The southern half of Manhattan’s East River Park, slated for demolition, was closed off on Monday morning. By Tuesday, demolition crews were already at work, sawing their way through the eighty-year-old London plane trees standing along the greenway at the edge of the park. City planners, frustrated by delays, were now trying to put as much of the park as possible beyond repair as quickly as they could.
The original motivation for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project was largely uncontroversial. Hurricane Sandy had made it clear that Lower Manhattan was at serious risk from rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Building adequate flood defenses to protect low-lying parts of the city was clearly a priority.
The city launched a public consultation process that solicited input from all interested parties, including residents of the threatened neighborhoods. A Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, developed a plan that preserved and enhanced much of the existing park. Their proposal met with widespread acceptance: the ‘BIG U’ plan was declared the winning entry in the Department of Housing and Urban Design’s Rebuild by Design contest, the city funded the plan, and community groups gave their approval to the design.
Then things got weird. After some months of silence, city planners suddenly reappeared to announce a new plan, the Preferred Alternative. Gone was the subtle landscaping of the BIG U. In its place was a plan to raze the existing park to the ground, cover the entire space with eight to ten feet of landfill, and rebuild a new park on top. The attached price tag more than doubled: from $685 million, it had skyrocketed to over $1.5 billion.
The original proposal was the product of extensive community consultation. The new plan was developed in secret, with no input from the community at all. The planners were strangely reticent about the motivation for the change. In public hearings, all they would say was that the original proposal had been judged inadequate. They seemed little interested in further discussion, or even in selling their solution. They didn’t seem to care how it was received. The message was clear. The city’s new plan was not simply the ‘Preferred Alternative’: it was the only option, and it would be going ahead whether people liked it or not.
From the point of view of communications, it was a disaster. Any faith in the good intentions of the planners evaporated. The city’s perceived high-handedness generated strong resentment, while the secretiveness and lack of clarity about the new plan provoked deep and immediate suspicion. The city didn’t seem to care about any of that. In after-the-fact community meetings they did little to explain themselves or solicit new input, simply reiterating that the new plan was the only way forward.
Nor did they seem especially concerned to allay community concerns. Where would the landfill that would be used to raise the park come from, and would it be safe? The city couldn’t or wouldn’t say. What measures would be taken to protect the health of residents while barges dumped millions of tons of spoil onto the former park? The city responded vaguely that appropriate safeguards would be put in place. In place of solid answers, the city offered evasion and hand-waving, accompanied by attractive artist’s renderings (some taken from the now-abandoned BIG U proposal) showing how delightful the park would be once it was finished.
Planners seemed to be not merely indifferent to what people thought of the plan – after all, there was no alternative to the Preferred Alternative – but to its impact on local residents. The Lower East Side is not a wealthy part of the city. When asked where poor kids from the NYCHA public housing projects could go for recreation, the city responded loftily that they could go to Randall’s Island – more than an hour away to the north, assuming you have the money for bus fare. The city’s plan originally envisaged the closure of the entire park for the duration of construction (estimated at three years, a number that everyone familiar with large-scale public projects considered absurdly optimistic). After intense community presure, the city grudgingly agreed to split construction into two phases, so that half the park would remain open at all times. The fact that no one involved had apparently even considered this option before spoke volumes about how little the planners actually cared about the people who would be most affected by their plans.
The more local people pushed back, the more the city dug in. City planners sometimes seemed personally offended that the proles were daring to question their great and beautiful vision. Their tactics became increasingly underhand. When local groups demanded to see the Value Engineering Study that had informed the city’s decision, officials responded that no such report existed, a lie so blatant that even experienced political observers were taken aback. A little while later someone in the planning department apparently realized that admitting that you'd altered a major public works project to the tune of more than $800 million without conducting a Value Engineering Study might constitute actual malfeasance and even grounds for criminal charges. The planners hastily changed tack, admitting that there was a report after all, before adding that no one was allowed to see it.
East River Park Action took the city to court, where a judge ruled that the city was required to make public the Value Engineering Study. The city, forced to comply, handed over a document that was more than 50% redacted. So much of the text was covered up by black boxes that it could have passed for a partially-declassified national security memo or the manual for a nuclear bomber, rather than a document of legitimate public interest developed by a city government supposedly working in the interests of residents.
