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Opinion: City breaks promises on East River Park as Con Ed fells trees in northern half, air-monitoring reports withheld

BY KATHRYN FREED | The city’s destruction of more than half of East River Park in the name of resiliency — and its ongoing activity, or lack thereof, in that area — continues to be the source of contention, anger and even fear in the Lower East Side.

Before going into specifics, a little history. In 2012, after Superstorm Sandy and the resulting deaths and property damage, it was clear that New York City had to start thinking seriously about combatting the effects of climate change.

Under de Blasio, the city met with the community for four and a half years and had community support for a plan that preserved about 80 percent of the existing 50-acre, 80-year-old park. Then the administration went dark. Several months later, it discarded the agreed-upon plan and presented a radically different plan — a plan that erected a wall built by dropping more than 1 million tons of landfill on the park area, raising it 8 to 10 feet and completely destroying the existing park.

This revised plan, by discarding the work of so many, created deep distrust in the Lower East Side. Without going into the court lawsuit and the decimation of 25-plus acres of park and other disagreements, as of today, the park, from south of Houston Street to Jackson Street, has been completely obliterated. It is basically just a field of dirt and, occasionally, given the rains we’ve had, a mud pit.

Workers move in and out, dig holes, look in them and close them. They make piles of dirt, then they spread them around. Sometimes the dirt is covered, indicating it’s hazardous, but mostly the tarps blow off and dust devils swirl the dirt around and into the homes and lungs of nearby residents. Not much real work seems to be done.

The city absolutely committed that the destruction would be phased so that 42 percent of the park would be kept for the public to use and enjoy. The northern area would be available when the southern wasn’t and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, this has caused more contention and distrust, with park users trying to protect every vestige of the remaining park.

Please understand, more than 700 trees have been lost so far, including the recent ugly cutting down of the cherry grove in Corlears Hook Park, in full bloom, no less. (No, it turns out the cherry trees were not, as some said, more than 100 years old but around two decades old — but still!) No wonder park users question the necessity of the city’s actions and even think them venal. Certainly, having workers shout “Happy Earth Day!” while they butchered the cherry trees didn’t help.

Another major cause of distrust is the city’s refusal to inform residents on the air quality reported by the air monitors. The park’s environmental impact statement (E.I.S.) clearly states the soil contains hazardous metals, including, lead, arsenic and mercury, and a multitude of potentially toxic volatile organic chemicals, mostly gasoline components.

Apparently, there is also asbestos in the area. People living near the park around Houston Street woke up Monday morning to men in hazmat suits and asbestos trucks parked outside their windows. Workers swarmed all over the nearby park area, took stuff out and then left. What was that about? The community received absolutely no information. Should we be concerned? No clue.

Exacerbating more distrust in the city, at the end of April, an executive summary of air-monitoring results was selectively distributed. The summary indicated monitors registered two sites with spikes of high lead levels. The city said it would retest but no further results were released. A local resident requested them. Instead of getting information, he was told to file a Freedom of Information request with the city. Why?

Also causing consternation and more distrust, the 42 percent of usable park space promised by the city includes large areas where work is being done by Con Ed, where they have erected fences and the public is excluded. And — guess what? — Con Ed is cutting down more trees. Monday, trees around the running track and a wide swath of trees by the shared-use bikeway/walkway path were cut down. They’ve marked many more trees for felling in the nearby wooded area used by local families for social gatherings and picnics, etc. Parkgoers have been told clearing this expansive area is necessary because Con Ed needs a parking lot and wants a wide, straight path to their work area.

This is especially infuriating since the weather is finally getting nice and more people will start to use the parkland. Understandably, on top of all the broken promises, the community is again angry and demands this new and unnecessary destruction be stopped.

This is a short commentary on recent broken promises from the city. The city must start being honest and transparent with the Lower East Side and East Village community. It must test and report, regularly and openly on the air quality in the park and surrounding area. It must take mandatory steps to prevent toxins from the desolate parkland from blowing into the homes of an area that already suffers from high asthma and COVID rates. It must enforce the 42 percent public-use promise it made. It must preserve as much of the park for as long as possible.

