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NYC will remake the East River waterfront to fight climate change. It may not be enough

“Other people can go to the Hamptons; we go to East River Park”

All along the coast of New York City, hard decisions are being made about how to address the inevitability of sea level rise. An enormous sea wall is rising in Staten Island, massive storm surge gates are being planned for New York Harbor, and the lower tip of Manhattan may soon be extended 500 feet out into the East River to blunt the impacts of tidal flooding.

But before that happens, the New York City Council will vote on a major plan to protect a portion of the coastline: the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR), a $1.45 billion proposal that has been many years in the making. The ESCR project would build a system of barriers along a narrow 2.4-mile strip of waterfront between the FDR Drive and the East River, stretching from Montgomery Street up to East 25th Street. It will, in theory, protect the residents of the Lower East Side, East Village, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village from a 100-year flood event and from 30 inches of sea level rise.

The city’s preferred resiliency plan, which is expected to be voted on by the end of the month, has been met with outrage by community members, who were working toward a much different vision for their waterfront. If the latest version of the project is approved, it would dramatically alter East River Park and Stuyvesant Cove Park by demolishing millions of dollars of new park amenities, shuttering sections of both over several years to accommodate construction, bulldozing almost 1,000 trees, and burying the coast underneath eight feet of landfill.

“As soon as I heard about the new plan, which was about a year ago, it was horrifying,” says Pat Arnow, a neighborhood resident who started the group East River Park ACTION to protest the plan. “Every tree and every thing would be destroyed. It was devastating.”

As the ESCR project moves towards being accepted by the City Council, it is worth considering what exactly would be lost if this plan is put into action. A recent walk along the shoreline of the East River revealed a landscape filled with fishermen, rollerbladers, musicians, and family celebrations. This waterfront has been an important part of daily life for generations of local residents, and it could soon be demolished, to be replaced with an entirely different version of the coast.

The impact of the city’s plan would be enormous. At East River Park, which would be partially closed off in phases over the duration of the project, ballfields, tracks, playgrounds, historic buildings, and the waterfront promenade would all be demolished to make way for the new landfill. At Stuyvesant Cove Park, the landscape would be taken apart, elevated, and reconfigured to make way for an extensive system of flood walls built inside the parkland. The construction process would also displace the day-to-day operations of the two community groups who have been the main stewards of these parks, and who have been working countless hours over the past two decades to improve them.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center, which is based out of the historic 1941 Fireboat House in East River Park near the Williamsburg Bridge, has been working in partnership with the Parks Department since 1998 to help improve the park, and has brought thousands of volunteers to plant native species, and to work with its environmental education and composting programs. Despite this long history, the group still does not know if their headquarters will be demolished as part of the city’s plans, or surrounded by an eight foot wall of landfill, or if they will even have a home in the new park.

“Obviously, we need to create some sort of flood protection, and whatever construction will happen, there are negative impacts impacts for us, one way or another,” says Christine Datz-Romero, the group’s executive director. “But I would find it very outrageous if this project would be the death knell for our organization, which has been approaching climate change and trying to raise awareness about these issues.… Unfortunately, we just don’t have a lot of answers yet, so that is of grave concern for us.”

At Stuyvesant Cove Park, where Solar One has been working since 2004 to help bring public programs and volunteers to the waterfront, planning is already underway to relocate its operations and plants. The group has already begun to dig up and save some of its plant species in large portable containers, which would be relocated to other open spaces in the community.

“Of the proposed options that were given to the community, none of those options were the most popular. What the community really wanted was a marsh to be built in the cove,” says Dina Elkan, the director of Solar One’s work at the park. Instead, Stuyvesant Cove will be dismantled and replaced with an elevated berm near the FDR Drive, with a sea wall built along its bike path on the waterfront. Solar One plans to move into a newly constructed building within a much different landscape. “We will try to save as many plants as we can that we think are worthwhile,” says Elkan. “There is probably not that much we can do about the trees. Some of those trees are going to get destroyed.”

The environmental impact of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project would be enormous. In the ESCR’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, which was released in September, the city estimated that their preferred plan would result in the removal of 991 trees, of which 819 are located in East River Park. Many have been growing here since the park opened in 1939, and have root systems too large and complicated to be dug up and relocated. Instead, these trees would be chopped down and replaced with a forest of new saplings planted on top of the landfill. The report estimates that this would eventually result in a gain of 745 trees, but it would take decades for the current tree canopy to fully regrow.

Burying East River Park could also involve the destruction of tens of thousands of shrubs, flowers, and bulbs that were hand-planted by volunteers from the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The center does not yet have a plan in place with the Parks Department to relocate these plants, which support innumerable worms, beetles, and other insects. “We would have to develop a plan to develop sites for moving the plants to, and a stewardship plan, because once they are in a new location, they also need to be maintained,” says Datz-Romero. “But we really need resources from the city to do that, because it’s a tremendous amount of planning and work to make all of that really be viable.”

