East River Park looks different than how its neighbors remember it just a few months ago. Trees have been cut down, baseball fields have been closed and construction began in December 2021 for the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) Project, an initiative aimed at increasing the coastal resilience of flood-prone communities. The project is the largest coastal resiliency project in the city and the largest urban climate adaptation project in the United States. However, the ESCR Project has been controversial and residents of the Lower East Side are mourning the temporary loss of the park for a few years.
What is the ESCR Project?
Hurricane Sandy changed the region forever. The superstorm killed 44 New Yorkers and caused structural damages that continue to have an impact. While Sandy may seem long past for those who were not affected, those living on the east side of Manhattan are vulnerable to flooding whenever there is a hurricane or a big storm. When a hurricane destroys a community it is important for them to ‘bounce back’ and recover quickly — a term also known as coastal resiliency. That’s why the ESCR Project was introduced, to combat future flooding that results in long-term damages. It will span 2.4 miles from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street on Manhattan’s east side. This area of NYC is home to 110,000 residents, including 28,000 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents. The $1.45 billion allocated for the project will involve “elevating” East River Park, which means it must be torn down, buried in eight to 10 feet of landfill and rebuilt. The new elevated park will have berms, walls and floodgates to minimize damage if a storm or the rising sea levels were to cause a flood.
The recreational aspects of this project include reconstruction of all of the sports fields, rebuilding the playgrounds, amphitheater, and some of the park’s access points. The 10th Street bathroom, track house and tennis courts are also being redone in order to meet ADA requirements. Another addition to the project is creating two waterfronts so park goers are able to get down to the water.
Neighbors have mixed feelings
However, residents living in Manhattan’s East Side are not happy with this project. A major point of contention is that as the project comes to fruition it involves cutting down trees and destroying the park that has been there for decades. Photos of workers cutting down the park’s trees have been documented on the East River Park Action’s Instagram page, causing rage among residents.
“I think they’ve killed around 600 by now of the 1,000 trees that are there. Those trees aren’t trivial. They’re over 80 years old, the services they provide in terms of cleaning the air next to the FDR and cooling the environment and also absorbing floodwaters [are essential],” says Harriet Hirshorn, a founding member of the East River Park Action group. “Those trees have done a pretty good job of absorbing an awful lot of water, including during Hurricane Ida.”
Hirshorn believes that if the park must be destroyed for the project, then it is not a “resilient plan.” The cutting of the trees has been a large part of the anger toward the project, but other neighbors have seen their day-to-day life changed because of it.
Brianna Roman, has been playing baseball in the East River Park since she was 10 years old and now coaches a youth baseball team there. Three out of the eight baseball fields have been closed for construction and the team must now share the baseball fields with other teams and are forced to practice on concrete and pavement. Construction has also made it difficult for Roman’s students to get to the park to practice.
“We have to practice somewhere, even if it’s blacktop, like floor, that’s just the best thing we could do for the kids. I hate that for them, but there’s nothing else to do. That’s their future,” she says. “Sometimes if my kids are running a little late, they’re stuck running around the ramp, around the construction and through the park. It’s a little inconvenient for some parents who are new to the park or new to the league.”
Danny Ramirez runs the NY Giants Youth Baseball Club that operates out of East River Park. Due to construction, he worked with the NYC Parks Department to maintain his league’s space. He was able to move to Baruch Field, a small turf a block away from East River Park.
“The Parks Department did a good job of accommodating us at the Baruch field. And since we are running fewer programs these days because of the participation of people in the community in general, it has not affected us,” Ramirez says. “But when it goes back to 100% participation, it will affect us having fewer parks in the area because East River Park has the only baseball field in Manhattan, within a six-mile radius … where kids 13 years of age and over can play in the area.”
A change of plans was not something the community wanted
Residents are also upset because this is not the project they had originally planned out in 2017. Initially, they had been approached by the infrastructure consulting firm, Rebuild by Design, which along with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the NYC Department of Design and Construction, came up with a plan that involved the community’s input. The original plan would have created a 10-foot earthen berm next to the FDR Drive.When the park flooded, the water would be directed back to the river. However in 2018, a different plan was introduced by the NYC Department of Design and Construction and set in motion, causing anger among members of the Lower East Side community.
“Everybody was furious. There was a really intense sense of general outrage. The community board meeting at which the new plan was unveiled [by the DDC], sank into chaos,” says Hirshorn. “[The East River Park Action] group formed basically to say that we wanted a better plan. That’s it.”
However, Ian Michaels, executive director of public information for the Department of Design and Construction says that there were multiple reasons why the plan was changed. He stated that the three main reasons for the new plan were:
- Under the original plan, construction along the FDR Drive could only be done by shutting one lane of traffic — which can only be done at night. This would have limited work to just a six-hour window each night, which puts severe limits on the construction schedule. The new plan eliminates that restriction, allows for more work hours each day and makes it much more likely the city can deliver the project on schedule by 2025.
- There are also several large high-voltage Con Edison power lines running along the path of the original floodwall design near the FDR Drive. In order to work safely near those lines, Con Edison would have had to relocate them into a new maintenance tunnel. Relocating underground high-voltage lines is very risky and specialized work, and would have presented another major risk to the construction schedule — one outside of the city’s control.
- The original plan would have also caused more disruptions to the community; it called for four straight years of overnight pile driving along the FDR Drive and near NYCHA housing. That work has now been moved far away from local residents and does not need to happen overnight.
“[Rebuild by Design and the community] didn’t have to look at the constructability issues that we have to look at as the agency building the project,” says Michaels. “It was the belief of [the New York City panel on climate change] that within a few years [the park under the original plan] would flood periodically, on a monthly basis every time there was a high tide. There was a desire by the Parks Department to preserve the park and not have it flood once a month and a desire by us to have a plan that we could build without all these different risks.”
He says that many community members mistakenly believed that the park’s trees would have been preserved with the original plan — but that’s not entirely true. Michaels adds that under the original plan, around 700-750 trees would have been removed.
“[Under the new plan] we’re removing all of the trees. However, the good news is that we are replacing them with 3,000 new trees. We are going to plant 2,000 in the new park as we rebuild it … in addition to 1,000 trees around the community,” he says. “The new park is going to have ample shade. It’s going to have a lot of trees and I think people will be very pleased when they see it.”
All residents can do is mourn the old park and brace for the new one
As residents of the East River Park mourn the loss of their current park, Hirshorn wishes construction would pause — at least for the summer. The project is anticipated to end in 2026.
“If I could dream big, I would say I would like this project to pause and I would like people to go back to the design tables and rethink this project and try to come up with something innovative, something that works with the nature that is still there, that addresses extreme rainfall as well as sea-level rise,” she says.
But Micheals believes that while the project has been met with a lot of controversy, it will ultimately benefit the residents of the Lower East Side.
“There are some people who for emotional reasons or not fully understanding the details of the previous plan versus the new plan who are opposed to it,” he says. “The amount of money that we’re spending and the amount of effort and time and everything that we’re doing to build it will all be worth it. It will all be 100% completely worth it if it just protects the community from flooding even one time.”
While the ESCR Project has been met with a lot of controversy and opinions, its ultimate goal is to protect the community around it.
“When Sandy came, my mother still lived right across the street from the park and was affected. She had to leave the area and it was pretty bad,” says Ramirez. “As a lifelong resident of the area, I believe that it is a necessity at this point.”
While the ESCR Project and ensuing controversy isn’t black and white, it can be a model for New Yorkers on what to do and not to do when working together to protect each other.