East River Park ACTION is asking New York City to find a way to preserve and keep open as much of our park as possible while providing temporary and long-term flood protection. Here is why we oppose the plan and our proposal for a better plan:
1) UGLY AND CRUEL: According to the phased construction plan announced in October 2019, for at least two years (and likely much more–see “UNREALISTIC TIMELINES,”) the entire promenade will be closed, the river inaccessible, as an eight-foot seawall is built. While about 20 acres of the much-used 47 acre park will be open for the estimated five years total for demolishing and rebuilding the park, the seawall pile driving and building will be make the whole park noisy, and as the wall rises, boxed-in and breeze free.
2) UNREALISTIC TIMELINES: The city has not determined a schedule for dealing with complications: the sensitive Con Ed line, the time it takes for landfill settling on top of the original, uneven landfill, complications of dealing with contaminated soil in the park as it is dug up, not being able to pour fill into the space on windy days (which is most days in New York). Are there significant penalties as well as rewards built into the contracts? Even if the city did know how much time these complications would realistically take, New York is bad at finishing things anywhere near on time, and this is a giant project. We’re looking at many many years with a park that will be a noisy filthy construction zone.
3) INADEQUATE AND UNREADY ALTERNATIVES: The city is supposed to provide mitigation—alternate spaces—but what they’ve planned so far is pitiful and inadequate for a low-income, densely populated neighborhood. Nearby decent-sized parks Seward Park and Tompkins Square Park, are already crowded.
There are few ball fields nearby to replace the many in East River Park. There is no greenway for bikes and walkers and people who want to sit. There are no picnic and BBQ areas nearby to substitute for East River Park as a social hub in the neighborhood.
Here’s an example of why so many people mistrust the city’s timeline: The small Lower East Side Luther Gulick Park is undergoing renovation. In February 2016, the city started constructing a restroom, due to be done in Oct. 2016. It’s still not done. It’s now due to be opened until Dec. 2019. Just hold it until then. (Update: the bathroom opened in mid-2020. It was often closed after that because of a problem with the plumbing.)
4) ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION: Bulldozing 1,000 mature trees and all the greenery in the park is environmentally destructive–a way to speed climate change not just in the long term but in the short term for our neighborhood. We need the trees in our park to help cleanse and cool the air. This area has extraordinarily high asthma rates. It will take years to rebuild the park, and the new trees will be saplings. It could take a generation to get the same environmental benefits from trees that we now have—and since the park is only designed to accommodate sea level rise until 2050, it will have to be demolished again and rebuilt even higher in just as the trees provide meaningful health benefits.
5) HARD SEAWALL NOT BEST PRACTICE: A hard seawall against the river is not considered a best practice in parks around the world. Resilient, floodable coastlines can absorb storm surges. A seawall can abut the FDR Drive to provide protection to the neighborhood. (See States shift from Seawalls to Living Shorelines)
6) CARS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE COMMUNITY: One big reason the city changed the plan was to keep from having to close a lane of traffic on the FDR Drive to build flood walls along the highway. This has not been an impediment during other projects. When Rockefeller University and the Hospital for Special Surgery further north on FDR Drive put up buildings over the FDR, lanes were closed.
Comptroller Stringer has suggested eliminating cars totally during reconstruction of the BQE. They have also appointed a panel of experts to take a look at that entire project. (Update Aug. 2021–The city is reducing lanes on the BQE so promenade will survive and reconstruction can be put off.) We are still waiting for a serious look at decking over FDR as a means of providing needed protection, reducing pollution and expanding the park. The highway has three northbound lanes through the neighborhood, which merge to two lanes just north of our neighborhood. If construction closes a lane, they can just merge a mile or so sooner. It will have little effect on traffic. Even if it did, community should be more important than traffic.
7) CON ED EXCUSE: The current “Preferred Plan” will have a path next to the FDR with a steep hill rising to the elevated park. The DDC says this is to keep a “sensitive” Con Ed line from being weighted down and to have access to it. That is why the bike path will be essentially in a ditch next to the FDR where bikers can inhale fumes from vehicles instead of fresh air from the river. The previous plan allowed for a tunnel under the berms, but that better idea was abandoned with no explanation as to why it’s not acceptable. We have never heard from Con Ed about this. The MTA studied the L Train for three years and said they had an insurmountable problem that would require the full shutdown of the entire line. The Governor brought in a team of experts that reversed that decision in a week. We also need a panel of experts to reevaluate the reality of Con Ed’s needs–and the entire project.
8) INADEQUATE INTERIM FLOOD PROTECTION: Much of the public housing in the neighborhood is already receiving flood protection via a FEMA program. It will protect the buildings–people will still have to be evacuated in a big hurricane, so more robust flood protection is still needed for NYCHA, even as its infrastructure is protected already. However, parts of the neighborhood will have no defense against storm surges during the years of construction, not even the modicum of protection afforded by the park during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We must have interim flood protection where needed.
See also the our report on the city’s Interim Floor Protection feasibility study.
9) NEW DESIGN COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY UNSOUND: The new park design is in fact environmentally unfriendly and community unfriendly. It has large swaths of unshaded concrete. It has fields of artificial turf, which are also environmentally unfriendly and unhealthy for people who are exposed to them, especially children. The BBQ areas for instance, are now shady, friendly areas. The new ones will be slabs of concrete. The city’s plan is unimaginative. We are asking for a series of walls along the FDR, grassy berms, hills, and marshlands. This is what Rebuild by Design and the community designed over a period of four years and $40 million in planning. The city dropped that plan last fall for the current, much more expensive, drastic, and destructive plan.
10) THE STATE SHOULD HAVE A LOOK: If a city “discontinues use as a park,” it must seek what is called Alienation from the state. The city is refusing to do that. State Senators Brian Kavanagh and Brad Hoylman along with Assemblyman Epstein agree that the city is required to seek Alienation for this project and will pursue remedies if need be. This would require the City to demonstrate they have provided the appropriate mitigation–alternate park sites–to the community (and it’s clear they have not), and provide stricter oversight of the plan. (update: Our lawsuit for this is on appeal.)
11) LOSS OF UNIQUE FEATURES: The new park offers no flood protection for the historic Fireboat house that houses the Lower East Side Ecology Center, a wonderful neighborhood institution. It demolishes the lovely and unique Seal sculpture water park where kids play all summer. It demolishes the historic Amphitheater where Shakespeare in the Park was founded and which is still used constantly. It is now surrounded by magnificent shade trees on high ground that was not flooded. It will be replaced with a soulless, shade-free amphitheater. The current one is shabby and needs to be refurbished. But it doesn’t deserve a death sentence. Neither does the newly refurbished track costing $3.5 million, the magnificent promenade that was closed from 2001 to 2011 and fixed for $66 million. the East Side Coastal Resiliency will demolish the Art Deco restroom facilities that are eligible for landmark status.
12) A BETTER PLAN: The cost of the project is now $1.45 billion–and is already over-budget before work has really gotten going. What we are proposing is a reevaluation and adaptation of a forward-looking, environmentally friendly earlier plan developed with the community (mentioned above). It can be adapted to preserve much of the park and keep it open during construction and provide the same flood protection at a lower cost. With interim flood protection and NYCHA protection now being built, also mentioned above, we do not have to rush to destroy the largest park in Lower Manhattan that is vital to the mental and physical health of our neighborhood.
–Pat Arnow with Tommy Loeb