City’s new $1.45B East River Park flood protection plan leaves community groups high and dry

January 22, 2019

Image courtesy of David Shankbone via Flickr

Last July, Rebuild by Design, a collaborative organization formed to address the affects of climate change, released an RFP for a stewardship partner for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR), a reconstruction of the 64-acre, 1.5-mile East River Park. The project, a flood protection system conceived in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and budgeted at $760 million, was the first of three phases in a series of self-sufficient flood zones stretching from West 57th to East 42nd Streets. In October, the Mayor’s Office announced an updated $1.45 billion design that would begin in spring of 2020. 70 percent of the original design was updated, ostensibly to allow flood protection to be in place a year earlier, by summer 2023. But, as the New York Times reports, the new plan, which basically calls for burying the park beneath 8-10 feet of landfill and starting over–has left community groups who participated in the original plan feeling like they’ve been hung out to dry.

The first plan was the result of a collaboration between an organization created by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) post-Sandy to address climate change in the region and a collection of Lower East Side advocacy groups. That proposal outlined an eight-foot landscaped berm on the western edge of the park that would protect the F.D.R. and the Lower East Side from flooding.

Amy Chester, director of Rebuild by Design said, “This renewal project did not come through normal city channels.” With an emphasis on the Lower East Side, the berm surrounding the park was set to be the first link in a line of buffers–known as the Big U–that would ring Lower Manhattan, protecting it against rising flood waters. According to Chester, “Everything went swimmingly until the city announced, on a Friday afternoon in September, with no community consultation, that the plan was being scrapped.”

The new plan will elevate the entire East River Park, integrating the flood wall at the water’s edge with the bulkhead and esplanade without obstructing water views. Commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction Lorraine Grillo says the change in plans followed a standard review process after which city officials made “a better choice” with a higher price tag of $1.45 billion.

What’s better about it? According to Grillo, the city’s plan, among other features, circumvents a traffic-snarling lane shutdown on the F.D.R. Drive “every night for five years.”

But many who live in the neighborhood feel that, in addition to circumventing community input, the new plan fails to preserve the park’s ecosystem. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village who will be leading a City Council oversight meeting on the new design this Wednesday said, “The community’s painstaking work over four years is being completely pushed aside. The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary. Until those questions are answered, I cannot back the direction the mayor’s office has taken.”

Lower East Side resident and board official Vaylateena Jones echoed her sentiments, “The way this planning is being done is disempowering. City officials collaborated with us over four years and came up with a detailed design–only to now return with this entirely new design. Do our voices even matter?”

[Via NYT]


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