Disaster Squared: Coronavirus and Hurricanes Poses Deadly Threat to Lower East Side [OP-ED]

Posted on: May 28th, 2020 at 5:03 am by

Photo: Amy Berkov

The following editorial is written by Pat Arnow.

For more than a year, the city has been ignoring solid community opposition to a massive flood control project that will demolish East River Park, and do the opposite.

Now, with a furious hurricane season predicted, not listening could prove dire for these unwealthy sections of the neighborhood along the FDR Drive. A storm surge a la Hurricane Sandy in 2012 will force evacuations to shelters with no protection from Covid-19. This is what happened several days ago in the Philippines where the pandemic rages. A powerful typhoon forced thousands into shelters with no social distancing possible.

The neighborhood needs interim flood protection now. The city promised to study temporary barriers in November. That’s when the City Council approved the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) plan. The project will demolish the 1.2 mile East River Park starting this fall. Over five years, the parkland will be covered with eight feet of fill for a massive flood wall. The park will be rebuilt on top.

Photo: Amy Berkov

Demolition is still on schedule. Interim flood protection is not on any official’s agenda.

Disaster Squared

Meanwhile, closing 60-percent of the park in this first phase of the ESCR will block residents from open space where distancing can be maintained.

The construction noise and dust will add to the problem. Even a small amount of particulate matter in the air raises death rates from Covid-19.

The city could be responsive to the community by redirecting some of the $1.45 billion now allocated to the ESCR. Those funds could provide interim flood protection now, help residents who are suffering now, and help develop a plan that will not devastate East River Park.

Jarring Irony

Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, the firm that developed coastal resiliency plans for Manhattan, wrote about post-pandemic planning in a May 4 Daily News editorial. She said the city should use the ideas of residents, citing the success of community involvement in developing plans for coastal resiliency in Manhattan.

Her opinion is ironic. The plan so thoughtfully developed with Rebuild by Design was suddenly scrapped by the city in the fall of 2018 for a project that cost twice as much and will completely destroy East River Park. That wasn’t what the community had in mind after five years and $40 million of planning. Continuing widespread resistance to the plan has had no effect on the city’s determination to demolish the park—even now, when the neighborhood needs it more than ever.

Opposition Overwhelming, Consistent, and Unheeded

More than 8,500 petitions opposed park destruction. Hundreds demonstrated in the streets, the park and at City Hall. More than 200 provided written critiques to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. More than 200 testified at public meetings, generally waiting hours to say a two-minute piece. A review of these testimonies shows overwhelming opposition:

– June 2019, Community Board 3 Hearing:  70 testified. 67 opposed the ESCR.

– July 2019, Town Hall called by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer: 49 testified. 46 were critical of the project.

– July 2019, City Planning Commission Public Hearing, 43 testified, 30 opposed.

– September 2019, Amendment 20 Hearing: 21 testified; not one person in favor of the plan.

– October 2019, City Council Hearing, Subcommittee on Landmarks, Sitings and Dispositions: 43 testified, 29 against the plan, 13 in favor, 1 undecided.

“Even though they were in favor, many spoke of the reservations and mentioned some of the problems with the plan,” says Fannie Ip, a Lower East Side resident who testified and reviewed the testimonies for this article.

Of the 226 people who testified, 193 were critical of the plan. That’s 89 percent.

How the City Ignores the 89-percent

While impassioned, well-informed residents spoke at the ESCR hearings, some officials stayed busy on their cellphones. Sudoku kept the attention of a Community Board member at the June hearing. At the October. hearing, only two City Council members stayed to listen to opposition testimony—out of the 11 members on the committee.

At the September Amendment 20 hearing, a resident of the East Village said, “This feels like you need comments in order to fulfill your requirements to ram through a plan that nobody in this community wants. Yes, we need flood protection but we don’t want your plan!”

Amy Chester of Rebuild by Design, wrote  “I do not know the answers to these questions, but I have faith that my fellow New Yorkers do.” How about it?

Pat Arnow is the founder of the grassroots community group, East River Park ACTION, which advocates for flood protection with minimal destruction of the park. The group is leading the Alienation lawsuit against the ESCR, represented by Arthur Schwartz and Advocates for Justice.

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