East River Park protest

New York, NY, USA

Protest march

Protesters march in defense of East River Park

New York, NY, USA

The protesters from the Save East River Park movement returned to the park today, with a march that began in Tompkins Square Park further north and ended at the East River Park Amphitheater.

Not a great deal seems to have changed since the last time that I photographed a protest in the park. The powers-that-be in the city still seem to be ever more determined to push forward with a plan that will completely level the thriving park, destroy thousands of mature trees, and take the park out of service for an optimistic minimum of five years (according to the plan) and probably very much longer.

The protesters, for their part, are unanimously opposed to the city’s new plan, although it’s not always clear what they propose to do instead. Most agree that some kind of flood protection for Manhattan’s low-lying Lower East Side is necessary, but few favor the city’s new approach to achieving that goal. Some favor reviving an earlier plan developed in consultation with the community by Danish architects Bjarke Ingels Group. Their plan had the virtue of not razing the entire park, but advocates of the city’s plan argue that it would see increasingly large parts of the park intermittently or permanent submerged by rising waters. Non-specialists have suggested still more ambitious proposals, including incidentally burying the FDR Drive – an unpopular urban highway that skirts the park – underground and extending the park over the top of it. I’d personally be delighted to see that happen, but I'm not optimistic; New York officials still hesitate to do anything that would seriously inconvenience car owners.

The exact reasons why the city is so committed to their new plan remain mysterious. East River Park Action successfully used Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to obtain the Value Engineering Study used by the city to justify the plan. The city began by denying that any such study existed. Forced to admit that it did, the planners grudgingly turned over a document in which the relevant sections had been redacted into oblivion, as if they were vital secrets of national security, rather than a sober discussion of the fate of a public open space. A version with fewer redactions has finally been released, but unanswered questions still remain.

The city’s sudden imposition of a new and ambitious plan developed with no community oversight or involvement was enough to persuade many people that something fishy was going on. The subsequent shenanigans around the Value Engineering Study have only fanned the flames of suspicion. One popular theory is that there are secret plans to turn over part of the park to real-estate developers, perhaps using a budget shortfall as justification. Already, the lowest bids from contractors to do just part of the work substantially exceed the city’s budget for the whole project. I will be furiously angry but not in the least surprised when some future administration turns around and announces that regrettably the work cannot be completed unless the most desirable parcels of the park are handed over to private business for development to offset the costs. As one gentleman at the protest commented, “It’s a land grab. It‘s a land grab.”

It‘s hard to know how this will play out. The city seems determined to impose their new plan. Protest groups are equally determined that they won’t. The only things we can say for certain at this point are that the work won’t be done in five years and it won’t come in anywhere close to the already gigantic budget. And that today’s march will definitely not be the last such protest in East River Park.