After Hurricane Sandy came the realization that the Lower East Side coastline of Manhattan needed flood protection. A competition among 10 teams of architects that included significant engagement of the riverfront community was launched. The whole history of “iterative design” and its outcomes can be downloaded here on the “Rebuild by Design” website: http://www.rebuildbydesign.org/data/files/675.pdf.
From this dialogue a consensus emerged on what could be the best plan for a resilient neighborhood and park: what was called the ”Consensus Plan” proposed a planted berm along the FDR as a flood wall; it left most of the park floodable, a wetland absorbing water. The winning team of architects envisioned at a later stage the possible addition of a green deck over the FDR, creating more space for recreation and further protecting the riverfront residents from emissions.
But since December 2018 an untested, retrograde plan is being imposed instead, pushed in force by NYC Mayor’s office, making “a mockery of transparency and community involvement”, as stated by a member of the Community Board 3 opposed to this move. (The Villager, July 7, 2019). Disregarding the preferences expressed through numerous workshops the City’s “preferred plan” is high above the water and flat instead of hilly, it relies much more on concrete and plastic turf, with an sterile look that invites businesses more than barbecues… and is twice as expensive than the community approved plan. The current plan will cost 1.45 billion dollars.
The City’s “preferred option” involves unprecedented land destruction, killing every living thing in the park —bulldozing 57 acres and filling up the entire area with tons of landfill. The disaster created by Sandy will seem pale compared to the magnitude of this destruction, and it will take years for a park to be rebuilt after this ecological catastrophe. For neighboring residents who will breathe carbon dioxide and other contaminated dust for the duration of the park’s destruction and the project’s construction and until newly planted trees mature the seriousness and scale of negative health impacts are unknown as they are unprecedented. “The city’s project uses tons of dirt from who knows where, which will raise dust clouds and pollute the air in a neighborhood with some of the highest asthma rates in the country”. The design also requires that the whole park be closed for the whole duration of the construction, leaving our community desperate for recreation space, and traumatized by the daily sight of a war zone under their windows for many years.
Assembled here are some responses to the most common statements used by NYC Department of Design and Construction to justify the “breathtaking shift” in the ESCR plan.
City: ““We are working for your protection, this is by far the best option: the park can not be flooded.”
Truth: The new plan ignores the best climate change science that promotes resilient floodable options over walls of concrete: natural and hilly areas that allow the water to come in and recede, and act like a sponge. The City of Boston for example opted for such an option after consulting with a panel of independent climate change experts. However New York City has always been reluctant to pay for workers to clean up ball fields after rainy days. Heavily reliant on volunteers the City has done little to support the important capacity and relationship building that comes with these efforts.
City: “We will have to close the park entirely, but this allows us to finish earlier. It will be done in 3and a half years – before the 2023 storm season.”
Truth: 5 years have passed yet so far no construction plan and timeline is available to judge whether this is realistic. Common sense however predicts that such an ambitious project on such scale will more likely take 5 to 10 years to be completed. An additional 5 to 10 years will be needed for trees and plants to produce shade and impact air quality. NYCHA residents, children and the elderly, those who have no vacation home or funds will suffer the most.
City: “If we don’t pass this plan now the money will run out and you won’t be protected from floods.”
The argument could be returned against its user. After years of delay the winning team and the community had co-designed a consensus plan. The winning project was to break ground in 2017, and be completed in 2020. In 2018 we heard the construction was to commence in spring 2019… Until the Mayor and the DDC decided unilaterally to dismiss all past efforts and to start from scratch with a brand new design! Is this the best time saving option?
City: “The previous plan raised constructability issues: we would have to close 1 lane at night to build the wall along the FDR drive!”
Constructability issues arise in any given plan of this scale. Temporary closing of one lane of the FDR at night does not seem that serious, the City’s preferred option also requires temporary closure of one lane of the FDR. By the way, cars are responsible for gas emissions, air pollution and precipitating climate change, which is what brings us all here. Reducing the number of lanes on the FDR might be a good idea?
City: “The trees in the park are old, sick and dying. We would have had to replace them anyway.”
Please take a walk in our park. The trees, young and old, are stunning and healthy, many of them 80 years old as well as newly planted trees. Local residents revere some of them. Preserving the green space we already have is essential to our mental and physical health. Planting new resilient trees is also essential. Why not start now, instead of planning to uproot more than one thousand mature trees that resisted Sandy?
City: “We know how much you value proximity to the water. We did our best to provide direct access.”
Indeed, during all the “iterative design workshops”, the community unanimously asked to preserve a strong link to the water. But there will only be 2 tiny “direct access” embayment areas in the new plan, one at the southern extremity, one up North. The new plan radically separates park users from the water below, while the resilient plan allowed them to contemplate the river from every slope up to the top.
City: “Building a berm along the FDR would be noisy for the waterfront residents”.
Noise pollution will likely be intense during any construction period, and should be addressed. What about air pollution? Destroying 57 acres of green parkland and filling it with dirt will have a serious impact on the quality of the air that residents will breathe during a much longer period.
City: “A green deck over the FDR is a great idea, but not a realistic option.”
Chicago’s Millennium Park, built over railroad tracks, cost $490 million … The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, created during Boston’s “Big Dig” to bury its Central Artery, cost $40 million… Building deck parks over 2.4 miles of the Cross-Bronx would cost about $750 million, we heard. New York City and our community deserve the best. There might be ways to do this without disturbing those who live on the first floors of the FDR front, notably by reducing the number of lanes on the drive.
We demand that the City comes back to the Community Consensus Plan, a truly resilient design that was far less destructive, and allowed for phased construction.
We ask that an independent panel of coastal resiliency experts seriously evaluate feasibility and cost of a green deck option over a narrowed FDR, as a longer-term option.