Manhattan coastal protection plan under cloud of controversy

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left the Lower East Side underwater and in the dark. Now nearly a decade later, New York City has finally started work on a coastal resiliency plan to protect lower Manhattan from future flooding. But the plan is swirling in its own storm of controversy.

"We think that for $1.45 billion, there has to be a way to achieve flood protection without destroying the entire East River Park," said Fannie Ip, one of the founding members of the group East River Park Action, which opposes the city's plan.

Under the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan, which broke ground at East 25th Street last week, 4.2 miles of coastline from East 25th Street to Montgomery Street will be buried under 8 to 10 feet of landfill to elevate the park. Berms, walls, and floodgates will be added to create a flood barrier.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said it will protect 110,000 New Yorkers, many of them lower-income residents, who live downtown.

"It will protect so many people in one of the most densely populated areas of the nation," de Blasio said. "We have learned through experience that we have to get ahead of this challenge and invest now." 

But many Lower East Side residents disagree and say the plan will take away much-needed green space and will destroy the neighborhood park, including newly built sections. It will also displace the Lower East Side Ecology Center and the organization's composting site while construction is underway.

"This park is receiving 57 acres of destruction, bulldozing, cutting of 1,000 trees, a concrete wall, and a levee," said Emily Johnson of East River Park Action, who is also a member of the Yup'ik Nation.

East River Park Action has filed two lawsuits against the city, one to get an unredacted version of the engineering report on which the city says it based its choice to scrap a previous plan, one that was well-received.

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Earlier this month the city released a less-redacted version online.

"It's deeply disrespectful to just introduce a brand-new plan and claim there was community engagement when there wasn't," said Harriet Hirshorn, a Lower East Side resident and also a member of East River Park Action.

De Blasio claims there was community input. Meanwhile, the city has promised to keep 42% of the park open during construction and plant thousands of new trees.

Community Board 3's Trever Holland, who chairs the Parks, Waterfront and Recreation Committee, said the plan is not perfect but will provide much-needed protection.

"The plan we have right now, with all of its inconveniences, is the solution to protect the vulnerable NYCHA and affordable housing along the coastline," Holland said.

The city said the flood protection plan will take five years to complete.

The Department of Design and Construction, which is overseeing the project, said in a statement that the project started last fall.

"The project to protect 110,000 residents from the effects of sea-level rise is already well underway. Work on ESCR began in November 2020 in Asser Levy Park, and major construction began near Stuyvesant Cove Park last week," DDC said. "This is a large contract and because of the need to be cautious in the procurement process we now expect work to begin in East River Park this summer."