STOPPING FUTURE STORM SURGES
THE EAST RIVER COASTAL RESILIENCY PLAN:
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
By Paul DeRienzo
October Surprise threw years of planning and public
input under the
bus, or in the river, as the city of New York
announced last year its
preferred plan for flood control in 58-acre East
River Park, used by
thousands, including many among the city's most
vulnerable people. In
this article, I follow the money to investigate the
behind-the-scenes collusion between government
agencies and one of
the world's biggest construction companies.
Superstorm Sandy drove the sea over barriers and deep into New York City neighborhoods in October of 2012. This led then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to establish a private-public partnership to brainstorm a collaborative approach to prepare coastal regions of New York City for rising seas and storm surges.
Beginning in 2014, many stakeholders took part in a productive series of meetings and working groups that led to a project called the BIG U. This would have linked together plans tailored to each locality with extensive public input. The Lower East Side part of the BIG U would cost about $350 million, raised by community and local groups from federal and other sources.
By the spring of 2018, as plans were coming together for eventual construction — the city went silent. Environmentalists and citizen groups found themselves ghosted and incapable of getting a response.
Then, in October 2018, there appeared a fait accompli: a new plan that would affect a two mile swath of coastline along Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which the city admitted was very different from the BIG U proposal. Under the new plan, the city will now spend $1.5 billion of capital money to raise East River Park by more than nine feet over 3½ years. During that time, the park would be one hundred percent closed. Thousands of residents who use ball parks, tracks, soccer fields and other recreational facilities in the park would be out of luck.
A report by the Center for an Urban Future called “Slow Build” tells how NYC has failed to build almost one-third of capital projects within years of original projections, costing taxpayers billions in extra construction expenses. The concern is that East River Park would be unavailable for much longer than the projected 3 - 4 years. An example is a just-completed $100 million improvement that closed the East River Park’s riverside walkway for nearly a decade. Under the city’s new preferred plan, those newly-completed improvements would be demolished.
As a member of Community Board Three, I have attended many public hearings on the city’s plan and have seen resistance everywhere. After the breathtaking shift by the City’s Department of Design and Construction [DDC] why wouldn’t the public have doubts about the city’s long term commitments?
The original community plan, which was part of the BIG U process, envisioned the park as a wetland that would absorb the rising sea while using the adjacent FDR Drive as a backstop for a flood wall. This is an approach being successfully implemented around the world. The city’s project calls for dumping tons of imported landfill and dirt, raising dust clouds and polluting the air in a neighborhood with some of the highest asthma rates in the country.
The danger of climate change is real. Independent experts say the city may be underestimating the effects of sea level rise and storm surges. On the side of the city’s plan to raise East River Park, unbiased experts say that only a massive rebuilding can work and that community-based plans like the BIG U are not realistic solutions to the scale of the expected inundation.
Yet, a significant core of politically-active Lower East Side residents say the city’s lack of transparency is masking information that residents need to know. Many are environmentalists. Groups in the neighborhood, long known for its activism, have been calling for independent experts to look into the flood control plans that morphed overnight from a community-approved coastal resiliency plan.
On September 21, a diverse coalition of community members and concerned citizens rallied in Tompkins Square Park and marched to East River Park. Along the way, they stopped at the office of city council member Carlina Rivera, where they chanted “BURY THE PLAN, NOT THE PARK.” pleading with her to use her power in the city council to block the plan.
While City Hall has been intimidating the community with predictions of major storm surges and the need for immediate flood control measures, the city has failed to tell residents that they are already protected under other coastal resiliency programs.
The project Draft Environmental Impact Statement [DEIS] has reportedly revealed that, contrary to the city’s projected image of “starry-eyed environmentalists” endangering residents with unworkable plans, the city has known all along that public housing and schools are already being protected independently of the city’s plan, with money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] and Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA].
Buried in the DEIS, in a section titled “Environmental Effects No Action Alternative (Alternative 1)”, the city admits that doing nothing would not adversely affect public housing projects along the East River.
As per the DEIS: “Collectively, these planned projects to enhance open space resources, provide targeted neighborhood resiliency measures, and improve access to parkland and other parts of the city are consistent with the current neighborhood uses, and are not expected to create any substantial change in neighborhood character. However, the neighborhoods within the study area would continue to be susceptible to coastal flooding during storm events, and the potential for adverse socioeconomic effects within these neighborhoods due to a storm surge would remain.”
In other words, the city admits that public housing is being protected by yet another plan, called Recovery and Resliency, funded by $2.9 billion “set aside for NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority] to strengthen buildings against future storms.” But, the city claims that its preferred plan is still necessary to mitigate “potential adverse socioeconomic effects.” What are these effects?
What’s going on here?
JACOBS ENGINEERING GROUP is among the top 20 companies receiving federal contracts, rocketing up the list after last year’s acquisition of CH2M HILL, another large construction company. These are among the main contractors for the city’s preferred plan. They are also spearheading a much more ambitious project: the construction of a system of barriers to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps is considering several options for coastal storm protections, specifically, storm surge barriers – giant ocean gates. Some proposals are for gates up to five miles long, blocking the harbor and the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. Markedly, the Corps’ various proposals would not prevent sea level rise, but the gates would be closed during major storms to prevent surges of water into the city, potentially damaging its underground transportation and communication networks. CH2M HILL has provided preliminary renderings of these Army Corps of Engineers proposals.
These questions remain unanswered:
• Why are they suddenly so necessary and what is the involvement of the De Blasio administration and the city's Department of Design and Construction with its track record of going far over budget?
• Are these contracts being opened for bidding?
• Are certain contractors grandfathered in?
• What unions represent the workers?
• What’s the labor history of these companies?
• Who is responsible for liability in case these projects fail to stop a storm surge?
• Why now?
• Why the epic lack of transparency?
The only way to discover the truth is to follow the money.
Global warming is REAL. That's why millions are marching worldwide, especially youth demanding that action be taken. New York City’s preferred plan is to raise the East River Park by more than nine feet, with construction starting in spring 2020 and lasting a minimum of 3½ years. Most of the community doesn't want that. Some folks in the NYCHA projects do because they're directly in the line of fire. Environmentalists point out there is no intermediate plan to protect NYCHA projects during the planned construction and that the community was kept in the dark regarding separate plans to protect the projects. Also, there is no guaranty that ANY plan will work in the end. The city’s plan is a slap-dash project to get the problem out of the way until another generation has to deal with it. By 2050, the projections used for the iteration of this flood control project will be obsolete. The seas keep rising beyond predictions. Some say that only a massive flood prevention project will work. The city is going about it the wrong way and now they face determined opposition.
MOTHER NATURE is coming and boy is she pissed!
– Paul DeRienzo
[Paul DeRienzo is a member of Community Board Three, which covers the Lower East Side and Chinatown. He is also news director for WBAI (99.5FM and wbai.org). He also hosts public access show Let Them Talk on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (mnn.org)]