If you haven’t been following the planning for a new flood barrier along the East River, now is a good time to start paying attention. The city is racing to meet federal deadlines, and pushing local stakeholders to weigh in before the end of of the year. This means your last opportunities are coming up in the months ahead to influence what will be a sweeping transformation of the waterfront on the Lower East Side.
It has been almost four years since the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), awarded New York City $335 million to create a series of berms and flood walls along a 2.4 mile stretch of the East River from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street. The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is one segment of a larger concept called “The Big U,” meant to protect much of Manhattan from future storms on the scale of Hurricane Sandy. Over the years, the city has supplemented the federal grant with substantial capital funding, bringing the total budget for the East River project to $760 million. [There’s a separately funded resiliency program in-the-works below Montgomery Street.]
At a meeting of Community Board 3’s parks committee March 15, planners presented the latest designs and outlined an aggressive timeline. The project is at least a year-and-a-half behind schedule, and the clock is ticking. Federal funds must be spent by September of 2022. City officials want the local boards to schedule land use votes during the summer, with City Council approval by the end of this year. This accelerated schedule would clear the way for groundbreaking in the spring of 2019.
Tomorrow evening (Tuesday), reps from the Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency will appear before the full Lower East Side community board. CB3 is expected to vote for a resolution expressing support for the overall concept, but spelling out concerns about the tight timeline and the quality of the design for New York’s first resilient park. The city is looking for both CB3 and CB6 (which covers the area above 14th Street) to chime in before an appearance before the Public Design Commission later this spring.
The evolving design calls for raising playing fields in East River Park above the flood plain and for creating new passive recreational areas, including a great lawn, nature exploration area and water play area near Delancey Street. A new playground and comfort station would be built at East 10th Street. New bridges are planned at Delancey Street and 10th Street, offering more seamless routes into the park, and other park entrances are to be reconfigured and made more inviting.
In spots where there’s minimal room between the East River and FDR Drive, a flood wall with swinging or sliding gates would offer the main form of protection. At South Street and Montgomery Street, for example, the Gouverneur Gardens residential complex would be surrounded by an eight foot protective wall. A gate similar to the one you see in the first image below would be closed before big storms. A path would lead from Montgomery Street, alongside a new park at Pier 42 (the city is in the middle of tearing down a shed at Pier 42, the first step in building that park).
During the presentation, designers said that a flood wall will run to 14th Street, alongside the FDR. Due to Department of Transportation safety rules, they’re having to add a fence on top of the flood wall (there will be a minimum height of 8 feet). Also, the areas immediately around the flood gates must be largely free of vegetation in order to meet FEMA certification guidelines.
A lot of time has been spent studying the trees in East River Park. Many of them, planted when the park opened in 1939, are near the end of their lives. Molly Bourne, a principal at the landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen, noted that construction will disrupt trees and other vegetation throughout the park. Around 1200 trees will be uprooted. Some will be replanted in groves, while new trees meant to withstand flooding and climate change are to be added.
The East River bandshell will remain, along with the park’s well-used playing fields. There will be 12 tennis courts, the same number currently in East River Park, although they will be regulation size (an upgrade). In an earlier version of the plan, a storm water holding tank was going to be embedded beneath the tennis courts. That’s now been abandoned in favor of installing new sewer lines that will carry storm water and wastewater to the Manhattan Pump Station on East 13th Street, before being pumped to the wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn.
The new foot bridge at Delancey Street will be located just to the south of the Williamsburg Bridge. A 12-foot-wide ramp is envisioned with a gradual incline, which leads to a newly designed elevated park entrance. A sweeping staircase will provide a more direct route over the FDR.
There were some new wrinkles in the latest renderings, but most of what the city planners went over the other night was very familiar to anyone who’s been following the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. For at least the past three years, designers have been briefing members of Community Boards 3 and 6, meeting with a waterfront task force and holding larger public engagement sessions.
Even before the city’s official planning began, community members worked closely with the architectural teams that submitted “The Big U” concept to HUD in 2014. Back then, the vision called for creating a “bridging berm” along the East River, providing protection from rising sea levels but also offering, as the Rebuild by Design website explains, “pleasant, accessible routes into the park, with many unprogrammed spots for resting, socializing, and enjoying views of the park and river.”
