ESCR 2023

New York, NY, USA

FDR dusk

Construction equipment looms against a dusk sky along Manhattan’s FDR Drive

New York, NY, USA

Two years ago, the demolition of Manhattan’s East River Park began as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, a multi-billion dollar project to create flood defenses in low-lying areas of Manhattan. The stated goal is to protect Manhattan against sea-level rises and the kind of storm surges that accompanied Hurricane Sandy by – among other things – razing the park and rebuilding it on top of three meters of fill.

My recollection was that the planners originally promised that it would also prevent flooding due to heavy rainfall. If that ever was an official goal, it has now been walked back. September’s storms demonstrated clearly that the work, at least in its present incomplete state, did nothing at all to prevent the FDR Drive from turning into a river, and might even have exacerbated the problem.

Last year’s work focused mainly on demolition or, as they like to call it, ‘site preparation’. This year, we seem to have moved onto the construction phase. All summer long, giant barges delivered immense amounts of gray gravel, which has now been heaped up and spread out into a gritty, amorphous mass on top of the ruins of the park. Massive cranes have unloaded huge chunks of preformed concrete for the new sea wall. They certainly haven’t been idle, although at this point it still doesn’t look much like a park.

The original plan anticipated completion of the project in 2023, and called for the closure of the entire park; the plan was subsequently modified so that the work would be done in two stages, with only half the park closed at any time, delaying the completion of the project. The latest plans project a 2026 end date, and the ‘open half’ of the park has been increasingly nibbled away by progressive extension of the construction area. The project also swallowed up about half of the adjacent Corlears Hook Park, which was razed to facilitate demolition and reconstruction of the footbridge there.

It’s still unclear what the final result will look like. Local residents are afraid that the open green spaces of the former park may be replaced by a ‘plastic park’ full of concrete walkways, regimented flowerbeds, and sports fields covered with artificial grass. Certainly, if the newly-opened section between the lower end of the old park and Pier 35 is anything to go by, that may be exactly what we get. It’s also not clear to me if the rather sterile-looking gravel being used to build up the park will support the kind of tall trees that were there before, or if the fifteen hundred trees they’ve promised to plant will all turn out to be slender little saplings in concrete pots, as many of my neighbors fear. I certainly don’t expect to see anything like the groves of tall shade trees that were a feature of the old park during my lifetime.

Watching the construction unfold, it’s hard not to be impressed by the seriousness and skill of the contractors. It seems likely that they will deliver some kind of park (my paranoid suspicion that the whole thing might be just a pretext to turn over part or all of the park to real-estate developers has at least partly receded). It’s still very far from clear how much it will resemble the lavish renderings of the architects, or the somewhat scruffy but often lovely park that was there before the chainsaws and bulldozers moved in. It will be a great shame if, after all the inevitable delays and timeline slippages, we end up after all with just another ‘plastic park’, optimized not for beauty or ecology but for ease of maintenance.