It was a bright Sunday afternoon in early August when Yvette Mercedes looked out over East River Park from the entrance at East Houston Street and FDR Drive.
Children scampered around a baseball diamond as a Little League game unfolded. On the far side of the field, cyclists and joggers moved up and down the esplanade that runs along the East River for most of the park’s length, from East 12th Street to just north of the Manhattan Bridge. Young couples lay on patches of grass, their limbs tangled together, while older couples sat on benches quietly watching the river’s churning waters. To the north, some of Mercedes’ working-class Lower East Side neighbors held sprawling family gatherings centered around the park’s barbeque pits.
“This is all we have,” Mercedes said. She has lived in the nearby Baruch Houses public-housing development for more than 30 years. “We don’t have the Hamptons. We don’t have summer homes. When we want to get away, we come here.”
That could soon change.
Seven years after Hurricane Sandy lifted up the ocean and inundated whole swaths of the city, including the Lower East Side, the de Blasio administration is racing to win approval for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, a $1.45 billion flood-mitigation plan that has sparked an outcry from some neighborhood residents.
The plan calls for closing the 58-acre park for three and a half years, burying it beneath eight to 10 feet of landfill, and building a new park on top of it. The entire barrier would run 2.2 miles, from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street.
The battle over that plan is more than a fight over the future of a little-known gem of a park. It raises questions about how other major coastal cities will respond to an escalating global climate crisis and to whose benefit; the legacy of housing segregation; the conflicting priorities of top-down city planning and neighborhood-based concerns; the values we assign private automobiles and mass transit; and the hollowed-out state of democracy in a New York where “the tale of two cities” persists.
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The land that the East River Park sits on didn’t exist when Dutch colonizers arrived in the early 1600s. Much of what’s now the Lower East Side was a salt marsh, nourished by ocean waters that sloshed through twice a day with the ebb and flow of the tides. Hurricane Sandy marked the ocean’s emphatic return, as chest-high torrents of water poured down Avenues C and D and flooding extended as far inland as Third Avenue. The surging waters also knocked out a Con Edison substation at East 15th Street and FDR Drive, throwing almost all of Manhattan below 40th Street into a gloomy darkness.
No group in the Lower East Side suffered more than the approximately 28,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority developments that line the west side of FDR Drive. The residents — including many seniors with no means to flee elsewhere — lost water and electricity for more than a week, and had to climb up and down pitch-black stairwells if they wanted to venture outside.
“I saw that water come in,” Mercedes recalled. “I didn’t have light for over seven days.”
Sandy may have seemed like a once-in-a-century storm. But with carbon emissions and global temperatures both rising, it’s expected that New York will see more supercharged hurricanes, along with higher sea levels as the polar ice caps continue to melt. To that end, the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development invited Lower East Side residents to help envision a flood-mitigation plan for the neighborhood. After four years of meetings, broad support emerged for building a landscaped eight-foot berm along the back of the park that would abut FDR Drive, with the hope of someday decking over the highway to expand the park. This plan would have provided much-needed protection for the neighborhood while preserving access to the esplanade and some of the park’s trees. It would have also required closing one of the FDR’s six lanes every night for five years.
Then last September the city Department of Design and Construction (DDC) abruptly announced it was scrapping the community’s plan in favor of the plan to close and rebuild the park. That plan would not close any lanes on the highway.
“It’s really about saving the cars,” said Howard Brandstein, executive director of the Sixth Street Community Center, which hosts environmentally-themed programs for neighborhood youth. “It’s Robert Moses’ wet dream — the eternal, uninterrupted flow of traffic.”
“They’re asking us to sacrifice something that’s essential for our well-being and for a generation of children,” said Mercedes’ friend April Merlin, a mother of two who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years and comes to the park regularly to jog and ride her bike. “If they close down a lane or two of the FDR, people will find another way to get to work.”
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Opponents of demolishing the park cite a litany of negative consequences. They include:
- Loss of space for family gatherings.
- Loss of ball fields and other play spaces for local youth and possible criminalization of kids who might spend more time hanging out on the streets.
- Undermining the sports programs of neighborhood schools, whose students would have to travel as far away as Randall’s Island to find other sports fields.
- Loss of the bike path along the river, which is popular with cyclists who don’t want to risk riding in street traffic.
- The cutting down of 981 mature trees that provide shade and clean the air of toxins spewed by cars that race by on the FDR Drive. The saplings that replace them would require 20-30 years to grow to a full canopy.
- Loss of biodiversity: 82 bird species, 96 insect species and more than 200 plant species would be displaced, perhaps never to return, according to City College of New York biology professor Amy Berkov.
- Dust from the immense quantities of dirt that would be dug up in the park or delivered by barge. Neighborhood residents already have high levels of asthma.
- No storm protection until after the 2023 hurricane season — assuming the city finishes the project on time.
“That’s laughable as a timeline,” says Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which is based in the Fire Boat House toward the south end of the park. She noted that it recently took the city 18 months and $3.5 million to repave the park’s jogging track, and that repairs to the esplanade began in 2001, languished for many years, and were finally completed in 2011. She worries that this project could easily keep the park closed for a decade.
“What guarantees do we have that it will be better this time?” she asked. The city has not given her any assurances that the Ecology Center will have a home in the rebuilt park.
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Yvette Mercedes was unaware of the Robert Moses-sized wrecking ball aimed at the park when she saw a flyer taped to a traffic crossing signal at East Houston and Columbia streets one evening in late April. It was an announcement for a meeting of opponents of the park’s demolition.
“I listened and felt like ‘oh wow, this is horrible,’” Mercedes recalled. “I committed that I was going to educate my community, because everyone was totally oblivious.”
