City’s Outreach on East River Berm Project Called Lacking, “Slap in the Face”

A rendering of the bridging berm.

A rendering of the bridging berm.
A rendering of the bridging berm.

All in all, it was a rough night for city officials appearing before Community Board 3’s parks committee. We already detailed the contentious discussion last night concerning plans for a new park at Pier 42.  There was also significant displeasure voiced about the city’s outreach efforts regarding the “Big U,” a dramatic proposal to create a bridging berm along the East River.

In June, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development announced that the Lower East Side was the big winner in a federal design competition focused on finding the best strategies to protect at-risk communities from future super storms. $335 million was allocated for the plan developed by Bjarke Ingels Group, a Danish firm.  A coalition of local groups known as LES Ready! played a major role in helping craft the plan.

Dan Zarrilli, the mayor’s director of resiliency, came before the CB3 panel last night for an update. His office is now taking the lead in developing what he called “just a concept” into an actual concrete plan for the waterfront. “I am here to start the conversation with you,” he said.  Zarrilli added, “HUD doesn’t just show up with a sack of money and say have fun.”

Describing the federal government’s “bureaucratic process,” he said the city must prepare a specific plan for submission to HUD. It will be subject to public hearings, followed by a 60 day review and finally approval by the feds would likely come in the early spring.  The city is doing some preliminary work on the proposal. “Requests for Proposals” have been put out for preliminary design consultants and community outreach specialists. Finally, Zarrilli reiterated what he told The Lo-Down in a June interview — that the first phase of the project would likely be focused in the area between 23rd Street and Montgomery Street, where East River Park ends.

None of this sat well with Damaris Reyes, the executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and the chairperson of the LES Ready! group. She said the coalition made sure that the voices of the most vulnerable residents living in the flood zone were heard. Now, she told Zarrilli, there is “confusion and concern” for many reasons. For starters, she explained, it was not made clear to anyone that the project would exclude other endangered areas of the Lower East Side, including the Two Bridges neighborhood and the Alfred E. Smith Houses to the south. But even more to the point, Reyes, complained that there have been virtually no overtures from the city since the summer.

“I urge you to consider the large network of organizations that looked at the resiliency issue” in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, she said. “We don’t want you to come to us at the eleventh hour (asking for help in engaging LES Ready’s communities). It’s not fair to us. We need to be involved in the planning process.” Reyes concluded, “it’s a slap in the face that we got this far and we’re not even part of the discussions beyond this public setting (at the community board).” Her comments were echoed by Aixa Torres, tenant leader at the Smith Houses, who said she was shocked to learn her development would not be protected.

In addressing their concerns, Zarrilli revised his earlier statement, saying “there are no specific boundaries… we’re figuring out just how much $335 million will buy… this budget is going to be stretched to the hilt.”  He added that the city is committed to engaging with a broad group beyond Community Board 3. Zarrilli said he’s well aware that the Two Bridges area is also at risk. “It’s very important,” he declared, “but right now we don’t have the money” (to implement a Big U-type plan in all flood-prone areas).

At the end of the discussion, parks committee chairperson Thomas Yu told Zarrilli, ‘you’ve heard them loud and clear. The community wants to know how to get involved. We don’t want to shut them out.”

The bridging berm proposal would create a series of rolling hills and bridges leading from the far side of FDR Drive to the river, establishing a new barrier measuring anywhere between 10 and 20 feet, depending on the location.  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.

During the summer, Zarrilli told us one key reason the city was focusing first on East River Park is that its width could support the bridging berm concept.