By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Community residents got the opportunity to interact with 3D models showing possibilities for flood protection and access to the waterfront on the East Side at the most recent workshop for the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project last Thursday evening. This meeting was the third in a round of public workshops, held at Washington Irving High School, discussing different options for the area along the East River from East 14th to 23rd Streets in terms of protecting the neighborhood from future storm surges and future Hurricane Sandys.
Since the first public workshop was held in March, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency along with the urban design team working on the project have narrowed the design ideas down into a combination of an elevated park that integrates static floodwalls and deployable features. The break in the elevated park, known as a berm or levee, at East 20th Street is partially to accommodate a ferry landing that the Environmental Development Cooperation is considering developing there. Representatives from the city and the urban designers working on the project said they could not answer specific questions on the ferry landing itself since that project is not under the purview of the ESCR, but some residents at the meeting expressed concern about what the increased foot traffic would mean for the neighborhood.
“We want to see certain lovely things stay but newer, shinier and busier isn’t always better,” Stuyvesant Town resident Laura Koestler said. “Right now it’s small potatoes but it can become commercialized. With the possibility of a ferry over there, I just picture what the insane crowds have become at the Williamsburg Flea.”
Jo-Ann Polise, also a Stuyvesant Town resident, said that she isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of a ferry landing at East 20th Street and offered an alternative to improve the ferry service that already exists on the east side at 34th Street.
“I have problems with the possible ferry landing and I like riding the ferry,” she said. “It’s a lovely way to go across the river but I’m not sure we need one at that location. They should introduce a free ferry shuttle bus that goes north and south.”
Carrie Grassi, Deputy Director for Planning at the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, noted that the plan to use a deployable element at East 20th Street is not primarily because of the possibility for a ferry landing and is also an attempt to provide more access and views to the water, but Stuyvesant Town resident Ingrid Devita said that she had reservations about this idea, and the prospect of sacrificing stronger flood protection for aesthetic reasons.
“I just don’t want to see a cosmetic answer because we want a grand entrance to the East 20th Street ferry,” she said. “It should be about what is the safest way of protecting 20th Street. We need that to be locked down during a storm. Even when we just get a little rain the power gets knocked out, and we have issues of climate change. It’s shocking to see how high the water can be.”
So far, these public meetings have been held within their individual project areas where only the issues that directly affect their respective sections have been discussed. The entire project encompasses East River Park, Stuyvesant Cove Park, NYCHA developments, Con Edison and other features, stretching from Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side up to East 23rd Street. The most recent meeting included a much longer presentation because it offered an overview of the plans for both project areas. Jeremy Siegel, a project designer with the consultant team of Big U and director of Rebuild by Design, noted that although the areas have been discussed separately, it is important to keep in mind that all of the pieces of the project should be examined collectively.
“Project area one and project area two are all connected as continuous flood protection elements,” he said. “It is critical to include park facilities like pumping stations and we want the neighborhood to be protected but not cut off from the waterfront.”
Grassi also noted that the city is coordinating with the Department of Sanitation because of the planned sanitation garage at the Brookdale campus, insofar that both agencies are aware of each other and the plans for the area but she could not provide any specific information about what that coordination entails.
Although the plan isn’t finalized and as Grassi said at the meeting, the project is always “evolving,” the most likely course that was popular with the majority of residents who provided input was an elevated park. Siegel said that the most realistic option for flood protection around Con Edison from East 13th to 15th Streets is a floodwall because the area is too narrow for an elevated berm, but for the majority of the flood protection beyond East 15th to 23rd will be an elevated park. The issues that still need to be worked out include the configuration of the pedestrian and bike paths in conjunction with this new park space.
Elise Baudon, an urban planner with Starr Whitehouse who is working on the project, said that there were three different alternatives. The first would include a footpath that follows the water and a bike path that follows the FDR, which residents liked because it separated bikes from foot traffic but would mean that the bikes don’t get waterfront views. The second alternative combined the bike and foot paths at the water, but there was strong opposition to that plan because of safety concerns. The third alternative put the paths on top of the elevated park. Siegel noted that the final plan will likely be a combination of the first and third options.
Many of the residents at the workshops have said that they are impressed by the different design options presented for coastal resiliency but one concern includes the period for construction and how that will affect the access to features that are already available at the waterfront.
“I just want to make sure that the literally decades of getting (Stuyvesant Cove Park) created are not thrown out,” said Polise, who is the treasurer for the Stuyvesant Cove Park Association. “The community earned this park. So many aren’t even with us anymore, that’s how long it took. I’d hate for it to not be the place that we have now. I don’t want it to be changed so dramatically that it’s not inviting.”
Grassi noted that construction will be planned in phases to minimize the impacts in the lack of park space.
“We won’t cut it off all at once,” she said. “Residents will always have parts with access so people can enjoy the waterfront, which is the whole point of the project.”