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Two Bridges flood protections will raise East River esplanade up to two feet

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The Manhattan neighborhood is the borough’s most vulnerable to flooding

A dark blue metal bridge spans over the East River.
A nearly mile-long stretch of Two Bridges waterfront will be elevated to fight rising sea levels.
Max Touhey

The Two Bridges area is Manhattan’s most vulnerable to flooding, sitting some seven feet above sea level. Flood barriers and new drainage infrastructure are planned to protect the neighborhood from prolific storm surge, but that alone will not fend off climate change.

Now, the city plans to elevate a nearly mile-long stretch of the East River esplanade as much as two feet in some sections in anticipation of rising sea levels. The effort is part of the $203-million Brooklyn Bridge-Montgomery Coastal Resilience project set to break ground in 2021 and be operational by 2024, almost 12 years after Superstorm Sandy flooded lower Manhattan.

“Since we’re going to be doing construction out here anyway, while we’re implementing this flood protection system ... let’s build up the ground a little bit,” Lauren Micir, an associate at the engineering firm AECOM, hired by the city to lead the project, said at a Wednesday public meeting. “This is something that we’re doing to reduce the concern and worry about that sunny-day tidal flooding.”

The flood defense system will stretch from the Brooklyn Bridge to Montgomery Street with elevations as little as a few inches up to two feet. Steps and ramps will be installed to ensure locals can easily navigate the new platform. Beneath the esplanade, officials aim to beef up drainage infrastructure to divert storm water runoff from flooding the neighborhood. Above it, there will be an interconnected weave of flood barriers.

Much of the 0.82-mile section of the Two Bridge waterfront will feature flip-up barriers that can be triggered to form a 10-foot shield ahead of major storms, which will also help preserve locals’ waterfront views. In sections where that isn’t feasible due to below-ground infrastructure, roller gates will be installed near posts sticking up from the esplanade—the only piece of protections that will be up right year-round. Keeping sight lines and public access is a core project goal, Micir notes.

Courtesy of NYC Economic Development Coporation

“It’s everyone’s backyard, or front porch, however you want to look at it, and we want to make sure that we can design this flood protection infrastructure to function and provide safety from the community on the one hand, but also not negatively impact our public realm,” Micir said. The city has yet to determine who will actual maintain those barriers and public spaces once they’re in place, and says the addition to elevate the esplanade will not trigger a major change to the project’s budget, according to NYC Economic Development Cooperation (NYCEDC) spokesperson Christopher Singleton.

The project, Micir explained, will shuffle around recreational amenities along the waterfront, like fitness areas and basketball courts, and redesign or build new ones such as plazas at intersections. But some locals felt blindsided by the restructuring of amenities, and frustrated with the lack of city outreach for Wednesday’s update and the inevitable slew of meetings it will take to get locals and officials on the same page.

“The concern is that we’re going to get into meeting fatigue,” said Trever Holland, a longtime neighborhood activist with Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side (TUFF-LES) and the chairman of Manhattan Community Board 3’s waterfront committee.

Holland and others also questioned the city’s sudden name change from Two Bridges to the Brooklyn Bridge-Montgomery Costal Resilience project, when the area has a slew of other neighboring projects going on, including the East Side Costal Resiliency project, which has now been revamped for the second time. “There’s just so much going on right now,” said Marilyn Ortiz, a resident of the Rutgers Houses public housing project. “It’s a lot for the community to take in all at once.”

NYCEDC says the name change was made to clarify the swath of waterfront the project impacts.

Reps for the de Blasio administration pushed back on concerns about a sudden project overhaul, pointing out that the city is in the final design phases now and working to fully assemble the project’s puzzle pieces, and at least two more community meetings are slated for input and updates before construction.

“We are now at the stage where we’re talking about where [the flood barriers] actually land,” said Jordan Salinger, with the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. “We’re not hiking the ball here; we’re just moving this forward.”