By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Neighborhood residents recently learned that the East River may be getting a new elevated park along with flood protection. The discussion about the park took place at the most recent workshop for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, held at the Stein Senior Center last Tuesday. Representatives from the mayor’s office and BIG U, the winning design firm in the Rebuild by Design competition in 2013, said that this type of flood protection was one of the most popular with residents, according to feedback from the community at the previous workshop in May.
Carrie Grassi, senior policy adviser at the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, also discussed the three options for flood protection in the area along the East River between 14th and 23rd Streets, which includes a berm, which would have a park on top, a flood wall or a deployable, and noted that community members saw the advantages of all three depending on the area.
The area along the river from 14th to 23rd is known as Project Area 2 and Project Area 1 extends south from 14th Street to Montgomery Street. The workshops have been split along these boundaries to focus more on the specific needs of each area.
Grassi noted that there is a need for compromise when considering different characteristics even within each designated project area and the specifics of each kind of flood protection, and they’re hoping the workshops will help find the right balance for Project Area 2.
“Deployables involve human intervention but are useful at street crossings and other places that need to be open most of the time,” she said. “We want to minimize the use of deployable systems and minimize the use of human intervention, and want to couple the resilient infrastructure with social infrastructure for the community. For 99 percent of the time, we don’t need (the flood protection), so we want to make it so that it doesn’t wall us off from the waterfront and we want to improve access to the river.”
Jeremy Siegel, a project designer with the consultant team of Big U and director of Rebuild by Design, said that participants in the last workshop also preferred the idea of static flood protection as opposed to a deployable mechanism, and residents had expressed concern about the reliability of a system that would be manually operated.
Despite some aversion to the deployable option, the possibility of a wiggle wall was even less appealing to many residents because it would permanently block views to the water and might impact safety.
“We don’t want to create a tunnel condition on Avenue C so participants at the last workshop thought a flip-down canopy was a good option,” Siegel said. “It’s good to preserve views of the water but maintenance is a challenge.”
Another option discussed at the last workshop was a set of pavilions underneath the FDR but this idea didn’t gain much traction.
“Most people thought that the existing park was more important and that there wouldn’t be an audience for programming like that throughout the entire year,” he said.
Siegel said that the Rebuild by Design team did not expect the elevated park idea to receive the most support at the last workshop, and Grassi speculated that the surprise was due to the fact that the community is already invested in the existing park. Siegel noted that many of the residents who responded were willing to sacrifice immediate views of the water for more stable and reliable flood protection.
“It would provide the most width possible and to use the park as an elevated berm seemed attractive,” he said. “One of the downsides was that it would block views but others pointed out that there would be even better views from the top.”
If an elevated park is one of the chosen methods of flood protection, Siegel said that there are three different options in terms of organization for the bike and pedestrian paths.
The first option would retain the existing organization in which the bike lane is separated from the walkway by the park, giving pedestrians a view of the water. The second option would put the bike lane and walkway together along the river, but one of the downsides would be that a bike lane and walkway in close proximity to one another doesn’t always work, and comments from some participants at the workshop emphasized that this layout was not one of the more popular ideas. The third option would have both the bike lane and walkway elevated on the park, although Siegel noted that this layout would provide different challenges for access that they would have to address.
Following the presentation, a resident mentioned that plans for “soft edges,” like marshes and coves, were discussed as solutions for flood mitigation immediately following Hurricane Sandy but the solutions presented for this project include more “hard edges” like walls. Siegel explained that this was partially due to implementation for the project.
“Because of the nature of the funding for this project, we need to keep the schedule going,” he said. “On-land solutions are the most rapid to implement and our goal is to get the project done with the funds that we have in the most timely manner.”
Grassi added that the ideas were also related to the nature of the East River.
“The issue on the East River has to do with storm surge,” she said. “Marshes only work on slowing down waves.”
ST-PCV Tenants Association president Susan Steinberg also inquired about what Con Edison’s remediation involved. Grassi would only say that they are working with the utility to coordinate with the measures they will be implementing around the plant at East 13th Street but could not release any more information about the specifics of their plans at this time.
Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2017 and by the end of this year a design plan will be finalized.
“Our goal is to find a plan that is feasible and has all the social infrastructure requirements,” Grassi said.
Grassi added later that the project is expected to take five years once construction begins and they are currently looking at how to phase it so that people will still have access to the waterfront while construction is going on.
This was the second to last workshop of this kind available to the public this year, with the last being held in October, but Grassi noted that public input is important and necessary throughout the project and there will be various other opportunities for public comment, including a public comment period for the scoping document.
Ellen Imbimbo, who has been involved in a number of waterfront-related issues through the Community Board 6 Land Use and Waterfront Committee, expressed her enthusiasm for the options that had been discussed.
After stressing that she was not speaking as a CB6 member but as someone with a personal interest in the project, Imbimbo said, “The idea of obscuring the waterfront (with a floodwall) is a problem but then there is the cost and reliability problems that come with deployable mechanisms.” She added that she approved of the idea of an elevated park over protective pavilions. “If we can pair park with protection then that’s a better solution than creating dark and unused spaces underneath the FDR.”