Mercedes and Merlin met at that meeting and immediately became a team. They went from floor to floor in the Baruch Houses, leaving informational leaflets under the residents’ doors. They also canvassed people in the park and informed them about what was happening. Mercedes estimates that she has so far spoken with 2,000 people and that less than 100 were aware of the city’s plans.
“Everybody’s against the demolition of the park or didn’t know about it,” says Merlin. “We’re letting people in on what’s happening behind closed doors.”
While opposition to the park’s demolition has been slow to gather, the de Blasio administration has been pushing its plan through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), which allows local community boards and borough presidents to hold public hearings and weigh in, but only on an advisory basis.
Arguing that it would be its plan or nothing, the city won the conditional support of Community Board 6 (Stuyvesant Town/Gramercy) and Community Board 3 (Lower East Side). the latter of which added a list of 28 changes it would like to see made to the plan.
Like much of the United States, the Lower East Side lives with the legacy of segregated housing. For much of the late 20th century, the neighborhood was largely Latino, but now it has been gentrified by increasingly affluent whites, while public housing is occupied predominantly by Black and Latino renters.
Naomi Schiller, a professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College who lives in the East River Co-op — a union-built housing complex located at Grand Street and FDR Drive that switched from limited-equity to market-rate some 20 years ago — says neighbors have been pitted against each other. Non-NYCHA residents who oppose the city’s plan have been portrayed as tree-huggers who care more about the park than flood protection, when almost everyone in the neighborhood agrees they need some kind of seawall.
“The city has presented their plan as the only option to get flood protection along the river,” Schiller said. “That’s unfair and has been incredibly divisive.”
She was among the 150 or so people who attended a July 16 ULURP hearing hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer. Defenders of the park turned out in force. Brewer didn’t reject the city’s plan, but to much applause insisted that something so hastily thrown together should be subject to an independent third-party review. Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to a similar outside review earlier this year for a controversial plan to repair part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
“We’ve only got one chance to get this right,” Brewer emphasized.
A contingent of about 30 opponents of the city’s plan turned out a week later for a City Planning Commission hearing to make their arguments to the commissioners. A number of speakers urged that, at the very least, the DDC should carry out construction in phases so part of the park would remain open throughout the project. DDC Deputy Commissioner Jaime Springer-Torres suggested that parts of the park could be reopened as construction goes forward, but did not make any commitments.
Two of the few speakers to advocate for the city’s plan were Nancy Ortiz, longtime president of the Vladeck Houses Tenants Association, and Camille Napoleon, vice president of the Baruch Houses Tenants Association, the younger half of the father-daughter dynasty that has held its reins for decades.
“Life over trees,” Ortiz said. “I believe in protecting life.”
“If we have to choose between a tree and a life, we choose a life,” Napoleon said.
Mercedes was incensed. “No one is telling us anything,” she said. “[My] tenant association hasn’t had a meeting at the complex for well over a year, and they’re making decisions but not consulting or including us, the tenants.”
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The battle over the future of East River Park comes at a time when the Lower East Side’s poor and working-class residents are being squeezed from all directions. Decades of government disinvestment have created an excuse for the city and federal government to begin transferring the day-to-day management of NYCHA developments to private companies. Plans are afoot to build market-rate housing on “infill” spaces currently occupied by senior centers and parking lots. Extell is putting the final touches on One Manhattan Square, an 80-story glass condominium tower at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, and developers want to place four more luxury towers (See Briefing Room, P6) along the same shorefront.
The drive to complete the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is part of a larger project to build a protective barrier around Lower Manhattan known as the “Big U.” It would stretch from East 25th Street to the Financial District and swing on over to the top of Battery Park. For Tom Angotti, a retired professor of urban planning at Hunter College and co-author of Zoned Out! Displacement and City Planning in New York City, that’s where the larger scandal lies.
“This is about the consolidation in Lower Manhattan of a giant Noah’s Ark for the wealthy with beautiful waterfront views while the outer boroughs get flooded,” he told The Indypendent. There will only be a place for public housing, he added, “if there are opportunities for private investment.”
In the meantime, the city hopes to win final approval for its plan this fall and send in the bulldozers beginning March 1. The City Planning Commission is slated to cast its vote in late September. If it approves the plan, the matter will go to the City Council, which has the final say. By custom, the Council defers in land-use decisions to the wishes of the member whose district is most heavily affected. On the Lower East Side, that’s Carlina Rivera, the first-term Councilmember who rose through the ranks of the political club that has held the neighborhood’s seat since 1998.
Rivera has said she supports the city’s plan but wants it done in phases. That’s not good enough for its most ardent critics.
“You would still be killing every living thing in the park, just in stages,” said Howard Brandstein.
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In mid-July, Brandstein’s Sixth Street Community Center hosted the first meeting of East River Park Action (ERPA) in a room packed with about 80 people. They were eager to mount a feistier, more vocal opposition to the plan with more rallies, press conferences, public outreach and creative public protests, to try to spur Rivera, who is up for re-election in 2021, to speak out firmly against it.
With time running short and the power of City Hall backing the plan, stopping the bulldozers feels like a long shot at best. Yet, the park’s destruction seems so senseless as to be inconceivable — like the death of a close friend in the prime of their life — that it becomes impossible to accept.
“I don’t know how we’re going to win, and it scares me. But, we have to fight because it’s such a wonderful space for so many people,” said Pat Arnow, an East River Housing Co-op resident who helped start ERPA.
For Mercedes and Merlin, it means stepping up outreach efforts to their neighbors.
“We have a few weeks of intense work to do,” Mercedes said.