A conversation with the planners at a public event
Why Not the Old Plan?
What happened to the berms (the earlier, accepted plan for the park featured grassy embankments alongside the FDR Drive)? I asked Eric Ilijevich, Associate Project Manager at NYC Department of Design and Construction. Why couldn’t we stay with that plan? Parts of the park are too narrow, Ilijevich said.
The old plan had just a wall along much of the FDR because you can’t cut down the size of the ball fields to make room for a berm. One problem with the wall along Riis houses and elsewhere is that the people in the apartments don’t want to look at a wall, Ilijevich said.
Can’t you make a green living wall? I asked. If you asked the people in the apartments, would you like a vertical garden, and you get to use your park for the next 3 1/2-plus years, or you get a grassy hill and you get no park use for 3 1/2-plus years, what do you think they’d say? (And I didn’t get to say, a green wall will help absorb the toxic emissions from the heavy traffic on the FDR.)
A green wall is expensive to maintain. There is the capital budget to rebuild the park, but there won’t be the maintenance budget. Parks are always strapped, said Ilijevich. (Future maintenance was a recurring theme in this conversation.)
About the Ballfields
Well, how about raising the ball fields the eight feet, as you want to do, and then sloping down to the parts of the park that aren’t ball fields, a series of hills? I asked. No, he said. You have to make it handicapped accessible; that’s too much slope. I said, Well, surely you can have sections that slope gently enough and other parts would be steep. Look at Brooklyn Bridge park, which has many hills with stairs and steep paths, but also has handicapped accessible ways down to each area. Brooklyn Bridge park is under a different entity, said Ilijevich. But they have to follow the same ADA (Americans With Disabilities) rules, don’t they? I asked. Ilijevich said, I don’t know about Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s not in our jurisdiction. Well, you can go look at it, can’t you? I asked.
Is there a possibility you can leave the fields where they are and make them resilient, so that they can recover quickly after inundation? I asked. I was unable to get an answer to that.
Temporary Flood Protection
The residents nearby will be unprotected for years during the construction process, I said. What about temporary flood protection? Ilijevich said, you know those Hesco barriers near the South Street Seaport? Yes. They’re the big blocks lining the bike route under the FDR. They’re just 4 1/2 feet high, he said. To have any effect here, they’d have to be placed at a higher elevation than riverside—they’d have to go right through the middle of the park, which will be a construction zone. Why can’t they be placed on this side of the FDR in front of the buildings along the sidewalk? I asked. He didn’t answer.
Why Artificial Turf?
I asked about why so much artificial turf would be used in the park plan. Ilijevich brought over the Parks representative, Alden Chan, who said the artificial turf is going to be installed on fields that are heavily used. There’s no recovery time available that grass fields need. Also, the maintenance costs are higher for grass. Parks will not have the budget to maintain the fields. Parks are always strapped for funds.
Central Park and other parks have conservancies and public-private partnerships with big donations to do things like intensive maintenance, Chan explained. She didn’t say that with our low-and-middle-income neighborhood, we are never going to get that kind of attention. But the plan makes it clear that there is no expectation that East River Park will get extra love from private entities. It is being built with minimal maintenance in mind.
Why is the Parks department committed to artificial turf fields at all? They are hotter than grass fields, are made from and might exude dubious chemicals that children are exposed to, and they contribute to climate change because they heat up rather than cool down the earth the way grass fields do. Chan: Maintenance costs. Recovery time. Ball fields are scarce in Manhattan. They are so heavily used, you can’t rest them as is needed for grass fields. (But you are taking all of East River Park’s fields for years, I didn’t get a chance to say.)
The new park is going to be much better and nicer, she said. Not when it doesn’t exist for years, I said. It’s just 3 1/2 years, she said. That’s 3 1/2 years– And surely more, I said.
How about this, I suggested: Look at the ball fields at Battery Park City. They were completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. They were fast-tracked and up and running in six months. Can’t we do that for our ball fields? Battery Park City is a different entity. It’s not under our purview, said both Chan and Ilijevich. But you can look at it as a model, can’t you? I asked.
Now, I persisted, Battery Park ball fields are going to be protected by retractable walls. It’s not being raised up eight feet, I added. Can’t you do something like that? They told me that Battery Park City is a private development. Well, it’s a public ball field, and can’t you look at it as a model no matter who is doing it? No answer.
Phasing, No, Really, We Are Taking It Seriously
I asked about phasing of construction so parts of the park would remain open while other parts are constructed. I said I understood it was still a no-go. That’s not right, Ilijevich said. We are still looking at it. We’re working very hard on it. This is what every DDC person has said at every public presentation since January.
A resident of Riis came up and said what many people say often: the city is doing this project so a developer could build high rises. I laughed and said, Oh, you mean when they run out of money and can’t finish the project, and developers swoop in and say they’ll finish the park if they can build towers? That can’t happen, Ilijevich said. This will always be park. Enough of those conspiracy theories, he said.
Entirely Eight Feet
The big question is why the entire park has to be raised eight feet. I asked why we couldn’t have a resilient park the way the Dutch often do. A Dutch firm is involved in the project, Ilijevich pointed out. He explained, you have a bulkhead here (the wall along the East River). You can’t take away the bulkhead to create a soft, resilient coastline. (Why not? Or why not in places, especially where the bulkhead is already deteriorating? I didn’t get a chance to ask.) He explained that if you start from nothing, you could consider that, but you have an existing structure. (But aren’t you ripping that out and putting in a new bulkhead/sea wall along the river? I also didn’t get a chance to ask.)
One reason you have to build eight feet up, as sea levels rise, you’ll need to raise the outtake pipes (that pour the city’s floodwater into the river) because the sea level rise will cover the old ones, said Ilijevich. I asked, Are you putting in new higher pipes for that purpose? No, it’s too high for the present, it’s about hydraulics—you’d have to raise everything in Manhattan, and water won’t flow up. (I didn’t ask this: Well, how is raising the pipes later going to help later then? Manhattan will still be in the same place.) But I did ask, when that happens, can’t you just put the pipes on top of the park and landscape over them? Ilijevich did not reply.
I said it seemed like there was a failure of imagination at the DDC. He said that I had no idea how hard DDC has been working on all these questions.
Work harder. Imagine a better plan.
Note: I am paraphrasing the conversations, not using direct quotations, because I am writing from memory, not notes. If there are inaccuracies, I ask DDC and Parks to let me know.
If you have conversations with DDC or Parks staff about these and other issues, please add them to the comments section.