The Row New York boathouse planned for Sherman Creek Park will have bathrooms in its locker rooms, available only to the individuals participating in the organization’s programming.

An aerial view of Sherman Creek Park and the waterfront.

The city’s Public Design Commission voted Monday to approve the construction of a boathouse in Inwood’s Sherman Creek Park. Local political representatives backed the project, but some community members opposed it—namely over bathrooms at the facility, which critics want accessible to the public. 

The new building, run by the nonprofit Row New York, will replace the organization’s current Peter J. Sharp Boathouse on Harlem River Drive, and allow the organization to expand its programs serving youth and individuals with disabilities. During the planning process, it received overwhelming support from Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez and Manhattan Community Board 12.

But the project inspired debates in the days leading up to the commission’s vote. New York Restoration Project (NYRP), which helped revitalize the park 20 years ago and continues to steward it, criticized several aspects, including the lack of public bathrooms in the boathouse and potential disruption of waterfront views.

These concerns were echoed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who penned a letter to the Parks Department and the Public Design Commission on Oct. 20. Brewer noted in the letter that she hoped the suggestions would be “taken in the spirit of collaboration” and that she did not wish to delay the project.

“I communicated to parks about the concerns of many residents and stakeholders about the bathroom and I expressed hope that Parks could address these issues to the extent possible as [the] project continues,” Brewer told City Limits in a statement.

A representative with NYRP pointed to the Central Park Loeb Boathouse and the Boathouse in Prospect Park, both of which feature restrooms open to the public. The Row New York boathouse, by contrast, will have bathrooms in its locker rooms, available only to the individuals participating in the organization’s programming.

New York City has a woefully small number of public restrooms compared to other major cities: there are just 16 for every 100,000 residents, according to a 2019 report from the city comptroller’s office. New York ranked 93rd out of 100 in terms of the worst access to public comfort stations in a ranking of major U.S. cities; parks in Manhattan CB12, where Sherman Creek is located, has between 10-15 restrooms for every 100,000 people, among the lower end compared to other districts, the report outlined.

In a September meeting about the project, the Public Design Commission directed the Parks Department to address the bathroom issue. The department later determined there was no need for additional restrooms because there are already two in the park operated by NYRP, according to Megan Moriarty, spokesperson for the Parks Department.

But one of those restrooms is 850 feet — or about two and a half city blocks — from the boathouse, according to NYRP.

“That’s a far walk especially if one has children and bags in tow,” said executive director Lynn Kelly. She also noted that the current bathroom will not be sufficient, especially if the boathouse attracts additional visitors to the park.

“It is completely undersized for the level of visitors we have now, and it is in no way capable of being expanded to handle the increased visitation we can expect after the boathouse opens,” said Kelly. “Public restrooms are a customary and reasonable amenity for any large new building in a park.”

At the September meeting, Public Design Commission member Kenseth Armstead said that the lack of bathrooms — except for those enrolled in the boathouse’s programs — would create a segregated use of amenities in the park. “I’m not with that, I’m just not with that,” he said.

Armstead abstained from the vote on Monday.

In his letter supporting the project, Rodríguez noted that the city allocated $1.6 million to NYRP in fiscal year 2017 to build public restrooms in the park and that several years later, that funding has not yet been used. “I am committed to following up on the status of these funds and, should NYRP choose to do so, working with NYRP to identify pathways to bring public bathroom access to the area down the road,” he added.

A representative from NYRP says the organization has offered to deregister that funding and allow Row New York to instead use it in its facilities. But a representative for the community board argued that city funding cannot be simply passed along to another group. “It doesn’t work like that,” said Liz Ritter, the Parks & Cultural Affairs Committee Chair for Manhattan Community Board 12. “​​That’s a completely non-transparent, completely opaque thing to do.”

Speaking in favor of the project, Assemblywoman and incoming Councilwoman Carmen De La Rosa noted the other existing bathrooms in the area. Once she is sworn, she will work to hold the concession provider accountable, she told City Limits. “I’m not a council member yet, but under my leadership, there will be accountability, and there will be public access to the boathouse.”

The accessibility of public park and recreational amenities has spurred debate in other parts of the city in recent months: A recreation center planned for the Crown Heights Armory in Brooklyn was criticized as being too costly for many members of the community, news site The City reported.

Inwood resident and community board member Sally Fisher expressed a similar concern about the programming at the boat house, worried it would be geared toward affluent children hoping to add rowing experience to their Ivy League school applications rather than focusing on children in Inwood.

“This is everybody’s backyard,” she said. “People don’t have second homes to go to.”

But Ritter countered that the association of rowing as an upper-class sport is misguided, and that the boathouse programming will help better connect the neighborhood with its waterfront. “​​This community board has been advocating for more access not only to the water visually and being able to get to the water, but also being able to get on the water,” she said.

Rachel Cytron, executive director of Row New York, told City Limits she expects 40 percent of their youth program participants to be from CB 12, and that an additional 30 percent would be from northern Manhattan. Their programming is free for children from households making less than $100,000 a year, and fees are on a sliding scale for family incomes above that.

“We make sure that everyone who is interested in the program can participate,” Cytron told City Limits. 

Kelly and Brewer also raised concerns that the facility may further block visibility of the waterfront from Harlem River Drive, sight lines of which are already obstructed by P.S. 5. In her letter, Brewer requested that there be clear signs, in Spanish and English, directing visitors to the park.

“It’s our intention to work with the Parks Department to ensure that there’s really excellent signage to increase awareness to make sure everybody knows that the park is there and that the boathouse is there,” said Cytron.She added that part of the design includes a pathway that is accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Another concern raised by Brewer is that waterfront access may be impacted during the construction of the boathouse. Cytron noted that the organization is committed to maintaining access to the park during construction as much as possible. “We’re not looking to cut off access,” she told City Limits. “We just want to make sure everyone’s safe.”

Although the project is a private concession on Parks Department land, the project’s programming and parameters are negotiable, De La Rosa believes, and it can be included in the project’s final details to ensure that the community is benefiting from what is offered. “Not having it will rob the community,” said.

A representative from NYRP expressed frustration that the city’s Public Design Commission voted on the project Monday without a public comment period that day, though officials countered that the public got a chance to weigh in at meetings held earlier this fall.

“The Public Design Commission held a public hearing on this project on Sept. 20, at which time testimony was heard, including from New York Restoration Project,” said Keri Butler, executive director of the commission in an email. “The Parks Department subsequently responded to the commission’s concerns at a public meeting on October 18.”

In advance of Monday’s vote, Fisher was frustrated that the project was moving forward without the bathrooms issue not being resolved.

She said that she had been optimistic following a September meeting when the commissioners noted the need for a public restroom, and was surprised when it had not been added to the final design at the following meeting in October.

“They made a big deal about all the public asked for was a receptionist who was bilingual,” said Fisher. “And I thought, so what’s the big deal? We got a receptionist who is going to say in two languages, ‘No, you can’t use the bathroom.’”