year and which now has more than 1,145 members.

Did we trade an ugly bridge for a boring bridge? Already a few people are raising this very issue on Facebook, and even more are in-boxing me and talking about it. But maybe “we” is the wrong word here because, once again, “we the people” had no input before the announcement, and the “plain vanilla” bridge looks nothing like the signature bridge of City Island. The fact is, most of us want to see a new bridge that is constructed in the same style as the one that’s there now, as I explained a few months ago when I appeared as a guest on Bronxtalk.

This latest proposal looks like a decapitated version of our bridge. OK, they look alike from the neck down, and above the collar, well, the new bridge is faceless.

Proposed City Island Bridge (2nd Version and out of character with the historical nature of the community) / Image: DOT
Proposed City Island Bridge (2nd Version and out of character with the historical nature of the community) / Image: DOT
So where did the Civic Association and the Chamber of Commerce get the approval to endorse the new “plain vanilla” plan? Apparently not from the people or business owners of City Island. The plan was never presented, discussed and voted on by the people or business owners. A handful of people took it upon themselves to speak on our behalf, pretending to represent us, without even asking for our views. They acted on their own.

That’s where the problem seems to lie. Close to home. A few people deciding to take short cuts and cutting the rest of us short. Saying “we” approve, when “we” were never told about what “we” were approving.

In many areas throughout the Bronx, and maybe beyond, we see this recurring problem of what I like to call the subversion of democracy. I call it that because that’s what it is. Elected officials, Community Boards,  civic groups, and business groups — you know who you are. If you’re not talking us, then you cannot represent us. You end up representing yourself and/or some special interest, and that makes you part of the problem.

From all appearances, Polly Trottenberg, the new Transportation Commsissioner appointed by Mayor de Blasio, acted in good faith.

“When Mayor de Blasio offered me the job of Transportation Commissioner, he asked me to listen to and respect communities and be a problem solver.  And with a new, simpler causeway design for the 113-year-old City Island Bridge, that is exactly what we’ve accomplished today,” said NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.  ”The de Blasio Administration is proud to have partnered with Bronx local elected officials, community leaders, New York State DOT and the Federal Highway Administration, to produce a bridge design that will complement this beautiful, historic community.”

So what, exactly, is beautiful and/or historic about this –to use the commissioner’s own description — “plain vanilla” bridge?

Trottenberg was under the impression that she was giving City Islanders what we wanted. She apparently was told that we wanted a “plain-vanilla causeway.” She was not told the truth. The consensus is to build a bridge that closely resembles the existing bridge. And that is anything but plain vanilla.

Who would think that civic association leaders were out of touch with their neighbors? We can’t blame the commissioner for assuming that the civic represented the views of the community, even if that wasn’t the case. You can’t get any more local than a civic group. Surely they wouldn’t endorse a plan that had not been presented, discussed and voted on by the membership.

But that’s what happened. And “plain vanilla” is the result. Hey, can we at least add some syrup or sprinkles?

And by the way, the appearance of the bridge is not the only issue. It’s not even the most important issue to the people I know. But it’s the only issue we were told anything about–even now. We were told how it’s going to look. An artist’s sketch. That’s it.

So on the eve of a crucial ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process) decision by  by NYC’s City Planning Commission, I faxed to them a letter regarding “the look” issue and three other outstanding issues–a total of four–that we are concerned about, based on discussions with City Islanders & Friends.

Here are our four remaining concerns:

  1. Construction Materials/ Strength and Durability. The existing bridge has served us well for 113 years and remains functional. What construction material considerations/features will enable this new causeway bridge to be built as durable as the existing bridge, especially with the added challenges of heavier vehicles, heavier traffic, and climate change? Will these materials absorb traffic sounds or amplify them to cause noise pollution?
  2. Elevation / Climate Change. From what we’ve been told, the proposed bridge has been elevated somewhat but is it sufficient to meet the formidable challenges of climate change and increasingly more frequent and more severe storms? How do we know that the elevation of the bridge will be sufficient to stay above rising water levels? Shouldn’t it be built both higher and stronger than our existing bridge, to accommodate climate change?
  3. The Temporary Bridge. Should we forego the temporary bridge with this new causeway design? Is it even needed, given the less complicated construction of the causeway bridge? Could a Storm like Sandy destroy the temporary bridge? Is the temporary bridge going to be strong enough, should we make it stronger, or avoid it altogether? The temporary bridge 1) adds to the total construction time; 2) delays the date of completion; 3) adds to cost; 4) is less safe/reliable under some conditions. Should we eliminate the temporary bridge from the plan and simply build the new bridge along side the existing bridge?
  4. Appearance. The existing bridge, with piers, has a proven track record, is compatible with its surroundings, and should be rebuilt, say 75% of our surveyed members. The new causeway bridge is much closer to the existing bridge in design, but lacks any unique decorative features that the existing bridge has. City Planning designated The Special City Island District to preserve the “character” that is vital to our economy and “unique identity.” But the “plain vanilla” design lacks both unique identity and character.  Is it possible to add some decorative “nautical” features to make it look less generic and more in sync with the Special City Island District? Even our Hawkins Park and Ambrosini Park Playground have nautical themes. A signature look is even more important for our bridge, which is the first and last thing people see.Think of the many movies made on City Island, and even the short clip showing Jerry Seinfeld driving over the City Island Bridge and entering the City Island Diner for breakfast.
Many of the movies filmed on City Island include one or more scenes in which one or more of the actors drives over the iconic bridge.

The grand entrance to City Island is immediately recognizable. Because it is unique. It is distinct. It has character. And it represents the uniqueness of the island and its history.

It is green pistachio with a variable swirl. Or maybe ice blue mint with a twist. Definitely not plain vanilla — at least not without some syrup and sprinkles. Definitely not a carbon copy of thousands and thousands of plain vanilla causeway bridges. Boring. Generic. Bland. Anti-Artistic.

“Honey, was that the bridge we just crossed?”

“What bridge?”

“The City Island Bridge.”

“Who knows? We’ve crossed so many.”

“Well, I’ve heard that at one time, there was a signature bridge here, and that there was just no mistaking it back then.”

Yeah. Ex-act-ly!

Take your photos now while the old bridge still stands. You probably won’t be too excited to photograph the new bridge unless there are some changes. As the plan now stands, it seems headed towards becoming yet another symbol of so-called leaders’ indifference to the will of the people, a symbol of the subversion of democracy.

About Richard Jannaccio:

Richard Jannaccio is an award-winning journalist, community activist, creator and administrator of the popular City Islanders & Friends Facebook group, and a City Island resident.


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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.