To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.
In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.
At a Dumbarton Oaks symposium on landscape, sport, and environment, landscape architect Simon David, ASLA, a founder of OSD|Outside and former director of the project for Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), explained the facets of the $1.5 billion project, which he said provides both “recreation and resilience in the era of climate change.”
The East River Park revamp is a central component of the East Side Coastal Resilience Project (ESCR), just one piece of what will be wall, gate, and park infrastructure that run down the east side, around the financial district, and up the west side of Manhattan. The east side design team includes Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), AKRF, One Architecture, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA).
The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.
David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”
The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.
To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”
NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.
Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.
The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.
In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.
The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.
Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”
Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”
David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”