Finally, Con Ed must immediately stop butchering trees just so its workers can park their cars or get to their worksite quicker. This insensitivity should be a publicity nightmare for Con Ed and I invite residents and park users to bombard Con Ed with missives saying just that.

Freed is an attorney and a former state Supreme Court justice and city councilmember representing Lower Manhattan. She represented plaintiffs in a community lawsuit seeking to stop the East Side Coastal Resliency project. She lives on the Lower East Side near East River Park.

14 Comments

  1. LES3025 LES3025 May 12, 2022

    Just spitballing here, but maybe part of what is causing so much distrust is that the “park defenders” intentionally incite people regardless of whether the city is keeping its promises or not. The Corlears Hook trees were in the southern portion, but the “park defenders” obstructed the work anyway, and this newspaper had at least five articles about it. Most people don’t know about the plan or what promises the city made, so if all they hear is that the city is doing something wrong, regardless of whether that’s true, it creates more distrust.

    • LetsBeReal LetsBeReal May 12, 2022

      I cannot believe this woman is a former Supreme Court Justice and city council member. Her level of ignorance is just plain pitiful. She never attended any of the community meetings and yet now claims to be an expert. If she at least led with facts and continued with that path throughout the article then some merit is due. This is just an op-ed. She is just clueless. As a former justice, what happened to her lawsuit if she is just so righteous? Did her former colleagues agree?

      • Jimmy Lennon Jimmy Lennon May 13, 2022

        Dear readers,
        Note these two “critics” attack Ms. Freed with ad hominems and not facts, not disputing anything she says as inaccurate or false, because:
        The city DID change plans midstream and in secret.
        The city DID act arbitrarily.
        The city DID did break promises.
        The city DID destroy hundreds of trees.
        The city did turn the parkland into a mudpie on rainy days.
        The city did have workers in hazmat suits to deal with hazardous materials.
        Etc, etc.

      • LES3025 LES3025 May 13, 2022

        Yeah, good point, it’s weird this isn’t label as an op-ed.

        But, anyway, Freed lost all credibility for me back in December when she claimed the city was violating a TRO and was in contempt of court (https://thevillagesun.com/as-east-river-park-destruction-continues-judge-orders-city-to-show-its-not-in-contempt-of-court). It was pretty clear at the time that wasn’t true (I said so in the comments of that article). The only point of saying that was to incite people who aren’t familiar with the court process.

        Is some of the stuff she says true? Sure! The city changed plans and screwed up the public engagement process. They’re cutting down trees. But her whole game here is being misleading or dishonest in order to get people riled up in opposition to the project. That’s why I think it’s pretty rich for her to claim it’s the city causing the distrust.

        • fuelgrannie fuelgrannie May 14, 2022

          Weird flex then that you’re the only “person” on here who supports the gratuitous destruction of so much nature, “LES3025,” while you accuse (“spitballing😤🍼😫”) New Yorkers of being too stupid or naïve to understand what the city is doing: You couldn’t be more wrong

    • fuelgrannie fuelgrannie May 13, 2022

      Maybe witnessing the destruction of all those perfectly viable trees for no good reason caused the mistrust: “Most people” prefer trees over someone else’s insatiable greed. No one is stupid here.

      • Jimmy Lennon Jimmy Lennon May 13, 2022

        Couldn’t agree with you more, fuelgrannie.

        Freed was one of the most respected city councilmembers during her tenure, an outstanding jurist who was elected at her first attempt for the judiciary, and has fought for the Downtown community for decades.

        Those who actually are familiar with her background know all this.

        It is the newbies to the neighborhood who spout their ignorance, release their bile and affirm their pernicious neo-liberal ideology when they hurl these ad hominems against this community activist non-pareil.

