Stemming the Flood: East River Park Redesign Approved

East River Park

During Superstorm Sandy, the East River rose 14 feet and breached the East Side’s shoreline, damaging property and endangering the lives of New Yorkers. With the risk of floods rising alongside sea levels, last month New York City Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project. Part of NYC’s climate resiliency efforts post-Sandy, this project will transform 2.5 miles of Manhattan’s waterfront with a system of floodwalls, swing and roller floodgates, and a massive rebuild of the East River Park from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street.

The most controversial part of the project is a redesign of East River Park. To build a natural floodwall, the city is planning to raise the park eight feet. Unfortunately, this requires a complete park demolition and rebuild with new embankments, facilities, and over-road pathways. The resulting 16-foot tall waterfront will protect the city from future flooding caused by Sandy-like storm surges (14 feet above sea level) and continued sea level rise. The ESCR has been–and continues to be–something of a test case for balancing climate science and community needs in city policy-making.

The ESCR plan has faced considerable community pushback, primarily over the East River Park rebuild. A prior version of the proposal, one that community members contributed to during a stakeholder engagement process, placed flood walls and berms along FDR Drive to avoid park demolition. However, the city determined that this design would not provide sufficient flood protection and decided to move the floodwalls closer to the waterfront, foregoing the stakeholder process.

Community activists are concerned about how the lengthy park closure would affect nearby residents who use it the most. Many of the residential buildings near the park are owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and the park is the largest public greenspace and activity area in the neighborhood. Additionally, opponents have raised concerns over the destruction of plant life (~1,000 trees will be removed and replaced) and what would happen if a flood occurred during the construction period. 

These community concerns sparked change: instead of closing the entire park for 3.5 years during construction, the city announced that it will use a phased approach to construction so that the park can remain partially open to the public. Those worried about traffic are also in luck: the updated plan will no longer close portions of FDR Drive for construction and material transport. Instead, a barge will deliver materials to the worksite. 

To further address public concern, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Carlina Rivera hired Deltares, a resilience consultant, to review the ESCR plan. It recommended that the city:

  • Increase transparency from the city by releasing documentation, studies and reports to rebuild community trust;
  • Ensure stakeholder involvement by establishing a community advisory group;
  • Implement interim flood protection measures to alleviate concerns about flood risk during the construction period; and
  • Raise the park two additional feet to extend the useful life of the project. \

Community groups are hoping the city takes these recommendations to heart and reanalyzes the current plan before commencing construction. The city recently announced its intention to form a community advisory group and evaluate interim flood protection measures, possibly in reaction to the Deltares report.

Increasing NYC’s resiliency today is critical for mitigating future impacts of climate change. With construction slated to start Fall 2020, the ESCR project is projected to create a safer and more resilient waterfront and could become a model for projects around the world. However, the path to ESCR approval shows just how critical community and stakeholder engagement is throughout every step of the planning process.

The existing conditions and current flood protection proposal for East River Park, which moves flood protection infrastructure close to the water's edge. Image via City of New York Proposed Action Plan Public Hearing presentation on Sept. 17, 2019.

About the authors

Lydia Vieth
Lydia Vieth is the Policy Intern at Urban Green Council. She is finishing up her master's degree at NYU focusing on energy and environmental policy.