Revamping the East River Waterfront: A Multi-Faceted Plan

A rendering of the bridging berm.

A rendering of the bridging berm.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of our print magazine. One of the projects, the multi-purpose levee, will be discussed at the Community Board 3 land use committee meeting Wednesday, July 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Manny Cantor Center, 197 E. Broadway.  

By any measure, the announcement was a big deal. On June 2, Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, came to the Jacob Riis Houses on East 10th Street to reveal that the Lower East Side had hit the jackpot. The federal government was coming forward with $335 million to build a protective berm along the East River, the result of a high-profile design contest launched following Superstorm Sandy.

The news generated glee from many local residents, who were relieved to learn that help was on the way for their low-lying neighborhood, which was overcome by the rising waters of the East River just two hurricane seasons ago. On its own, the bold plan to prepare the community for climate change was a significant development. But there was also a bigger picture: Taken together with other post-Sandy initiatives and ongoing projects to reclaim Lower Manhattan’s piers for the people, the long-neglected waterfront is poised for a remarkable transformation.

Some of the projects are now under way. In other cases, they’re a few years or even a few decades in the future. But there’s no denying that the East River has become a major priority for city planners, as well as for Lower East Side residents. Here’s a look at what’s in the works in the years ahead.

Four major projects are in the works. Map illustration by Kim Sillen. ©The Lo-Down

Four major projects are in the works. Map illustration by Kim Sillen. ©The Lo-Down

East River “Bridging Berm”  |  Est. cost: $335 million (first phase)  |  Est. completion: 2018

A Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, and by extension the Lower East Side, came out on top of a federal competition called Rebuild by Design. The overall plan, called the Big U, would protect a 10-mile swathe of Manhattan, from West 57th Street to East 42nd Street. But the first phase focuses on a two-mile stretch of the East Side from 23rd Street down to Montgomery Street, alongside the new Pier 42 park. The idea is to create a series of rolling hills and bridges leading from the far side of FDR Drive to the river, creating a new barrier measuring anywhere between 10 and 20 feet, depending on the location. Designers described the landscape as similar to Central Park, in that there will be several vantage points along paths that lead seamlessly to lower elevations. The berm would not only provide protection from rising waters but would allow the community easier access to the park, including new waterfront amenities, such as a scenic bike path. While the area is not included in the initial phase, officials have suggested the section of the waterfront extending to the Manhattan Bridge is also a high priority. At Pier 36, deployable gates under the FDR would provide another level of protection. A few blocks to the south, in front of the Alfred E. Smith Houses, there would be a series of fortified recreational facilities, including a swimming pool enclosed in glass from 4 feet up, shops and community spaces. There would also be a co-generation power plant. In the Two Bridges area, limited height flood protection would shield the neighborhood while retaining river views and there would be a building waterproofing program. Henk Ovink, a water management expert working for the U.S. government, said it was essential to protect the East Side riverfront, which includes 30,000 public housing residents, as well as the Con Edison Plant, badly damaged during Sandy. Noting that some other areas in the city might benefit from public-private partnerships, he said of the Lower East Side, “you have a lot of people at risk and at the same time no market interest.” Many local community organizations, including those representing the predominantly low-income residents living along the East River, participated in crafting the Build by Design proposal. They gave the plan positive reviews, saying the designers listened to the concerns of residents. While no precise timetable has been published, officials have indicated the first part of the berm could be finished in about four years.

A rendering of Pier 35.

A rendering of Pier 35.

Pier 35/East River Esplanade | Est. cost: TBD | Est. completion: Spring 2015

In May, the city quietly opened a portion of the East River Esplanade near Pike Slip, featuring basketball courts, a bocce court, workout equipment and new seating and plantings. Directly north of this area is Pier 35, the centerpiece of which will be an eco-park and natural habitat, an ambitious effort to re-establish the biodiversity of the East River, as well as landscaped open spaces. There’s even going to be a 65-foot-long marine habitat station where scientists plan to experiment with a live mussel bed. A vine wall, which will form a divide between the pier and an adjacent city sanitation facility, will lead to sloped lawns offering panoramic views of the East River. The project was not an outgrowth of Hurricane Sandy, but has been plagued by storm-related delays. Last summer, officials with the NYC Economic Development Corp., which is overseeing the project, predicted a spring 2014 opening. That obviously did not occur. They have now set their sights on next spring. A final phase of the esplanade project is expected to add more seating, fishing balconies, a skateboard area and a multi-purpose playfield up to Catherine Street.

A site plan for Pier 42.

A site plan for Pier 42.

Pier 42 Park | Est. cost: $90 million | Est. completion: TBD

A couple of blocks to the north of Pier 35 sits an abandoned 600-foot shed once used to store bananas. Three years ago, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and State Sen. Daniel Squadron secured $16 million in a dwindling Sept. 11th recovery fund to turn the eight-acre pier into a new park. The idea was to create a new gateway to East River Park and to finally complete the revitalized greenway around Lower Manhattan. After a community visioning process, the Public Design Commission approved a master plan earlier this year. It envisions the creation of recreational spaces, a marine habitat, waterfront marshes, a water ecology educational center and a dock for small boats. The city Parks Department, which is in charge of the project, estimates a total cost of more than $90 million, so a lot more fundraising will be required. There’s an interim plan to demolish the shed and to create a lawn and garden area. Work on that part of the plan could begin by 2016.

A rendering of the multi-purpose levee, circa 2050.

A rendering of the multi-purpose levee, circa 2050.

Multi-Purpose Levee | Est. cost: TBD | Est. completion: 2050

While other projects could be completed in a few years’ time, the city’s vision of extending the East River shoreline and building a large protective levee all the way to Broad Street would take decades. In May, the Economic Development Corp. released a feasibility study showing that the idea, known as a “multi-purpose levee” is legally, environmentally and financially feasible. In a briefing for reporters, Dan Zarrilli, the mayor’s director of resiliency, said the levee would complement the recently unveiled “bridging berm” system. While emphasizing that it’s just a broad concept that will require years of refinement, officials said the idea would be to build a gradually sloping embankment into the river, perhaps 250 to 500 feet wide, to withstand a rise in water of 19 feet. The northern boundary of the feasibility study is Montgomery Street. Zarrilli said the elaborate levee system would be paid for through the “financing and the sale of development parcels” along the expanded waterfront. Much of the new development would occur south of the Brooklyn Bridge. But in the area north of the Manhattan Bridge, the study looked at creating “1.5 million square feet of primarily residential development, assumed to include ground floor retail uses as well as community facility space.” No development is envisioned between the two bridges, although “a new public park, with water-dependent recreational uses and various other public amenities” is imagined. Officials will brief Community Board 3’s land use committee July 9. Last fall, before the study was conducted, CB3 members blasted the levee plan, which had then been dubbed Seaport City. They labeled the idea of creating a new neighborhood along the largely low-income east side a scheme to build luxury housing. At the recent press briefing, Zarrilli countered, “this certainly was not an excuse to build luxury condos on the waterfront. This is about risk reduction and how we pay for it.” He also said the city is committed to robust community outreach to shape the plan, which would need to go through an exhaustive land use and environmental approval process. The multi-purpose levee would probably not be fully in place for up to 70 years.

 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story described Bjarke Ingels Group, the design firm, as Dutch. It is Danish.