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LES & East Village Residents Feel 'Duped' By City's Surprise Plan To Bury East River Park

A flooded portion of East River Park, a 57.5 acre public park located on the Lower East Side
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A flooded portion of East River Park, a 57.5 acre public park located on the Lower East Side Flickr/George Brooks

After millions of dollars and countless hours spent fielding input from Lower East Side and East Village residents, the city now plans to abandon a long-in-the-works redesign of East River Park. Instead, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced via a press release in September, the city will literally raise the park, burying much of the current infrastructure under 10 feet of landfill and building it anew.

The abrupt reversal was the topic of a well-attended City Council hearing on Wednesday, in which a parade of local community groups sought answers from the city about a new plan that will cut off access to much of the park between 14th Street and Corlears Hook for an estimated three-and-a-half years.

"Closing the park for this long will have a devastating impact for residents and no real mitigation plan has been presented," said Naomi Schiller, a member of the LESReady! coalition, which was formed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and now includes over two dozen community groups. “We urge the City Council to do everything possible to prevent this plan that overrides years of community input from a broad range of stakeholders, that would restrict access to a critical source of recreation and open space for Lower East Side residents, and that leaves critical long-term environmental impacts inadequately addressed.”

The previous project—which involved adding a series of berms to the park, floodgates to FDR Drive, and a host of recreational benefits for parkgoers—had been selected by the Rebuild By Design competition as the first phase of the city's ambitious "Big U" approach to fortifying Manhattan's lower half. Armed with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal recovery money, city officials had spent the last four years developing a plan alongside local residents that aimed to be a national model for community-driven climate resiliency. Now, Schiller says,"years of community input have basically gone out the window."

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A comparison of the two plans shared by the city with Community Board 3 (Mayor's Office)

“The recent exclusion of the public in the decision making process, and rationale the city has given, is counter to the principals of the Rebuild By Design,” echoed Amy Chester, executive director of the competition, which grew out of the federal government’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force.

Pressed on this point by council members, officials admitted that their outreach efforts had fallen short. "Did we communicate the change properly? No," said Lorraine Grillo, commissioner of the city's Department of Design and Construction. "That's on me. I take responsibility for that and I apologize."

Nevertheless, officials said there was little choice but to go through with the revised vision, as the previous version would leave the park vulnerable to catastrophic flooding during the next Sandy-level storm. "There are parks designed to absorb storm surge, but they don't have recreational elements inside them," explained NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. Activists say they've been told that decision was based upon by a design study commissioned last year, which they've not yet been permitted to see.

While Silver noted that many of the previous elements of the plan would be kept, the fate of some proposed additions—including a new harbor bath and a dedicated foraging area—as well as existing structures, like the historic amphitheater, remains uncertain. The new plan would also result in the removal of thousands of plants and trees that volunteers helped grow in the years following Sandy.

"There are over 700 trees and over 350 species that call the East River Park home," said Christine Datz-Romero, the executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. "This is an urban oasis for so many creatures, and there's been no compelling reason offered so far to justify destroying it."

Among the benefits of the new proposal, according to officials, is the fact that the landfill approach will allow the city to avoid constructing a floodgate along the FDR Drive, which would have resulted in the closure of one lane of the highway for several years. The consideration has led some to accuse the city of appeasing drivers at the expense of local residents. By using barges to carry the landfill by day, rather than closing down part of the highway for overnight work, the new plan can be completed about two years ahead of schedule, according to Grillo.

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A previous plan for foldable storm barriers along FDR Drive (Rebuild By Design)

But community advocates point out that the Parks Department has blown past deadlines on several neighboring projects, and the new plan is not yet funded. Previously estimated at $760 million, it will now cost $1.45 billion to complete, with the city expected to pick up the tab in next year's capital budget. (Over $150 million was spent to rehabilitate the park during the Bloomberg administration.)

The federal government has so far committed $330 million to the project, around $40 million has which has already been spent on design work. While Parks officials said the remaining federal funds are not in danger, some elected officials were less confident.

"The worst possible result is that we start this work and run out of money," said Councilmember Mark Levine. "It's a hostile administration in Washington…there have been projects a lot smaller than this that have died on the vine because we couldn't get full funding." (A spokesperson for HUD did not respond to a request for comment).

Activists are also confused about the ballooning cost of the project, given years of planning dictated by what they thought were strict budget constraints. "When they say, 'Oh, by the way, we have $700 million more now,' people feel duped," Ayo Harrington, a longtime neighborhood organizer and leader of the East River Alliance, told Gothamist. "People want to know why we can't talk about ambitious infrastructure ideas like burying the highway, or adding more unique structures like they have on the [Hudson River Greenway]." At the very least, Harrington said, the city should offer residents free ferries to nearby Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governor's Island.

Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents the area, echoed the call to provide alternative green space to local residents, particularly the thousands of NYCHA tenants who live in buildings along the waterfront. Several speakers noted the neighborhood's high asthma rates, and the fact that more than half of Lower East Side students do not get physical education in school. Many called for a phased-in approach to construction, rather than a full shutdown of the park.

Beyond the community concerns, there's also the question of whether the city has a legal path to complete the project. While Grillo insists that alienation—a state oversight process triggered when a municipality aims to get rid of a park—will not be necessary, elected officials in Albany and Washington don't seem to agree.

"The new plan is essentially to transform the park itself into a flood barrier," read a letter delivered on behalf of state Senator Brad Hoylman, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, and Congressmember Nydia Velazqueza on Wednesday. "Since it is clear that the City would not be demolishing or reconstructing the park otherwise, we believe that City is not undertaking the project for a park purpose, and it therefore requires alienation."

For now, Lower East Siders say they'll do everything in their power to ensure the city's new landfill plan doesn't trash years of public feedback that went into the previous plan.

"We demand that the city work with us acre by acre, bench by bench, tree by tree," said Harrington. "As you know, our community is resilient, our community is just, and our community is very, very loud."

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