Back they went to court, where a judge once again ruled that the city was obliged to hand over an intact text. Reluctantly, the city produced a second version of the report. This one too had redactions, but it was less redacted than before. Interestingly, comparison of the two versions revealed that a number of the redactions in the first version had concealed not vital security information but passages where the city’s experts had acknowledged or even recommended alternatives to the city’s proposed plan.
The city, meanwhile, had been waging a successful disinformation campaign in which they pretended that opponents of their plan were Luddites who didn’t understand the necessity of robust flood defenses. This smear was beyond absurd: not a single person I’ve spoken to is against the idea of flood defenses. People who live on the Lower East Side are more keenly aware than anyone of the vulnerability of the area. In fact, local groups have repeatedly pressed the city to explain what protections the plan will offer against a superstorm that hits the city during the five or more years before the work is completed (the city’s answers, once again, have been mostly vague and unsatisfactory). Journalists, however, tended to accept the city’s assertions at face value, obligingly painting opponents of the city’s benevolent vision as peevish NIMBYs and anarchist malcontents.
East River Park Action sued the city again, this time to block demolition work on the grounds that the city had failed to seek the necessary state approval for ‘alienation’ of public parkland. A judge granted a temporary stay on planned work, but ultimately accepted the city’s claim that destroying the park in order to save it was the only possible option and ruled against the pressure group.
With the way now clear to start, the city went full steam ahead. The lower part of the park was closed off, with a heavy police presence to prevent any interference by protesters. No sooner had the last fence gone up than contractors began cutting down trees and digging up open spaces, plainly under instructions to do as much irreparable damage as possible in the shortest time.
Lawyers for East River Park Action took the case to the Court of Appeals, where a judge set aside the lower court’s order and imposed another stay pending judgment. Work stopped again, and the chainsaws fell silent.
At 6:00PM on Thursday night, a lawyer for the city suddenly announced that the city did not feel that the judge’s order disallowed further work. Demolition would resume the next morning.
The timing was carefully chosen. An immediate filing with the Court of Appeals asking for clarification of the order would not be heard before Monday, giving the contractors three days to wreak as much damage on the park as possible. The remit was clear: wreck everything you can, so that there’s no going back.
The contractors obliged. On Friday morning, they resumed their assault on the avenue of plane trees along the greenway. By Saturday, they had added a second cherry picker and chainsaw operator and moved on to the trees around the park’s Dance Circle, while crews with saws and excavators moved in to finish off the limbless trees left behind by Friday’s work. Excavators gouged a deep pit in the water park area with its much-loved harbor seal sculptures. The work continued after dark: well after midnight, crews were still working under portable light towers, sawing their way through the fencing around soccer pitches and basketball courts. It was an astonishing orgy of destruction, a deliberate act of vandalism solicited by the city’s elected representatives in open defiance of a court order .
All this is, in a word, corruption. And if I describe it as such, I’m not asserting that Mayor de Blasio or anyone else in the city’s hierarchy is receiving hefty backhanders from vested interests to wreck the park. But I do believe that this is corruption in the sense that Lord Acton had in mind when he observed that “All power tends to corrupt." The city and its officials, obsessed with imposing their will, their single blinkered vision of the way things have to be, have acted both arrogantly and indifferently toward the people that they are supposed to serve and represent. It’s one thing to be convinced that you know best. It’s quite another to take that conviction so far that you no longer to bother to hide your contempt not just for your constituents but for the law itself.
And the gravity of this cannot be overstated. Government has multiple tools at its disposal. If it needs to impose its will by force, it has mercenaries on retainer in the form of a police force that – as in East River Park – will obey its orders unhesitatingly. Ordinary people have no such resources. All they have on their side is the law, and if officials decide that they are above that law then we’ve reached a very bad place.
At the end of the day, we're watching a city government gone out of control and the destruction of a priceless resource through rushed and spiteful acts of sabotage. The planners assure us that if we just get out of their way, the park will rise again, even more beautiful than before, from the ruins they have created. But after seeing the way Mayor de Blasio and his administration have acted throughout this saga, what possible reason do we have to believe them?