Plan to extend lower Manhattan into East River to be studied by experts

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The city is about to start a two year master planning process to defend lower Manhattan against climate change. Max Touhey

Posted October 3, 2019

The project’s consulting team is gearing up for a two year master plan process

The city is about to embark on a two-year process that will create a roadmap to expand nearly a mile of the lower Manhattan coastline into the East River with flood protections.

Officials with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) have approved a team of 18 consultants lead by Arcadis, a Netherlands-based design and engineering firm, to develop the Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan. That framework will present locals with a handful of options for expanding the shoreline of those neighborhoods as much as 500 feet into the waterway with the goal of zeroing in on a single concept to defend the area against climate change. The team was assembled to encourage out-of-the-box thinking that officials hope will lead to an innovative approach.

“One of the reasons we really like this group of firms is their emphasis on being creative and bringing in ideas where possible to use natural systems, to think about the local ecology,” says Elijah Hutchinson, the vice president of waterfronts for NYCEDC. “And so a layered approach to resilience is going to be an important one here.”

Arcadis is no stranger to New York City resiliency efforts; the firm is currently working on the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project north of the proposed shoreline extension. Another Dutch-based consultant on the team, Deltares, was also recently brought on by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Carlina Rivera to independently review the city’s plans for the ESCR project. Other consultants that are familiar names on city projects include SHoP Architects, One Architecture & Urbanism,and SCAPE.

The master plan is building off of a $10 billion proposal unveiled by Mayor Bill de Blasio in March that positioned the effort as part of a multi-pronged plan to prevent storm surge and rising sea level from inundating Manhattan. The Seaport and Financial District pose an especially daunting challenge, NYCEDC officials say, because of the area’s low-lying topography—it’s just eight feet above sea level—and the web of crucial transportation and sewage infrastructure below, which makes digging down unfeasible.

Portions of the neighborhoods’ newly extended waterfront would be elevated some 20 feet above the water line, officials say. But a flood of questions remain: Who would foot the bill for such a massive undertaking? Would new development rise on the two city blocks-worth of new land? And how would this impact the marine life in the East River, which only recently has bounced back from decades of pollution?

The newly-assembled consulting team will conduct various studies to answer those questions and more. A concrete price tag has yet to be determined and is dependent on the final project, but the city has already begun advocating to state and federal officials for funds; it is also exploring how private dollars could support the effort, according to Hutchinson. Constructing new buildings on that landfill will be explored further by the consulting team, but maintaining an accessible waterfront is a priority for the city, according to Hutchinson.

“We don’t want to have a project that cuts off people from their waterfront,” he says.

The city says it aims to keep locals in the loop each step of the way with quarterly updates at public meetings and visits to Manhattan Community Board 1, but some are wary that that will truly happen. The city stoked community ire just north of the project site when it took a dramatic turn on the ESCR project last year and decided to go with a plan that revised 70 percent of the original proposal after years of community engagement

“We want regular and constant communication between NYCEDC and the community,” says Anthony Notaro Jr., the chairman of Community Board 1. “Saying that and doing it are sometimes two different things.”

Notaro stressed the need for the city to move “as expeditiously as possible” to develop protections for the vulnerable communities and their underlying infrastructure. But the final plan will have to work its way through numerous analysis, regulatory reviews, and potentially the city’s months-long Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Lower Manhattan Councilmember Margaret Chin, who would have sway over the project if it goes through ULURP, echoed Notaro’s concerns and says she will push for a transparent process moving forward.

“Nearly seven years since Superstorm Sandy hit our city, our neighborhoods remain incredibly vulnerable to the next storm. This plan provides the starting point of a conversation about protecting the Lower Manhattan coastline,” Chin told Curbed in a statement. “No resiliency effort will be successful without input from residents.”