All photos by the author.
“Kill the contract, not the park!” a crowd chanted outside City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office at 1 Center Street on Tuesday afternoon.
The demonstrators were mostly Lower Manhattan residents rallying to demand that Stringer withhold his signature on the construction contract for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, or ESCR, a controversial flood control project that would level the East River Park. One protester even serenaded Stringer on a loudspeaker, imploring him not to sign.
“Stringer don’t you know, this contract’s got to go” they shouted in unison. As the City Comptroller, Stringer is tasked with reviewing all city contracts.
The ERCR would level the East River Park and leave a predominantly low income, people of color neighborhood without green space for at least three years.
On Thursday, advocates for the East River Park won a temporary reprieve when Stringer refused to sign the contract. Stringer sent the contract back to the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) with requests for more information on how the project’s lead contractors plan to meet the legal standard that minority/women-owned business enterprises receive 30 percent of the work.
Prompted by the water devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the ESCR will bury East River Park under eight feet of industrial soil landfill, then build a new park on top, in order to raise the site above the floodplain.
According to the Parks Department website, effectively turning East River Park into a flood barrier is necessary due to the “rise in sea level height through 2050, the projected effects of waves, and the standards for 100-year flood levels set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.”
The cost: $1.45 Billion; the estimated time frame: three years. Local residents like Fannie Ip of East River Park Action (ERPA) oppose the plan because it will involve the temporary decommissioning of 45 acres of public green space and will cut down 1,000 mature trees (which provide shade and absorb carbon dioxide emissions from the nearby FDR Drive) in the process. Likewise, East River Park action released figures showing that the nearly one-and-a-half billion dollar task far exceeds its original $760 million price tag.
The initial phases of the ESCR have begun north of East 12th Street. Why hasn’t the rest of the park been touched yet? Ms. Ip says it’s not because of protests or the pandemic — it’s because the city struggled to find a company willing to bid on the project.
The lowest bidder, IPC Ressilency Partners, a joint venture of three companies, was awarded the contract.
“Would you trust a brand new company on a $1.45 Billion project?” Ip said on a microphone to supporters, “No!” they erupted.
For Ip and other park advocates, the issue goes deeper than flood protection. She alleges that the city is apathetic about disrupting the lives of Lower East Side residents because they’re predominantly of color and low income.
“Would they do this in Central Park?” she asked the crowd. “No!” and “environmental racism!” members of the crowd charged back.
Chris Marte, the newly elected District 1 City Councilmember, urged Stringer to block the project, noting that Stringer has a history of upholding strong environmental positions: divesting the City’s pension funds from fossil fuels, advocating for more busways and park equity.
“He has a track record and a legacy of climate justice, and if he signs this contract he throws away that legacy.” Marte shouted emphatically.
The park holds personal value for long-time New Yorkers like Eileen Myles. Myles, who recently turned 71, has lived in the area since she was in her 20s.
“When I first started to try and not take drugs and not drink, it’s like I needed health and I needed exercise and I would go down to the park everyday and run,” Myles says the runs in East River Park gave her a way to feel better without having to “alter her consciousness”.
Come January, Eric Adams is all but certain to become the city’s next mayor. East River Park Action’s Wendy Brewer, who worked to install real-time air quality monitors around the Lower East Side, is optimistic. “I think Eric Adams coming is going to have a much better perspective on environmental justice and Black and brown peoples’ lives.” She says the tree-studded park is highly utilized by 25,000 NYCHA residents who live adjacent to it. Time will tell.
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