City workers continued demolishing trees at the East River Park as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project on Saturday, drawing the ire of advocates who say the city is violating a temporary restraining order that should have halted all work at the park.
Protesters confronted one contractor near the site early Saturday and tried to hand out copies of the restraining order, according to videos posted to social media.
The temporary restraining order was the latest legal maneuver by opponents to the $1.45 billion project, which will dump eight feet of landfill to bury the 2.2-mile existing park and build a new park on top of it in the next five years. The new elevated park will help reduce flood risk for nearby communities, city officials say.
The opponents, including the East River Park ACTION activist group, have accused the city of destroying precious green space while ignoring potential flood protection measures that would have retained more of the existing park.
The city is facing three lawsuits over the project, according to NY1. On Wednesday, a state appeals court judge issued the temporary restraining order while the court decides if it will hear an appeal of the dismissal of one lawsuit. Despite the temporary restraining order, the city began demolition again Friday.
“The City has reviewed the Court’s written order and we do not believe it prevents us from continuing work on this vital resiliency project,” said Ian Michaels, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Design and Construction, in a statement Saturday. “The 100,000 New Yorkers who live in this project area can’t wait any longer for storm resiliency. The courts have already decided in our favor – twice – and we remain confident that our strong legal position will allow us to deliver the protection they deserve.”
Arthur Schwartz, lead attorney for the East River Park ACTION, called the demolition Saturday “very underhanded.”
“Why would a judge sign an order that didn't mean anything?” Schwartz said. “How the city can take that position is just absurd." The state Appeals Court judge also set a hearing for December 20th where the city can respond to the TRO.
On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the East Side Coastal Resiliency project was urgently needed to protect the neighborhoods from future disasters such as the flooding during Hurricane Sandy, and that the East River Park would be restored.
“The reason we're doing everything – this was a long, open, public process and it’s something we are doing to defend that neighborhood against a horrible thing that happened with Sandy, with Hurricane Sandy,” de Blasio said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show. “There had to be a plan that would protect the East Side long-term. We also know with the climate crisis, it’s getting worse. We can expect a lot more major storms, horrible disastrous realities for that area. So, we had to do something different.”
An initial proposal developed with community input would have installed flood barriers and berms along FDR Drive, but the de Blasio administration later decided that plan would not offer enough protection from disastrous storms like Sandy.
The city is building the new park in stages, starting with closing the southern half of the existing park until summer 2023 for work. The northern half of the existing park will be closed for construction from summer 2024 through 2026.
Michaels of the DDC noted the trees being destroyed -- 1,000 trees, some of which were 80 years old -- will be replaced by 1,800 newly planted trees in the park and another 1,000 trees in the neighboring community.
The planting of additional trees did not excuse the destruction of existing trees, Schwartz said.
“Yes, in 50 or 60 years, you will have a replacement but what happens in between?” he said. “You cannot replace an existing 80 year-old tree with a sapling.”