Task Force Begins Planning For $335 Million East River Flood Barrier

Rendering: Bjarke Ingels Group.

Rendering: Bjarke Ingels Group.

Tomorrow night at the Manny Cantor Center, local residents have an opportunity to speak out regarding the $335 million plan to create a flood barrier and expanded recreational area along the East River. The public hearing is one of the requirements the city must fulfill before it receives funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The hearing is not the only mechanism for public input. A joint task force made up of members from Community Boards 3 and 6 met with city officials and landscape designers for the first time last week. Here’s a recap from their initial gathering, which was held at Beth Israel Hospital.

big u rebuild by design

The proposal to build a bridging berm around Manhattan won a federal design competition last year. The funded portion of the project, known as the “Big U,” runs from 23rd Street down to Montgomery Street. The dividing line between CB3 and CB6 is 14th Street, which is why both boards are involved.

The meeting was led by Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. He was joined by Karen Franz of AKRF, the environmental consulting firm chosen to honcho the project. Among many others in attendance was Jeremy Siegel of the Bjarke Ingels Group, who led a community-driven process that informed the victorious Manhattan levee proposal. 

Members of the task force include: CB3 members Linda Jones , Bill LoSasso, Thomas Yu and Teresa Pedroza; Damaris Reyes (executive director of GOLES + the chair of LES Ready), Laura Timme of University Settlement, Yaron Altman of the East River Co-op and Nancy Ortiz of the Vladeck Houses. CB6 appointees include Ellen Imbimbo (a board member), Janet Handle of Waterside Plaza and Susan Steinberg of the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village tenant association. CB3 Chair Gigi Li and CB6 Chair Sandro Sherrod will be attending task force meetings but aren’t officially members of the panel.

Zarrili said the group would be meeting quarterly throughout the year to help the city and key designers determine how best to create a flood protection system that, in his words, can be “integrated into neighborhoods.”  Put another way, the bridging berm is meant to improve access to the waterfront and to add recreational amenities in East River Park while it offers protection to the Lower East Side’s most vulnerable communities.

The project area consists of two zones. The first zone – located below 14th Street – is where the bridging berm will be created. The second zone – located above 14th Street – will be focused on protection for vulnerable sites such as the Con Edison Plant and Stuyvesant Cove, both badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

One of the first steps for engineers will be to send divers into the East River to examine the structural integrity of the coastline and piers and to examine soil for signs of contamination. They’ll be looking at the bridges that stretch over FDR Drive with an eye toward replacing and enhancing the crossings. Also in the coming weeks, experts will begin a thorough evaluation of trees and plants in East River Park.

During the meeting, several speakers expressed concerns about outreach to the community. The charge was led by Damaris Reyes of the LES Ready coalition, who raised many of the same worries she voiced to Zarrilli in a public meeting last fall. In a nutshell, Reyes and others urged the city to engage members of the community in meaningful ways, rather than simply “going through the motions” to fulfill requirements for soliciting neighborhood feedback. Members of the task force said reaching out more effectively to residents in public housing developments is particularly crucial (the project area is dominated by public and subsidized hosuing).  Zarrili offered assurances that his office is committed to working with the community and asked for help from the task force to assure that “all of the appropriate people are at the table.”

Committee members, as well as other residents in attendance, raised another issue that’s caused some consternation below Montgomery Street. Tenants in the Smith Houses and other complexes in the Two Bridges neighborhood were dismayed to learn that the first phase of the “Big U” would exclude their community. Zarrili previously explained that there simply isn’t enough money to complete the entire project at one time. But he noted at last week’s session that the city is allocating $3 million to study enhanced flood protection in the area, while continuing to search for more sources of funding to complete the original vision. Trever Holland, tenant leader of Two Bridges Tower (at the Manhattan Bridge), pointed out that several waterfront studies have been completed in recent years but not acted upon. Zarrili responded, “I get your point. no one wants another study on the shelf.”

The city envisions building the bulk of the bridging berm in the year 2018. You can read more about the plan here.

Tomorrow evening’s public hearing begins at 7 p.m. at the Manny Cantor Center, 197 East Broadway.