New York "building for a new world"​
- New York 01/25/2019 by Rebecca Myles (WBAI)

Dozens of New Yorkers demanded answers over why city administrators did a volte-face introducing a new coastal resiliency plan for the East River Park after years of previous negotiation.

The new plan would destroy the existing 57-acre waterfront park replacing it with ten-feet of landfill with flyovers, new recreational facilities, new trees, and a hefty price tag of $1.45 billion. New York City administrators said it’s “building for a new world.”

“I regret that we did not share more information sooner,” said Lorraine Grillo, commissioner for the city’s Department of Design and Construction pointing out that Avenue C in Alphabet City was swamped with four feet of water during Hurricane Sandy, which caused $19 billion in damages to New York.

“We are building for a new world,” explained Lorraine Grillo,

Grillo said the project was anticipated to cost $1.45 billion for reconstruction and construction of the East River Park, and that the original plan would have cost $1.2 billion.

The original plan, negotiated from 2013-2016, a year after the city was hit by Hurricane Sandy, and costing $40 million dollars to create, called for berms and barriers to be built in the East River Park and along the park next to the FDR drive, a major highway around Manhattan, a project that was expected to take four years to complete. 

With US Department of Housing and Urban Development contributing $335 million in federal funding, and the city committing $425 million, the plan was to address future storm surge of the type that devastated lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was part of an overall plan to build a “Big U” around lower Manhattan, involving floodgates, for climate resiliency.

On September 28, 2018, the City suddenly announced a new plan for the park, to be fast tracked with a budget of $1.4 billion taking New Yorkers involved in the original negotiations by surprise.

“The plan now calls for raising the entire East River Park eight to ten feet and moving the flood wall and barriers to the waters’ edge instead of their being constructed on the border of the park and along the FDR,” explained City Councilmember Barry Grodenchik, Chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission at the beginning of the hearing. “It has been claimed by rising the entire park to protect the area and extend toward the water line would no longer have the park act as an absorber of flood waters. There is now a concern that the implementation of the new design would require closing large sections of the park for longer periods than was originally planned.”

The city already spent millions of dollars on renovating the waterfront at East River Park that is used by over 1.5 million visitors a year, according to the Lower East Side Ecological Center. The city closed the park in 2001 to fix the esplanade, it took ten years to repair. During the Bloomberg Administration the city spent $150 million through private public partnerships. In 2017 the city closed the running track in a year long project to replaced it and the synthetic turf football field.

At the hearing organized by City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, lawmakers had dozens of questions for city administrators about the lack of transparency, the doubling costs of the project, why the changes were necessary, whether the project was legal, and why community groups weren’t brought in earlier over the change of plan.

Under the original plan piles were to be driven into the outer lane of the FDR highway which would have meant close down the lane at night to do the work, likely disruptive for the 15,000 New Yorkers who live close to the highway, and having to remove all equipment to reopen the highway in the morning. Under the new plan with much of the work using barges along the waterfront and would be completed two years ahead of schedule. The city team also discovered the full evacuation of the Con Edison transmission line that runs under the highway needed a protective tunnel around the line while the power line was still active, “proving the greatest risk to the project.” 

“We cannot afford to lose our precious green space,” said Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center told reporters before attending a standing-room City Council hearing about the new plan. “We have over 700 mature trees in this park. You can replant new trees but a mature tree takes generations to really provide the benefits that it provides now. Why does all that have to be destroyed? The city has not given us any good answers.

Datz-Romero said there were 350 different species of wildlife in the park, documented by volunteers and the city's plan of "wholesale destruction of the park would wipe them out.”

Community advocates said the Parks Department had already missed several deadlines on neighboring projects and renovations are already underway on one of the few green spaces in the neighborhood Tompkins Square Park, and concern was raised about whether the city would be able to raise the additional funds necessary.

“The worst possible result is that we start the work and run out of money,” said Councilmember Mark Levine. “It’s a hostile administration in Washington.”

An additional concern about the legality of the destruction of the park was raised in a letter presented during the hearing.

“The new plan is essentially to transform the park itself into a flood barrier,” read the letter delivered on behalf of state Senator Brad Hoylman, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, and Congressmember Nydia Velazquez. “Since it is clear that the City would not be demolishing or reconstructing the park otherwise, we believe the City is not undertaking the project for a park purpose, and it therefore requires alienation.”

Alienation is a state oversight process triggered when a municipality aims to get rid of a park. Department of Design and Construction Commissioner Grillo insisted that alienation would not be necessary.

Residents are still concerned about the lack of transparency and exclusion over the revised plan and are calling for a phased-in plan rather than a full shutdown of the park. The city is scheduled to finalize the plan by March, then through an environmental review process, land approvals (ULURP) and finally approval by US Corps of Engineers, with construction and destruction to begin Spring 2020.

headline photo
New Yorkers joined by City Council members Rivera and Grodenchik raising questions over City's sudden revised plan for East River Park, photo credit Rebecca Myles