  2. M Durand M Durand May 12, 2022

    As someone who lives a block from the southern part of the park and can see the dust and bulldozers every day from my window (not to mention the incessant noise of construction vehicles under the Williamsburg Bridge), I am experiencing firsthand how the loss of this park is impacting my physical and mental health. The air now smells only of pollution, my allergies are much worse, I can’t open my windows on dry dusty days, my daily walk is about 1/8 what it was, I have no safe place to bicycle, and I feel anxious and depressed. The cutting of the cherry trees was horrific — people crying by the fences with construction workers yelling “Yeehaw!” as trees fell down. But the silence of elected officials is even worse than the mocking of the workers – -the feeling that the people in charge of the city couldn’t care less. No attempts to communicate, to address fears, to share information, to mitigate impacts, to acknowledge anyone’s grief over losing an entire park and all its trees and gardens. It’s really sad and disillusioning. And I wasn’t necessarily against this project in the first place. But the brutality and insensitivity in how it is being carried out, all the broken promises and again, the silence, has truly been eye-opening. THANK YOU, Village Sun for having the courage and journalistic integrity for continuing to cover this massive project!

  3. Bob Holman Bob Holman May 12, 2022

    Thank you, Sun! Shine light on this debacle.

    Where is the media outcry on a citywide basis?

    Thank you, Kathryn Freed, for giving a quick history. The City must be held to its word! Cutting down cherry trees while in blossom is the height of absurdity.

    Say Yes to Beauty and Community!

  4. Fergie Fergie May 13, 2022

    Are they really cutting the trees along the FDR so that Con Ed trucks can pass? I assumed it had to do with that electrical line. Can there be more reporting on this please!

  5. Terry Katz Terry Katz May 13, 2022

    Ms. Freed, how I wish you ran the Second Council District. The no-good Carlina Rivera allowed the bridge-and-tunnel trash de Blasio to throw away the plan that would have protected New York from flooding and saved the trees. You did a great job in the First District. How I wish you could be mayor.

  6. KF KF May 13, 2022

    Thank you for this informative article. I am still so shocked that residents reelected Carlina Rivera. When will voters wake up and vote in their best interests?

  7. Deforestation Daniel Deforestation Daniel May 13, 2022

    People are outraged that a park built on landfill is now being rebuilt on more landfill…..roooight.
    I live on the Lower East Side and I used to run in the park every day. Now I take a right up the West Side instead of a left. Fast-forward 5 years and there will be a brand new park with trees for people to tie themselves to and claim as ancestral Lenape territory. Get a grip folks, New York changes. This isn’t a static city as much as you would like it to be. And oh, by the way I’m also an environmental engineer and the old plan was wildly unrealistic…..using the park as a sponge! Has anybody seen soil sample results??? The capacity to absorb is nil, no matter how many “wetlands” you build here. The LES will be underwater in 100 years whatever we do here… This just buys us a little more time.

  8. Jan Jan May 20, 2022

    I’m glad to see that this piece is now clearly marked as “opinion.” Although there are a number of points Kathryn Freed brings up that seem questionable, I suppose they can fall under the umbrella of “opinion,” including her rather comical description comical description of the work that she says is not going on in East River Park. I don’t have the engineering or construction background to weigh in on that, but I don’t think she does either.

    But one section merits clarification. Freed claims that Con Ed is taking down trees and doing other work to create a parking lot and wide pathway for their vehicles. I’ve listened to a number of the monthly updates on this project and I’ve looked at some of the supporting documents, and I don’t remember the phrase “parking lot” ever coming up. I submitted a query through the ESCR query tool, and the response confirmed that Con Ed is not creating a parking lot or pathway for themselves. In fact: “In order to complete the ConEd utility upgrades, the ESCR contractor will need to remove the trees in the lawn area adjacent to the Shared Use Path and Track as a result of utility interference with trees and tree roots which support the trees.”

    Freed says “Parkgoers have been told clearing this expansive area is necessary because Con Ed needs a parking lot and wants a wide, straight path to their work area.” I realize The Village Sun doesn’t consider it their responsibility to fact-check these pieces: But shouldn’t they require contributors to provide verification of a statement like that -– for example, who told parkgoers that? This is not an opinion; it’s either a fact or it’s not, and it turns out not to be. I’ve already seen this piece of misinformation posted on a number of social media accounts.

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