Removing the plants and trees in these two parks would also disrupt the migratory pathways of monarch butterflies and bird species that stop at these sites every year to refresh themselves amongst the thousands of pollinator plants that have been specifically grown for that purpose. “This park … is right along the estuary, and of course that is oftentimes a zone for wild insects to travel along,” says Datz-Romero.

The ESCR environmental impact report largely brushes these concerns aside, stating that the birds, bees, and butterflies can all pick up and move to another neighborhood with “no significant adverse effects.”

“Within a half-mile radius of the project area, a total of 183 acres of tree canopy cover would be available for birds and other wildlife to seek temporary replacement habitat,” the executive summary for the report reads. “Within the 183 acres, 5.6 acres is made up of community gardens, which provide diverse plant life and suitable habitat for insects, including monarch butterflies and bumblebees.”

For the community members who have spent their lives working and playing in these parks, the city’s plans are an environmental justice issue. “I sometimes think that in any other neighborhood, they wouldn’t have dared suggest getting rid of nearly 1,000 trees,” says Datz-Romero, who has lived in the Lower East Side for 40 years. “But they say, ‘Oh we will just bulldoze everything and start from scratch.’ I don’t know whether they would have gone for an approach like that on the Upper West Side. I think it would have been a non-starter.”

Local residents are also concerned about how construction itself will impact the community. “The health effects are going to be terrible. They are going to be dumping 8 to 10 feet of fill dirt over about a mile and a half of shoreline, and this is a very windy area,” says Arnow, who has lived in the Lower East Side for 20 years. “There is no way it is not going to blow into our neighborhood, and everybody is going to be breathing that.”

“This is a very low- and moderate-income neighborhood. Most of the park is lined with public housing. It’s people who have been here for generations, who love this park and this place,” says Arnow. “That is why you are losing the park, because the city doesn’t care about the people who love this park right now. The city can afford to screw them over. It’s not a tourist park. It doesn’t have a lot of rich people enjoying it.”

Once again, though, the ESCR environmental impact report largely ignores these issues, stating that “no minority or low income communities would be disproportionately or adversely impacted” and that because of the benefits of flood protection, the project “would not result in any adverse effects with respect to environmental justice.”

For local residents, who had been working with the city for years to create a resiliency plan that would have impacted the FDR Drive much more than the parkland, the current plan is not the best solution for the challenges posed by climate change. “It’s like you are dealing with climate change by causing more climate change,” says Arnow, who would prefer that the city constructed a softer edge along the East River. “You are going to have sea level rise all right, but what you do is you make a resilient coastline that can take flooding. So you have marshlands, and you have bridges over marshes, and you rethink how this should look.”

The idea of a more flexible, resilient approach to sea level rise is also embraced by Solar One. “To me, the park has to be seen as an ever-changing, ever-evolving thing. It’s not one set of plants, and one set of trees, and one layout. It’s a living thing,” says Elkan, reflecting on the future of Stuyvesant Cove Park.

This past March, the New York City Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that the city is now facing the possibility of up to 9.5 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. This projection means the entire East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which is designed to address only 30 inches of sea level rise by 2050, could eventually become woefully inadequate, with its eight-foot wall of landfill regularly overtopped by high tides and storm surges, leaving neighbors to once again question if this is the best way for the city to invest $1.45 billion.

An independent review of the ESCR, commissioned by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and published earlier in October, agrees that the plan to elevate East River Park would actually fall short of what is needed, and could necessitate destroying the park’s landscape all over again in 30 years. “Based on the community’s resistance to the removing of trees and vegetation, it is recommended including the additional two feet of fill be considered in the current project, rather than leaving it as a future option,” the report reads. “Including it in the current project would avoid having to remove the mature vegetation around the 2050s, when sea level will likely reach a level that the two additional feet will be needed.”

The same problems faces many of the levees, seawalls, berms and floodgates being proposed for New York City, which are only designed to address a certain level of sea level rise. “Building higher and higher levees to keep the water out is not necessarily the most forward-thinking way of dealing with climate change,” says Datz-Romero. “We have to think about smarter ways of stopping the water.”

As the reality of climate change begins to sink in, and New York City begins to invest billions of dollars into flood protection measures along its coast, we will more and more frequently be faced with difficult decisions. How can we tackle the looming threat of sea level rise without also destroying our city’s ecologies, coastlines, and waterways?

The ESCR plan begins at the north end of Pier 36 at Montgomery Street. This enormous waterfront warehouse houses a Department of Sanitation facility, a FDNY EMS facility, and Basketball City, a 70,000-square-foot sports facility with seven indoor basketball courts.

To the north of Pier 36 is the vast open space of Pier 42, where the city has been working on demolishing and abating an old warehouse complex. This long-delayed project would eventually create a new grand entrance to East River Park. The site is currently a fenced off wilderness with crumbling bulkheads.

