It’s been more than a year since the New York City Council approved a $1.45 billion plan to protect Manhattan’s Lower East Side from future flooding, but challenges to the plan have been recently reignited by some who remain opposed to the project.
Work on the northern portion of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, at Asser Levy Playground at East 23rd St., started earlier this month, to get the area ready for construction, according to the New York City Department of Design and Construction. The city said it plans to begin work on the East River Park section of the project, south of East 14th St., by early next year, once bids come back from contractors.
Although the city has committed to leaving a minimum of 42% of East River Park open to the public while it works on elevating the park in phases, much of the park will be closed off once construction begins next year. It is projected to be complete in 2025.
Once the project is fully built, 2.4 miles of flood protection will stretch out from East 25th Street to Montgomery Street. The plan includes floodwalls and floodgates, new landscape around the area’s parks and playgrounds and an elevated East River Park. The city will also invest in improvements in underground interior drainage improving the capacity of the area’s sewer system. The project is intended to protect the more than 110,000 residents who currently live in the floodplain area including about 28,000 residents who live in NYCHA developments.
Opponents say that since construction has not fully started, and given the city is in a tight financial situation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should not close down East River Park until the pandemic is over, allowing residents to use the park until then.
Some are worried construction could go on past the city’s projected timeline, leaving 110,000 residents who live in the floodplain, especially the area’s low-income NYCHA residents, without green space for years. Activists opposed to the current plan argue it was not agreed on in a community-driven process, because the city bruptly altered its plans in 2018. The city and community had previously worked on a plan for more than four years, having gone through a number of community meetings.
With the next mayor taking office in just over a year, these opponents want to try to get candidates to commit to going back to the drawing board and either develop a new community-driven plan or revert back to the earlier plan that would have added a wall along the FDR Drive and did not raise the park.
Supporters of the plan say lawmakers, surrounding stakeholders, including NYCHA residents and the area’s two community boards, spent years holding meetings with the community about the current approach. They also point to the numerous commitments they got the city to make before the project was approved, which include the project being constructed in phases, getting the city to commit to air monitoring, soil testing and noise reduction measures it will have to share with the independent Community Advisory Group.
After the area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Obama administration solicited proposals for federally funded flood-protection projects. The federal government initially awarded $335 million to a project known as the Big U, which became the basis of the current plan.
The city said the more recent changes would allow it to finish six months ahead of schedule and be less disruptive to surrounding residents, because the design would be closer to the East River and away from the FDR Drive. Council Member Keith Powers, whose East Side district includes a portion of the project, said that the city could not afford to wait any longer to complete the project. “Closures for phased construction are temporary, and supplemented with additional green space in the area. There’s no time to waste,” he said.
Nonetheless, area residents are calling on elected officials to block implementation of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. “If they had the political will to stop this, they could,” said Harriet Hirshorn of opposition advocacy group East River Park Action, speaking of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and one of three Democratic City Council members who represent the area, Carlina Rivera. “The bulldozers haven’t hit the ground yet.”
Hirshorn and others have remained opposed to the plan since the sudden change of plans and are upset that the park will have to close down and leave the community with no interim flood protection while the project is being constructed.
Attached to the project is the $335 million in federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, funding officials fear the city would risk losing if the demands from opponents are met. “That has to be spent by fall of 2022,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said of the federal funding. “I worked hard, I wrote letters, we all worked really, really hard to get that money … we can’t lose that money.”
Posters have been going up around the community accusing de Blasio and Rivera of being “destroyers of East River Park.” Council member Rivera told City & State that the founder of East River Park Action, Pat Arnow, is behind the posters and another one depicting fellow area Council Member Margaret Chin as Godzilla, a claim Arnow denies. East River Park Action shared the poster of Chin on social media but eventually deleted the post.
Jasmin Sanchez, a community activist and member of East River Alliance who lives in NYCHA’s Baruch Houses, said that if Rivera does not reverse her support for the current plan, she could face an opponent in the 2023 Democratic primary, when she is up for reelection. Rivera, who was elected to the City Council in 2017, is so far running unopposed in the 2021 Democratic primary race for City Council. Sanchez believes Rivera was spared from getting a primary challenger in 2021 because she voted against the city’s $88.2 billion fiscal 2021 budget, arguing that the mayor did not make drastic enough cuts to the NYPD’s budget. But City Council candidates elected in 2021 will only serve a two-year term as opposed to the typical four-year term due to a provision in the city’s charter. Council members elected in 2021 will therefore be up for reelection again in 2023, after district lines are likely to be redrawn to reflect the results of the 2020 census. Candidates will not be eligible to run for another four-year term until 2025.
“(Rivera) better get her act together ,or she will be primaried in 2023,” Sanchez said. “The priority is to stop the project and to revert either to the original plan she was part of, or start a new process where the community has input.” Sanchez ran against Rivera in the 2017 Democratic primary for her current seat and is a member of the citywide Democratic Socialists of America.
Rivera is a leading contender to replace Corey Johnson as the next City Council speaker. She is not a member of DSA but told City & State she identifies with its values.
Rivera did not explicitly say whether she would support going back to the drawing board when asked, but said the city worked with the community extensively, essentially since 2013, to come up with the current design. “My goal is to protect NYCHA families and I feel that every season that goes by when we avoid another traumatic experience of eight feet of water as far west as Avenue C,” Rivera said. “Every season that we do not do something, we’re dodging a bullet.”
Trever Holland, Community Board 3’s Parks Chair supports the project. “I’m happy for that investment, we complain as a community, especially as a poor community, that we don't get investments from the city, that we don’t get investments from the federal government, we don't see these types of infrastructure projects,” Holland said. “I understand this has controversy, any type of flood resiliency plan for that area, Lower Manhattan for that part is going to be controversial, because it’s urban constraints, you have to raise land somewhere.”
Nancy Ortiz, the president of NYCHA’s Vladeck Houses tenant association, which sits at the southern tip of East River Park, said the community often has to wait years for things to happen and can’t afford to wait any longer on a new plan to get flood protection. “We need to be protected. We’re tired of the flooding, of the blackouts, of the destruction,” Ortiz said. “Have you seen what the waterfront housing developments look like now post-Sandy? And all the horrible construction, the trees we’ve lost?”
DDC’s First Deputy Commissioner Jamie Torres Springer, told City & State that the city is on track to complete the project by 2025. Additionally, he said the full funding for the project is there and does not foresee any issues with its timeline at the moment.
“They were heavily impacted by the flooding during Hurricane Sandy and it caused a significant amount of disruption,” Torres Springer said of the 110,00 residents living in the floodplain. “We’re trying to avoid that happening as quickly as possible, so that’s the reason that we’re proceeding with our plan. The plan we’re proceeding with is the one that we identified that could both be built as quickly as possible and provide the sort of maximum of protecting the community improving waterfront access, improving open space resources on the waterfront that was studied extensively and it was approved by the City Council.”
The latest opposition to the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project highlights the challenge in finding a perfect solution to address the impacts of climate change. “It’s an environmental disaster to raise the whole park, to take out everything, it’s like the worst possible, monster solution you could come up with,” Arnow said.
But with sea levels rising and extreme weather becoming more common, there may not be any answer that doesn’t come with drawbacks or criticism from someone.
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