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Lower East Side compost yard faces uncertain fate as resiliency project looms

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The city is forcing a crucial composting program into a rushed relocation

The Fireboat House in East River Park is home to the Lower East Side Ecology Center.
Nathan Kensinger

Each week, some 3,500 people contribute eight tons of food scraps to a compost yard in East River Park run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Banana peels, onion skins, egg shells, and other organic waste fill a communal bin that’s mixed with wood chips off site, and eventually converted into nutrient-rich soil used in parks and gardens across the city.

The center’s work prevents mounds of food waste from entering landfills each year and has introduced countless New Yorkers to start composting since it launched in 1990. But as the city prepares for the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project, which will remake the waterfront park with flood protections, the compost yard faces an uncertain future.

Due to a phased approach, the acre of land the LES Ecology Center sits on won’t be under construction until roughly 2023. Initially, the center received assurances from the city that its compost yard would remain operational for as long as possible. But now, the Parks Department is forcing the ecology center to relocate its compost operations by April, according to Lower East Side City Council member Carlina Rivera and the LES Ecology Center.

“I find it wholly unacceptable that we’re here at this point, when [the center is] such an important part of what we’re trying to do here, which is to create a more sustainable park and a future where we’re fighting climate change with community solutions,” says Rivera.

In a January 14 letter to Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, councilmembers Peter Koo and Antonio Reynoso, who respectively chair the Council’s parks and sanitation committees, joined Rivera in calling on the city to allow the compost yard—which they call “a key part of the Department of Sanitation’s citywide organics collection program”—to continue operating until construction is imminent.

“[The compost yard’s] location in the East River Park is a vital part of the organization’s identity and a needed resource to New York City,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge you to keep LES Ecology Center in East River Park until it is absolutely necessary, and that the administration honor its commitment to provide alternate space and assistance with relocation to ensure there is no disruption to LES Ecology Center’s compost operations.”

The Parks Department says it plans to build a temporary lawn on the land occupied by the compost yard for parkgoers to utilize while other parts of the green space are inaccessible. Construction is scheduled to begin on that lawn in April.

“We know New Yorkers want to utilize this park as much as possible until we begin to make the improvements needed to preserve it for the long term,” Parks Department spokesperson Megan Moriarty said in a statement. “We will be finding an alternate site for composting.”

The compost yard.
Courtesy of the Lower East Side Ecology Center

The agency says it was transparent about the plan, but both the LES Ecology Center and Rivera say the news came as a surprise. Antonio Lopez, a development manager with the LES Ecology Center who has been scrambling to help coordinate operations elsewhere, called the sudden relocation “devastating” to the center and its work.

If forced to relocate by April, the center would likely move to an MTA-owned lot under the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in East Harlem, which is a quarter of the size of the current LES space, says Lopez. The city has helped with the search for a new home but, according to Lopez, has not been receptive to calls for the compost yard to stay downtown. A move to the opposite end of Manhattan would complicate the center’s operations by forcing staff to drive trucks some 20 extra miles each day to make waste pickups, Lopez estimates.

“This would definitely be very difficult for us,” says Lopez. “First of all, it’s awful for the environment with the extra truck traffic and it’s going to be hard for our staff. And it’s going to take a long time to build relationships with residents.”

Amid the review process for the five-year ESCR project, Rivera negotiated with the city for a $12 million commitment to upgrade the Fireboat House in East River Park where the center is headquartered. When the LES Ecology Center eventually returns it will be to a revamped building, but Lopez says the Parks Department “hasn’t even told us if our compost yard will be coming back.” The LES Ecology Center recently launched a petition against the move that has more than 2,400 signatures.

The Department of Design and Construction says it plans to break ground on ESCR in the spring of 2020. City Hall expects to have operable flood protections by mid-2023 and to complete the whole effort by late 2025.

Lopez appreciates the need to ensure there is ample park space for locals, but says the accelerated approach gives the group less time to plan and ultimately makes little sense.

“It’s great that they want to provide more green space to the neighborhood, but at the same time it’s at the expense of an important community program,” says Lopez. “It’s a balance, but it’s really hurting us and the programming we do.”