Serious Questions Remain as East River Resiliency Project Heads to Manhattan Borough President

Posted on: July 17th, 2019 at 5:00 am by

May 2019, Photo: Elena Robledo

The following first post was written by native Lower East Sider, Aidan Elias, who works to document the area’s rapid development.

Back in mid-May, the Parks Department shared a presentation with the Community Board 3 Parks subcommittee regarding the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.

(The ESCR project is the city’s flood protection plan which will close, demolish, and rebuild the majority of the East River Park.)

The presentation was divided into three sections: “Project Update,” “Neighborhood Parks Improvements,” and “Next Steps.” The overwhelming majority of this presentation is contained within the “Neighborhood Parks Improvements” section, and outlines ten separate redevelopment projects at over a dozen locations throughout Lower Manhattan. Presumably, this presentation was in-part the department’s response to community demands for help in mitigating the massive loss of public space which the ESCR project requires for its at least three-and-a-half year construction period.

Among the initiatives summarized is the “Asphalt to Turf or Turf Improvement” initiative, which discussed eight proposed projects. Of these, six are located directly on the Lower East Side: Tompkins Square Park, Tanahey Playground, Coleman Field, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, the Baruch Playground, and the plot currently occupied by the LaGuardia Bathhouse.

In June, the full CB3 board voted to approve the ESCR project application, albeit with “conditions.” The approval outlines several unresolved questions including the “frayed trust” of the community, lack of consensus over whether the newer “Preferred Alternative” plan requires a vote by the state legislature, and the complete absence of outside scientific review.

May 2019, Photo: Elena Robledo

One particular concern appearing throughout the report deal with the city’s promised “mitigations.” While CB3 affirmed that “district wide mitigations…still do not provide full compensation for the tremendous loss of open space that the community will suffer,” they go on further to state that numbers of these “mitigations” had “already been in the pipeline.” There’s clearly a concern about whether responses to calls for new public space is instead a rebranding of capital projects which had already been conceived and put forward for funding. CB3 also asks the city to identify specifically which “parks and playgrounds are under consideration,” and “which projects are new and not necessarily already in the capital projects pipeline.”

For example, was the proposal to convert the Tompkins asphalt into a turf field a move by the parks department to mitigate the loss of East River facilities as they have stated, or was it already a plan that found convenient cover under ESCR? To be clear, the project’s impact on the Lower East Side certainly requires mitigating, the need for a softball field very real — yet, it is also in the public’s immediate interest to understand the ways in which the ESCR project and its related development proposals reflect ongoing work by the city to transform Lower Manhattan.

Of the six proposed development sites on the Lower East Side, two of them (Coleman Field and Tanahey Playground) are within one and two blocks, respectively, of Extell’s One Manhattan Square at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. This development not only received 421-a tax exemption, but is one of four total skyscrapers vying for space along Cherry Street. The three other proposed luxury high-rise towers are facing multiple lawsuits (one filed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer), which among many things contend that they violate zoning laws and should not have been allowed by the city to bypass the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Regardless of whether a direct choice was made by city officials to improve the two largest and closest parks to One Manhattan Square and its future neighboring towers, what results is the coordination of city policy across numerous departments towards the luxury redevelopment of entire swaths of the neighborhood.

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