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East Side Coastal Resiliency project moves forward, but concerns linger

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A major change was unveiled earlier this week for the plan

A rendering of the proposed East Side Coastal Resiliency Project.
The Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency

Elected officials and locals remain skeptical of the city’s plan to overhaul Manhattan’s east side with storm protections, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent attempt to quash criticism with changes to a key component of the $1.45 billion proposal.

The East Side Costal Resiliency project will no longer fully close East River Park for three years during construction; instead the city will take a two-phased approach that will allow nearly half of the heavily used park to remain open throughout construction. The change came a week after the City Planning Commission approved the proposal, and a day before the City Council poured over project details at a packed public hearing. Elected officials saw the shift as a signal that the city is listening to locals’ concerns, but blasted the administration for unaddressed issues.

“I’m relieved the city came forward with an improved modification to their plan, but remain disappointed that … mistrust in government became dominant themes in a conversation that should have been focused on access to open space and flood protection for our families,” Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents a portion of the impacted area, said at Thursday’s hearing.

Rivera stressed how weighing the project has become “unnecessarily difficult,” in large part because the city announced in December that it was effectively scrapping years of community engagement by revising 70 percent of the project. That sudden change has fostered municipal mistrust among locals, and provoked ire from elected officials. The city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) in particular, must “work harder to live up to their promise for transparent and current communication,” Rivera said.

Unresolved issues linger for lawmakers, including strengthening the city’s commitments to ensure that any mitigation plan will protect residents from hazardous materials and air quality concerns. Soil excavated during East River Park’s overhaul could contain the toxic remnants of manufactured gas plants that once lined the waterfront.

A comprehensive plan for interim flood measures must also be developed, officials say, to protect the area from a major storm should one strike before resiliency measures are complete. Those are expected to come online by 2023, with the whole project slated for completion by 2025.

Rivera is far from alone in her misgivings about the administration’s plans. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joined the councilmember in hiring Dutch environmental consulting group Deltares to conduct an independent review of the project; that report is expected Monday.

“I want to be very clear that we still need more information,” Brewer testified, noting her skepticism of the final Environmental Impact Statement’s assertion that the project isn’t likely to have a major impact on the area’s natural resources when it will uproot nearly 1,000 trees, replace the existing park with fill, and raise it some eight feet.

NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver noted that many of the park’s trees will likely need to be replaced anyway due to their lack of saltwater tolerance and that more than 1,800 new trees across 50 species will be planted above the flood plane for a net increase of 750 trees, including native species that are salt tolerant. DDC First Deputy Commissioner Jamie Torres Springer emphasized the undertaking as an “unprecedented, complex construction project.”

The city’s Parks Department, in partnership with other city agencies, is currently determining what temporary entrances and paths will be needed for parts of the park to stay open during construction. The agency is also working on a plan to ensure youth sports leagues can continue using local ball fields.

A group of state lawmakers made up of State Senator Brian Kavanagh, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein echoed concerns raised by city officials and also worry that the city will be vulnerable to lawsuits without seeking parkland alienation legislation for the project.

If the proposal receives City Council approval, shovels are slated to hit the ground next spring. Elected officials across the city, state, and federal gamut urged the city not to move forward with construction before a thorough review of the independent expert’s forthcoming report.