BY SOMMER OMAR | For more than a decade, extreme weather events have battered Lower Manhattan. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy plunged Downtown beneath as much as 10 feet of floodwater, robbing 44 New Yorkers of their lives, and wreaking economic havoc to the tune of $19 billion. In 2021, the National Weather Service issued its first “flash flood emergency” for New York City as its streets, subways and sewer system buckled under the heavy rainfall of Hurricane Ida. And this past September, a flash flood forced the closure of the F.D.R. Drive along Lower Manhattan, grinding transportation to a halt.
Each event is a grim validation of warnings about how vulnerable coastal cities are to the damaging effects of climate change.
Following Hurricane Sandy, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study to determine how to improve coastal resiliency in New York and New Jersey in areas particularly vulnerable to storm surges like Sandy. In September 2022, the study culminated in a 569-page tome detailing the Army Corps’s record-breaking $52 billion plan to install storm-surge gates and roughly 12-foot-tall concrete seawall barriers along the coast between Battery Park and Hudson Yards to prevent water from breaching Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The shoreline would be unrecognizable, with a swath of concrete replacing views of the Hudson River and access to Hudson River Park.
On the other side of town, the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan is clear-cutting East River Park, which will then be raised and rebuilt above the flood plain. However, a similar approach apparently was not an option for the 25-year-old Hudson River Park, construction of which has cost hundreds of millions of dollars up to this point.
The Army Corps accepted public comments on the preliminary West Side resiliency plan until March of last year. Criticism abounded.
Metro Flood Defense, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public understanding of flooding risks in New York and New Jersey metropolitan areas, submitted comments. They represent a coalition of expert oceanographic, weather, climate and ecology scientists, urban planners, architects, advocates and social scientists. In Metro Flood Defense’s view, the Army Corps’s plan is “fatally flawed” because the plan “only protects 63 percent of the region” at risk of flooding.
The coalition further argues that the Army Corps’s plan leaves “many of the region’s major infrastructure systems exposed,” including subway entrances, LaGuardia Airport, the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks.
Disturbingly, Metro Food Defense said, the plan also “leaves dozens of communities and hundreds of thousands of residents — many of them in low-income and minority communities — unprotected from future flooding.” Social justice advocates have warned that this form of environmental discrimination amounts to “climate redlining.”
Metro Flood Defense and other organizations have advanced alternative proposals that incorporate more nature-based defense systems, and would scrap the onshore concrete barriers in favor of a more nimble flood defense system comprised of multiple layers of movable sea-gates, along with levees. However, installing sea-gates in New York Harbor would be costlier than the Army Corps’s scheme.
The Downtown community, for its part, has resolutely resisted the plan. Indeed, there has been a steady drumbeat of opposition and alarm since the Army Corps’s proposal was first made public.
On Feb. 3, 2023, Community Board 2, representing Greenwich Village, Soho and Hudson Square along the waterfront, issued a detailed resolution on the plan. The community board urged the Army Corps to, among other things, more clearly communicate and engage with the impacted communities throughout the planning process and to consider alternatives to the “concrete wall.”
On Feb. 13, 2023, members of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council unanimously passed a measure calling on the governor and mayor to establish a task force to coordinate resiliency efforts across federal, state and local government and ensure community input. The advisory council is comprised of every elected official whose district would be impacted by the Army Corps’s plan, including Congressmembers Goldman and Nadler; state Senators Kavanagh and Hoylman-Sigal; Assemblymembers Glick, Simone, Rosenthal and Fall; and City Councilmembers Marte, Bottcher and Brewer.
On Feb. 28, 2023 Community Board 1 similarly implored the Army Corps to better coordinate communication with state and local stakeholders about the resiliency plan. The Lower Manhattan board warned that almost “all community members do not favor” the concrete wall prescribed under the current plan that would “preclude visual and physical access” to the waterfront.
On March 6, 2023, Community Board 4, covering Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, followed suit, issuing a resolution stating that it “cannot support” a plan where the “effects of building a massive, unsightly wall along the western edge of Route 9A will cut off [members of community district 4] from not only the Hudson River but also from Hudson River Park.”
Dan Miller, chairperson of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, noted that the proposed concrete barrier threatens “the park and its viability.” He more pointedly added, “Find me anyone who wants a permanent wall.” Miller further stressed that the broader public may not be aware that such a proposal is working its way through the Army Corps of Engineers’ Rube Goldberg-like approval process or that access to the park is at risk.
Echoing a similar sentiment was Tom Fox, the first president of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the predecessor agency to the present Hudson River Park Trust. A relentless advocate for public spaces, Fox noted, “There’s 17 million people who visit the Hudson River Park every year — that’s 17 million unhappy campers, they just don’t know it yet.” (In a March 2023 talking point in The Village Sun, Fox proposed an alternative coastal resiliency plan of his own.)
In the next several months, the Army Corps of Engineers will issue what’s called a “Chief Engineers Report,” which will reflect adjustments made to the plan after the close of the public comment period.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who chairs the state Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, has registered serious concerns about the current resiliency plan. She explained that, in the revised plan, she would want to see “more nature-based means of wave attenuation and shoreline protection” rather than an over-reliance on “hard structures,” such as the proposed concrete barrier. She added, “For a carpenter, all problems are solved with a hammer and a nail,” and that for the Army Corps, there’s a similar over-reliance on “putting up a wall,” rather than engaging in a “broader vision” of how to protect vulnerable coasts.
Experts are poised to review this revised report and will assess whether the new plan would protect a greater percentage of the region vulnerable to climate change without “climate redlining”; whether the revised plan incorporates additional protections for the effects of rising sea levels and other climate dangers beyond just storm surges; and whether community concerns have been addressed.
Advocates warn that the technical opacity of these reports and the process itself risks discouraging public review; in short, it’s hard for laypersons to know how to criticize a plan drafted by and largely for engineers, full of architectural and scientific jargon.
According to Fox, a veteran brawler when it comes to safeguarding public spaces, it’s imperative that the Downtown community remains vigilant. The Army Corps’s plan, as currently contemplated, presents a choice of coastal resiliency versus access to a treasured public park. A chorus of advocates and experts have cautioned that such a choice need not be made.