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Must the City Destroy the East River Greenway in Order to Save It?

Jim Zisfein | Published on 8/21/2019

Personalize and send this letter to your City Council representative

Must the City Destroy the East River Greenway in Order to Save It?

Would you be incensed if your city government planned to demolish the largest park in your neighborhood, cut down nearly 1,000 trees, bury the park’s amenities including multiple athletic facilities and the city’s most prominent greenway, and then take “at least” three and one-half years to replace what was destroyed? Mature shade trees to be replaced by saplings? No park or greenway access during this time? Spending $1.45 billion on the project?

At the very least, you would demand a good reason for this act of extreme municipal vandalism. Even if there was a good reason, you would want to know whether every other, less destructive option was considered.

This is not fake news. It is New York City’s plan for East River Park, the much-loved and much-used 57-acre expanse of parkland by the East River in Lower Manhattan. The park is to be buried under eight feet of landfill and then rebuilt on top of it. More than a mile of Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, an important transportation and recreation corridor for cyclists, pedestrians, kids and families, will be blocked for the duration. If the City Council gives its blessing, destruction of East River Park will start in March 2020.

And the reason? We learned from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 that much of the Lower East Side is at risk of flooding due to the effects of climate change. Water levels are rising and storms are becoming more severe. The raised park should help protect the neighborhood. But do we really need to destroy the park to achieve this goal? Would an eight-foot berm along the park’s western edge work just as well to prevent flooding while preserving the park? That was the original plan, scrapped (according to the commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction) in order to avoid having to intermittently shut down one lane of the FDR Drive.

The New York City Council is expected to vote on this proposal next month. If you think the vote should be “no,” at least until all alternatives are considered, you need to write your Council member. Now. Below is a model letter which you can personalize and send. Postal mail has more impact than email but any contact is better than nothing. You can find your council member’s name and contact information here.

Personalize and send this letter to your City Council representative:

[name and address of council member]

I ask you, my representative on the New York City Council, to vote “NO” when the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project comes up for approval in its current form. With the laudable goal of protecting the Lower East Side from the effects of climate change, this project destroys a major park and prevents its use for “at least” three and a half years while the park is being rebuilt. Less disruptive alternatives may equally protect this neighborhood. We need to hear about these alternatives.

New York City’s Lower East Side was severely damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. The risk of flooding will increase as sea levels continue to rise and storms become more intense. A barrier must be placed between this neighborhood and the East River. Options exist, however, for barrier location and design.

Unfortunately, the only option being presented by the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation involves complete destruction of the existing 57-acre East River Park while it is covered by eight feet of landfill. The park would then have to be re-created on top of the landfill. Paths, river walks, athletic fields, and nearly 1,000 mature trees would be lost. The park would be unusable for “at least” three and a half years from the start of construction in March, 2020.

Needless to say, this project would be extremely disruptive to users of the park. More than one mile of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, an important transportation and recreation corridor for walkers and cyclists, would be closed during this entire period.  Commuting cyclists would presumably be directed to cross the FDR Drive and routed onto city streets.

Other options, less disruptive than complete park destruction, might include raised embankment on the park’s western edge, as originally planned. (Reportedly one reason this original plan was scrapped is because it would involve shutting down a lane of the FDR Drive at night.)  Or, if the park has to be destroyed, at least it could be done in stages so that use of the park can continue during construction. The greenway and other amenities could be moved, several times if necessary, so they can be kept open.

A project this big, expensive ($1.45 billion!), and disruptive should not be permitted to go ahead until all reasonable alternatives are presented and considered. I ask you to withhold your approval until you are convinced that you are approving the best project to protect the Lower East Side with the least possible disruption.

[your name, address, and signature]