How Lower East Side coastal plan braces for climate change

Protesters urge the City Council to vote against a resiliency plan that would force East River Park to close for more than three years. (Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

This story was originally published on November 13, 2019 by THE CITY.

  By RACHEL HOLLIDAY SMITH, THE CITY

A transformational plan to fortify the Lower East Side waterfront against rising seas is poised to sail through a key vote this week.

On Thursday, the City Council is expected to OK the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency project, or ESCR. The controversial plan already has gotten stamps of approval from a Council committee and subcommittee and has the backing of the three members whose districts touch the 2.4-mile affected zone.

Many locals have been weighing in on concepts for years, making Thursday’s vote a culmination of hard — and, often, frustrating — work. But the Council action will launch a huge, first-of-its-kind project for New York to prepare for rising sea levels and strong storms that climate change will bring.

Here’s a guide to what you should know about ESCR.

How we got here

The work that ultimately created East Side Coastal Resiliency began in earnest after Superstorm Sandy devastated the Lower East Side in fall 2012. The next year, the Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rebuild by Design competition to drum up ideas for defensive measures where Sandy landed.

One of the proposals submitted to HUD was the “BIG U,” a coastal protection plan enveloping the southern tip of Manhattan. HUD awarded $335 million to New York City to move forward with one of three BIG U segments.

That section — stretching from East 25th Street south past Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, the Con Edison plant on Avenue C, all of East River Park, the Manhattan Bridge and waterfront public housing complexes down to Montgomery Street — became the outline for what is now ESCR.

What’s on tap for the waterfront?

A lot. ESCR includes an array of flood protection measures — the most controversial of which concerns East River Park. Large portions are slated to be filled in and built over, raising the park and its waterfront edge by about eight feet.

The higher elevation is expected to resist surging water, while a subterranean floodwall made of huge sheets of steel driven into the ground is intended to add extra protection from waves or floods.

The park, however, is only one part of a complex plan to stop rain and the East River from flooding Manhattan streets and homes.

A flood wall and a series of gates created to keep out potential storm surges is set to zigzag between the VA Hospital and Asser Levy Playground at East 25th Street, down the western edge of Stuyvesant Cove Park and along the FDR Drive adjacent to a playground and the Con Edison plant at Avenue C and East 15th Street, extending down to East River Park.

Similar flood walls and gates are planned from the south edge of the park to Montgomery Street.

Most of the time, those gates will be open to allow public access to the waterfront. When a storm rolls in, the hope is the gates will be quickly shut by Department of Transportation workers, according to the ESCR plans.

The plan also includes the decidedly unsexy work of expanding drainage capacity — making sewer pipes better at moving water.

Two new “interceptor gate buildings,” one at East 20th and Avenue C and another at Corlears Hook Park and the FDR Drive, will hold the mechanicals to close and open huge, nine-foot-diameter gates within the city’s biggest sewer pipes.

If need be, those sewer gates could cut off the area from flood waters that may be rushing into the sewer system elsewhere in the city, an official with knowledge of the plan said.

Why bury East River Park?

That’s a question asked by many critics of the plan. City officials with knowledge of the project say burying the park, rather than letting it flood, is the best option. They note the park contains built structures and sections of synthetic turf — as opposed to a more natural, spongy green space like Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is designed to flood in a storm.

That doesn’t sit well, however, with many community members still upset with city officials for abruptly changing the plan for the park in mid-2018.

The switch followed four years of work between city agencies and locals on a previous iteration of the plan that would have built a flood wall on the park’s western edge, adjacent to the FDR. The arrangement would have kept the park intact, while allowing it to flood if a large storm hit.

Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, said the city’s 180-degree turnaround soured the process for many.

“People were upset,” she said. “There was a breach of trust there.”

What do we still not know?

The plan’s biggest opponents, including hundreds of residents who have signed petitions, rallied and protested, take issue most with the destruction of the park and its many trees.

But they also stress that the plan has no plan for interim flood protection measures on the Lower East Side — ”not one stinking sandbag,” Pat Arnow, a leader of the group East River Park Action,  said at a City Council committee vote on the plan Tuesday.

Hans Gehrels, a Dutch resiliency expert who was commissioned by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Carlina Rivera to study options, pushed for the city to consider temporary flood protection while the new fortifications are under development.

“During construction, a severe storm may surge into the neighborhood more easily,” his report said.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Rivera said the city Office of Emergency Management is now committed to studying those interim measures — though no specifics have yet been identified.

What’s next?

Thursday’s vote only approves land use changes necessary to begin construction on the plan. The final design — which will include specifics about what the new flood walls, park reconstructions and gate system will look like — is expected to go before the Public Design Commission in December, those with knowledge of the plan said.

After an expected approval there, the Department of Design and Construction is planning to break ground in the spring of 2020, public timetables show.

City Hall expects to have “operable flood protection” by mid-2023 and to complete the whole project by late 2025.

The clock is ticking: The city must spend the $335 million it got from HUD for the project by September 2022 or lose the funding.

On Tuesday, Rivera noted it’s not a perfect plan, but the best option for the community seven years out from Sandy.

“The federal funding has a deadline,” she said. “I won’t risk another seven years of inaction.”

Chester ultimately thinks the project is “an amazing win for our city” and a model for future resiliency projects here and nationwide.

“Regardless of the really tough year we’ve spent negotiating, this is going to be a world-class park that the whole world will be watching — a shining bright example,” she said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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