The following op/ed was written by Lower East Side resident and architect William J. Rockwell. The Lo-Down accepts op/ed submissions relevant to the Lower East Side community. Opinion pieces do not reflect the editorial position of The Lo-Down, but only the viewpoints of each individual author. To submit an editorial/letter to the editor, use the following email: email@example.com.
Seven years ago last week, the East River swamped the FDR Drive and reached the edge of my building on the Lower East Side. The next five days after Superstorm Sandy were traumatic, with power and communications shut down and streets darkened, testing everyone’s resourcefulness.
By Thursday of that week, many had fled to Brooklyn, to friend’s apartments above 14th Street, second homes, or family out of state. Many, like me, stayed behind.
I am still haunted by images from that week of hundreds swarming white vans waiting for phones to charge, of people carrying buckets of water along Grand Street, and floating cars careening under the Williamsburg Bridge during Sandy’s wrath.
Radio reports of people stranded in the taller buildings of Coop Village came across the radio, with elderly tenants relying on neighbors for the barest of necessities.
Amalgamated Dwellings, where I live, was low enough at six stories for uninterrupted water service and despite losing power was easily accessible, with stairs daylit from windows at every landing. Remarkably resilient for housing built in 1929.
These memories accelerate an annual anxiety about flooding in my neighborhood during hurricane season only exacerbated by global warming. They coincide with the City’s own concerns to protect hundreds of thousands poor and middle class residents with planned infrastructure in the 100-year flood plain that overlaps an enormous swath of the Lower East Side along the East River.
The City of New York has worked for the past five years on a plan whose first critical component—the zone from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street—is in the queue for approval by the City Council.
It’s a good start, a welcome start, adequately funded by the city and the federal government. It addresses the primary concerns identified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): “response, preparedness, and resilience.”
It’s called the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR), and we should approve it.
Approve it, because it’s a makes a park for the next century and furthers the objectives of the original park’s mission. It’s a landscape that protects people and nature well into the future. It demonstrates the quality and innovation we deserve on the Lower East Side.
Approve it, since it will return the East River Park to a universally accessible, continuous landscape that expands and improves its current entry points, removing awkward switchback ramps, steep stairs and bike resistant paths.
Approve it, because its not a hard seawall, but a soft wall with an esplanade touching the river with a Flood Protection Wall inside it. A disguised first line-of-defense. It is critical protection integrated into a landscape, not a wall on top of one.
The majority of criticism focused on its implementation. The City Council, who votes on it this month, should request more of the details in creating this landscape.
The “Hows” of it.
City partners of the ESCR need to continue answering questions about maintaining recreation fields during construction, interim storm protection, preserving and returning historic components like the Seal Park, and communicating thoroughly design features with better models, mockups, and renderings. The funding is more than adequate for developing clear responses to these questions by the city and its contractors.
I find myself caught between painful memories of post-Sandy conditions and a healthy skepticism of local officials and government agencies that influence my opinion of the ESCR plan.
The city partners have been bad at communicating its virtues which is a significant flaw in their process, demonstrated by community reaction after changes were made last fall. That flaw has encouraged misunderstanding of the quality and expertise brought to the design.
However, with that in mind, I still maintain that the city partners and their designers, engineers and environmental experts will deliver the protection we deserve.
We need to dispel the forgetfulness that emerges having averted significant serious weather events these past seven years and recall Sandy’s devastation. Remember what we endured and how we rely on a city and its services to survive the kind of destruction it left.
Balancing the idea of a universally accessible park, with trees that can survive a swollen East River, embedded in a natural berm providing flood protection, is an example of our ingenuity and urban design competence.
Similarly, we can hold painful memories of our precarity in the face of climate emergency with an optimism for the future simultaneously. It’s a manageable chaos to contain but one that can keep us safe and dry.
We should support the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project and amend it to respond to my neighbor’s concerns.