By Sabina Mollot
When the wrath of Hurricane Sandy sent 14 feet of river water gushing through the streets on Manhattan’s East Side, one of the buildings to get damaged the most heavily was the VA Medical Center. As a result of the water damage, the federal facility remained closed for the next six months.
But soon, as part of a $207 million hurricane repair and restoration project, the building will be protected from future flooding thanks to a wall that will be 14.5 feet tall at its highest point.
Preparations for the project have already begun with the placement of temporary fencing on the east side of the building by the new Asser Levy Playground and the closing of a parking lane on the north side of the property at 25th Street.
Cement safety barriers will be going up this week to protect anyone in the vicinity of construction, with the heavy equipment for digging expected to be brought to the site in several weeks.
The sea wall or “floodwall protection system,” as the hospital is referring to it, is expected to be completed in October, according to Mike Bozeman, the program manager of major projects at the VA’s Manhattan campus. It will include floodgates, a secant wall providing seepage cutoff, internal stormwater piping and storage, utility modifications and internal drainage area pump stations. There will be some demolition required for the project which will include the removal of fencing, paving, sidewalks, utilities, landscaping walls and “other designated site features.”
Bozeman mentioned these details and others in an email to Janet Handal, the president of the Waterside Tenants Association, last week. This was after she reached out to the hospital with a host of questions when curious neighbors began noticing that areas were being fenced off. Seeing an official looking sign at 25th Street that declared there was no parking allowed, Handal at first contacted the DOT, where initially, “Nobody knew anything about it.” With a bit more digging though, she learned that it was all for the VA’s flood wall.
Naturally, Handal’s concerns, along with the initial lack of communication from the hospital, were the usual neighborhood worries related to any major construction project, specifically excess noise and debris. Handal said she also wondered about the aesthetics of the wall, which she described as “fortress-like” after seeing the rendering, along with the expected removal of trees.
The height of the wall, which was designed by a firm called HDR, will vary with the highest point being at the Asser Levy Playground. Although the wall will be 14.5 feet high it will appear to be 11.5 feet high due to the ground there being three feet elevated from the hospital. The wall will stretch around the hospital’s east side and go west three quarters of the block towards First Avenue on 23rd Street and the entire length of the block towards First Avenue on the 25th Street side. The wall will slope downwards towards First Avenue to about eight feet from the ground. At 23rd Street it will vary from 11 feet high to about four feet high at the hospital entrance to match the existing wall.
The wall will also vary in thickness from eight inches to one foot and two inches though since it’s on VA property, it’s not expected to reduce the width of the surrounding sidewalk, Bozeman said.
Funding for the wall was provided by federal allocations, the VA’s associate director of finance and information management, Jodie Jackson, said on Monday. Out of the $207 million that was given to the hospital, $23,830,000 is going towards the wall.
Other restoration and improvement projects either ongoing or planned include moving the hospital’s generators to a higher floor, renovation of the entire ground floor and the building of a new sterilization processing area. Currently, the sterilization unit sits in a structure on the parking lot that’s connected to the hospital.
“It’s not convenient,” said Jackson of the parking lot location. “We’re anxious to get the renovations done so we can go back to normal. It’s been difficult, but our staff has adjusted and pulled through to be able to provide for our veterans.”
As for the flood wall in particular, Jackson said the hospital’s administration, still smarting from the months-long closure, is “very anxious” to see that work get started.
In the meantime, the hospital is finalizing details such as a contract for temporary nearby parking for its employees and figuring out what impacts there may be on anyone using the neighboring playground.
“I do feel it’s going to have some effect on that area,” said Jackson. “I don’t know how much or when. But I do suspect it will impact that park.”
Jackson admitted that at this time, she doesn’t know how much noise the project will create but doesn’t expect that any after-hours variances will be requested, with the bulk of the work being done during the day.
With regards to debris, an air assessment test was done in 2013, and according to Bozeman, no significant effect on the environment is expected. He added that the contractors, of Bronx-based firm Civetta, are expected to implement a dust control plan and “meet all federal, state, and local regulations with regard to dust and noise control.”
Claudie Benjamin, a hospital spokesperson, added that “every effort will be made to minimize the impact on the community and to have the work done during daytime hours.”
A representative from the hospital was scheduled to speak about the project at a Community Board 6 Transportation Committee meeting on Monday evening, but that was postponed due to weather. The meeting will instead take place on Monday, February 9 at 7 p.m. at NYU Langone Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Room 109.
Sandro Sherrod, chair of CB6, said the board will be “working closely” with the VA on the project’s development.
“Resiliency has become a major priority for our community and we are pleased that the VA Medical Center, an institution that is so important to our city’s veterans, is taking the important steps needed to harden the facility from adverse weather,” Sherrod said. ” This is also a site that abuts our newly opened Asser Levy Park and Hunter College’s Brookdale campus that will soon undergo a transformation. We are committed to working closely with the VA to make sure that any flood mitigation doesn’t detract from all the effort in improvements to this area to make it better looking and more usable for all.”