The ESCR proposal would construct a pair of “swing flood gates” at the south end of Pier 42 and a sea wall adjacent to the FDR. The waterfront here is currently returning to marshland, with phragmites and other wild species growing above the old stone bulkhead.

John V. Lindsay East River Park is separated from the adjacent neighborhoods by six lanes of traffic on the FDR Drive. Originally opened in 1939, it was constructed as part of the East River Drive Improvement project, which extended the city’s coastline out into the East River with landfill and new bulkheads.

One of the most important structures in the park is its amphitheater, where Joseph Papp staged a free production of Julius Caesar in 1956. The original amphitheater had fallen into ruinous condition by 1994, when it was “a hulking wreck, piled with rubble, cast-off clothing, plastics containers, and rusty car parts, waiting for demolition or a miracle,” according to the New York Times. The current amphitheater is a humbler version of the original, and is used for concerts, dances, and other public events. It would be demolished as part of the ESCR plans and replaced by a new outdoor theater space.

To the north of the amphitheater is the Fireboat House, the current home of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. It is not yet clear if this 1941 building would be demolished, relocated, or surrounded by an 8-foot wall of landfill, as part of the ESCR plan. “It’s built on the original wooden pilings, and so you can’t you just magically lift up this building and raise it by eight feet,” says Datz-Romero.

“From our perspective, we would like to have a building in the new park, and if we can preserve this building, we need to understand how it could be adapted to make it viable,” says Datz-Romero, who started the organization in 1987. “And if that’s not possible, the city should build something new for us.”

The ESCR plan would also bury the site of this popular spray fountain, located next to the Fireboat House. The 27 harbor seals here were designed by sculptor Gerry Augustine Lynas, and installed in 2001. A petition has been started to try and save the seals, turtles and crabs from demolition.

The promenade of East River Park would be elevated by eight feet. In 2001, the promenade was closed for almost a decade of repairs, after severe erosion was discovered in 80 percent of the wooden pilings supporting it, according to the New York Times.

A lone fisherman under the Williamsburg Bridge. The promenade is a popular destination for fishermen and crabbers due to its relatively close proximity to the water. There are no areas in the park where the public can directly access the East River, and if this section is elevated, the public will be even more removed from the water.

A fish cleaning station, installed as part of a $98 million restoration project that was completed just in time for Hurricane Sandy in 2012. When the storm hit, the park, FDR Drive, and the adjacent neighborhoods were inundated by a 13-foot storm surge.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of trees were removed from East River Park, and in the years since, the city estimates that the park has lost 30 percent of its tree canopy. “The linden trees are not doing so well, because we lost a lot of them when they got blown over during Sandy,” says Datz-Romero, whose organization helped to replant over 5,000 native plants, shrubs and perennials in Sandy’s aftermath. “Our London plane trees are also struggling. We lost a lot of them because of the salt, which slowly kills them.”

Still, the tree canopy here is impressive, with many mature species that have been growing since the park opened in 1939. “Some of these trees are over 80 years old. But trees can live to hundreds of years old,” says Datz-Romero. “The trees would just all be bulldozed. It’s actually ironic, because this park celebrated its 80th birthday this year in the summertime.”

Looking north toward the end of the park at East 13th Street. “On a beautiful summer evening, there are hundreds of people in the park,” says Arnow, whose organization has plastered every lamppost in the park with fliers about its impending destruction. “It’s people who have been here for generations, who love this park and this place. So many people come to our meetings and they say, ‘This is our Disneyland. Other people can go to the Hamptons; we go to East River Park.’”

North of the park, the path of the East River Greenway is squeezed between the Con Edison East River Generating Station and the East River. During Hurricane Sandy, an explosion shut down this power plant, shutting off power to much of lower Manhattan. A pair of floodgates would be built across the FDR here, recessed into the sides of the highway.

The narrow pathway at this “pinch point” limits pedestrian access along the greenway. As part of the ESCR plan, the seawall here would be located on the west side of the drive, across from the East River, and a flyover bridge would be built above the FDR to open up a wider pathway between East River Park and Stuyvesant Cove Park.

The walk ends at Stuyvesant Cove Park, which was built in 2002 atop a brownfield that once held a concrete plant. The park, which is maintained by Solar One, is home to a wide variety of native plant species.

A small beach created by materials dumped by the concrete plant sits off the park’s promenade. Much of the landscape here would be demolished, and Solar One is working to relocate many of its plants. “We have already lost many plants in the park because of Hurricane Sandy,” says Elkan.

The East River regularly splashes over the sea wall here, leaving pools and puddles in these parks. “We are going to lose some of the plants in the park,” says Elkan. “Some of them are going to be destroyed. But more of them would be destroyed in the event of regular heavy flooding.”

The Solar One building at the north end of the park. Solar One is negotiating with the city to construct a new building in coordination with the ESCR plan. “We don’t want to have to build a new building and then close it 18 months later because the park would be a construction zone,” says Elkan. “In some ways, I think it’s going to be a better more resilient park.”

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