Good News/Bad News for East River Park [OP-ED]
The following editorial was written by Pat Arnow, a photographer and writer on the Lower East Side who helped found East River Park Action in 2019.
East River Park will remain entirely open and untouched by construction through the end of the year. The latest delay in the massive flood control project – the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency plan – is good news for park users on the crowded Lower East Side and East Village waterfront. In fact, the pandemic makes our park space more important than ever.
It’s bad news in the long run, though, because it proves one of the vocal opponents’ points about the project—the city’s five-year timeline is unrealistic. The Department of Design and Construction has already delayed the targeted start by a year. Park advocates fear that once demolition does commence, most of the park will be a fenced-off war zone for years.
It’s further bad news for an area that has no temporary flood protection. To date, the city has refused to provide any interim measures that would protect from most hurricanes.
The silver lining in this latest delay is that the popular compost yard run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which was supposed to be moved this fall, still has a home for the time being. However, if the city is having trouble figuring out how to relocate a compost yard, it’s hard to trust that they can build a flood wall, raise 47 acres of parkland by eight feet, and add a park, all on schedule.
The flood control plan—and alternatives
The entire park is due to be razed in phases. Work was supposed to start in the spring of 2020. The plan is to cover the entire park with eight feet of fill—roughly 900,000 tons—and to rebuild the park on top.
There are ways to gain flood control without destroying the entire 82-year-old park, which boasts a much-used 1.2 mile promenade, ballfields, an amphitheater, tennis courts, a new running track, historic buildings, picnic areas, 1,000 mature trees, and a natural habitat for birds, butterflies, and other insects. But most importantly, a large open space for a low-and-middle income neighborhood.
One reason the city says it must hurry the plan is that there is $335 million in federal money that must be spent on the project by 2022. The city could ask for an extension or spend the money on parts of the plan that do not involve the park (look at the gates across the FDR at the north end of the project; look at expanding the sewer system with the “parallel conveyance” plan).
Yet, to make sure they use those federal dollars, the city is spending $1.1 billion of its own money during a time of enormous budget shortfalls.
Alternatives for flood control
East River Park Action, a grassroots nonprofit formed to oppose the current plan, advocates adaptation of earlier plans developed with community input. Interim flood measures, such as the barriers provided to the South Street Seaport, Wall Street, and the Financial District, would provide reasonable protection for most storms while the city steps back and reevaluates the plan.
The city should seek an alternative that is more green and less destructive to the environment and the neighborhood’s health, especially during this pandemic.