No one expected the city to adopt every aspect of the concept plan, but community members involved since the beginning do have certain expectations. At the top of the list — making sure the project doesn’t create a new and imposing barrier, walling off the community from the waterfront.
Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), has been a strong advocate for an equitable, community-oriented resiliency plan. She heads a group called LES Ready, which was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. At the committee meeting, Reyes sounded the alarm about the current design, saying the idea behind the berm, “was not to build a wall to keep us from the water. It was to create multi-purpose space that connected us more to the water. It feels like, in the end, we are going to wind up with a space that will do the actual opposite.”
“We won all this money,” she continued, “to do something that has not been done before. The world is looking at us… I would hate that people come to the first resilient park in New York City and say, ‘This really ain’t no big deal.’ I really encourage the teams to do everything possible to make this park is as beautiful as possible.”
Trever Holland, chair of the parks committee, voiced similar concerns, saying he’s worried that the flood wall facing the city will be foreboding, as he put it, giving East River Park the feel of a penitentiary. He urged designers to consider innovative design ideas, including solar power, and to make sure, in the interest of public safety, that there’s enough lighting around the wall.
There were other questions during the meeting. A local resident asked whether there’s any risk that the federal funding, in the Trump era, could be rescinded. Jordan Salinger, a senior policy advisor in the city’s resiliency office, responded, “I don’t think (the federal government) necessarily will be funding future projects, but this was an award the city received and (the mayor’s office is) working with HUD to assure the steady stream of these dollars. There has been no sign that the money is going to get clawed back.”
CB3’s district manager, Susan Stetzer, was perplexed by the schedule of meetings coming up in the summer and fall. The city is currently planning to release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in July. It’s also planning to certify the project into ULURP in July, triggering hearings at the community boards and by the borough president and City Planning Commission. Normally, ULURP (the city’s public land use review) would follow release of the EIS, giving stakeholders time to digest potential impacts of the proposed project.
Newly elected City Councilmember Carlina Rivera will have some influence over the plan, since the land use application must be approved by the City Council. A representative from her office was in attendance at the parks committee meeting. On Friday, members of Rivera’s team told us they have been hearing a lot of feedback about the East River resiliency project from constituents. In addition to all of the concerns voiced at the community board meeting, residents have expressed worries about existing amenities in East River Park. One priority is making sure that the community doesn’t lose any of the heavily used barbecue/picnic areas throughout the park. Another is managing the construction, expected to take five years, in such a way that at least some parts of the park remain open while the project is being built.
Following the parks committee meeting, we posed some followup questions to the mayor’s office. Michael Shaikh, deputy director of external affairs in the Office of Recovery & Resiliency, responded.
On concerns about the timing of upcoming public meetings, he said the city is working with community boards to make sure there’s adequate time to review and comment on the Environmental Impact Statement and ULURP. City officials have conceded that community board hearings might slip to September, since the boards don’t typically meet in the summer.
This past October, just before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, WNYC reported, “the (East River resiliency) plan is still just lines on paper. The groundbreaking has been delayed by at least 18 months, and already some of the amenities promised to the community have been removed to cut costs.” Those delays, city officials have suggested, were inevitable given the complexity of the project, which requires coordination with many city, state and federal agencies. Shaikh told us the city is confident it can start construction next year, saying, “The project is on track and we’re on schedule to meet our federal spending deadlines.”
As for scaling back parts of the project, he acknowledged that the original concept for The Big U envisioned several new bridges leading to East River Park, but added, “the funding we received from HUD was not enough to build bridges where none had existed.” He noted that the city publicly announced the elimination of the new bridges from the plan in 2015.
City officials have heard the local concerns about walling off the neighborhood from East River Park. Shaikh pointed out that the designs won’t be finalized for several months and added, “we’re confident that the project will integrate flood protection into the community fabric and greatly improve access to the waterfront,” and that it will ultimately, “not only make the community safer, but also be a much better public amenity than what exists now.”
If you would like to read Community Board 3’s draft resolution on the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, it’s available here. CB3 meets Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. at P.S. 20, 166 Essex St.