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Future of East Side flood protection plan debated at heated hearing

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The plan will protect a 2.4 mile stretch of Manhattan’s coast from flooding

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

The de Blasio administration’s plan to build flood protections along Manhattan’s east side ignited a firestorm of criticism when it was overhauled last fall. Locals saw the move as effectively tossing aside years of community engagement in favor of a plan that requires a complete closure of the East River Park during construction, leaving neighborhoods starved for open space in the lurch for three and a half years.

City officials stress that the 11th-hour change is to ensure that longterm storm resiliency infrastructure is in place as quickly as possible. But a number of questions linger as the plan reaches a key point in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP): a vote by the City Planning Commission (CPC).

On Wednesday, dozens raised concerns during testimony at a CPC hearing where neighbors and elected officials expressed their skepticism of the current proposal.

“I, like many of my elected colleagues, continue to have serious issues with a number of unresolved questions outlined by local community boards and advocates that must be resolved as we move through this ULURP process,” said City Council member Carlina Rivera, who represents the area and whose support (or lack thereof) carries significant weight in the ULURP process. The Council tends to fall in line with the vote of the local lawmaker.

The East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) Project stretches from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street (and includes a significant portion of East River Park), with the goal of providing flood protection for 2.4 miles of Manhattan’s coastline. Originally, the city planned to build berms, floodgates, and other barriers along the FDR Drive. Under that plan, flood waters would have inundated the park, but protected the lower Manhattan neighborhoods.

It wasn’t until last September, after years of working with locals to craft the plan, that the city took a dramatic turn and announced that it was going with a different plan that, by its own admission, revised 70 percent of the project.

The proposed 2.4-mile East Side Coastal Resiliency Project.
The Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency

Instead, the new design will elevate East River Park at least eight feet and move the flood barriers to the water’s edge. The amount of the park’s sought-after softball, soccer, and turf fields will not change and, when all is said and done, locals will have a fully revitalized park, three upgraded pedestrian bridges that span over the FDR to the green space, and a new flyover bridge at 14th Street. Construction is set to begin in March 2020, with flood protections operational before 2023’s hurricane season, and the full project completion by the end of 2023, according to the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC)

The city insists this is the fastest alternative that avoids tricky overnight work and nighttime highway closures. Officials also say the revised plan makes more longterm sense because it would provide greater post-storm park access.

“It’s much more difficult to bring an active recreation park back online quickly so the view is that this is an investment in the longterm future of East River Park, which in many ways would have become more frequently unusable had we not made this intervention,” said Jamie Torres Springer, the first deputy commissioner of DDC.

But many have serious reservations. Manhattan Community Boards 3 and 6 each approved the plans, but with a laundry list of conditions such as open space mitigations during the closure, beefed up transparency, and area transportation improvements since the park serves as a transit hub with a greenway used by scores of bike riders annually, two ferry stops, and plenty of pedestrian paths.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also offered conditional support in her project recommendations this week, while citing two major areas of concern: the project’s timeline and its lack of review by outside experts. Brewer has called on an independent expert (not based in New York City as to avoid any conflicts of interest) to pore over the plan. Such a measure would allow another look at the project’s impacts and ensure that it is cost effective, says Brewer.

The Manhattan BP joined several neighbors in calling for a phased timeline that allows locals to utilize at least some portions of the park during construction instead of depriving them access to open space for years. Community Board 6 in particular, she stressed, has the lowest amount of open space per capita than any community district in the city.

The Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency

“It is unfair that in the name of resilience an estimated 28,200 who live within the project’s radius would have no access to any green space while this project is being constructed,” Brewer said. “A phased timeline must be established that would allow for residents to continuously use sections of the park.”

The fate of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, a group that provides e-waste and composting services and environmental education, is also up the air, with the city having yet to address the park center’s future. Others have decried the very premise of bulldozing a lush ecosystem of flora and fauna, but others still charge that if the new plan provides greater protection for the community and its green space in the long run then its a sacrifice worth making.

“Flood protections are our number one priority at the Baruch Houses,” said Camille Napoleon, the vice president of the tenants association at the Baruch Houses—a public housing complex that abuts the southern portion of East River Park. “Yes, trees are important, but if I have to choose between losing a tree and losing a life, I choose a tree."

City Planning commissioners peppered officials with questions on the plan, including on the city’s sudden shift, sewer infrastructure, and transportation alternatives while the park is shuttered. Although the two NYC Ferry stops in East River Park will remain operational, bikers will be unable to access its popular greenway. DOT is in the midst of developing a mitigation plan that includes exploring increasing bike lane capacity on Avenue B and C, but Commissioner Larisa Ortiz said the city must come up with a solid strategy before moving forward.

“This park and this neighborhood is located quite a distance from public transit and the park itself has really become an important transportation artery,” said Ortiz. “I think that that’s got to be thought through because of the importance of this as a north-south connector.”

The CPC has within 60 days to green-light the plan, vote it down, or approve it with modifications. If it makes it through, the project will head to the City Council where it must wind its way through a cadre of committees before a make-or-break vote by city lawmakers.