The East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project is New York’s gigantic and costly attempt to keep Manhattan’s metaphorical feet dry in the face of rising sea levels and increasingly energetic hurricanes. While the project includes a number of different parts, one of the most controversial has been the destruction and planned rebuilding of the popular East River Park.
There’s no real disagreement over the need for improved flood defenses. When Hurricane Sandy hit, a good part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side found itself underwater. However, many local residents questioned whether it was really necessary to trash a beloved park entirely in order to execute the plan. The administration responded with lordly indifference to the expressed concerns, and went ahead and did it anyway.
Most of the actual sacking of the park, including the wholesale destruction of the park’s trees, took place last year. This year, the demolition crews have been focused on dismantling rather less emotionally-charged elements – the esplanade along the river, and two crumbling concrete footbridges over the FDR Drive. The destruction of the second of these did inspire a fresh burst of outrage, when the planners announced that in order to knock down the bridge they needed to destroy half of another park, in this case the adjacent Corlears Hook Park. There were protests, but the local community seemed defeated after the big losses last year, and the administration, once again, went ahead and did it anyway.
So that’s where we stand now. East River Park still looks like a battlefield, but the construction crews are certainly doing something. The gigantic marine crane Weeks 536 has paid a number of visits to the park, offloading tons of sand and gravel for soil stabilization each time. A tugboat is semi-permanently stationed on site to help shunt barges around. A temporary bridge has been thrown across the FDR Drive to allow continued access to the ferry station at Corlears Hook. And the park itself is full of gigantic enigmatic machines that shovel soil and sand around, drive piles, and dig and fill deep trenches.
We're still a long way from the promised new East River Park. The official plan calls for the section currently being worked on to re-open in three years, and for the whole project to be completed in five. Given the history of major engineering works on the Lower East Side, this seems wildly optimistic. Some of the construction workers, speaking privately, have speculated that rebuilding the park is a ten year project. Given that simply building the esplanade – which the crews took apart in the space of a few weeks – took close to ten years, it’s possible that even that is an unlikely best-case scenario. Lower East Siders may be enjoying the sight of a park filled with construction equipment for a long time to come. Aassuming, of course, that the city doesn’t simply throw up its hands and turn the whole thing over to the property developers, which some cynics speculate has been the plan all along.