Superstorm Sandy hits the East River esplanade. The storm, and its predecessor Irene, influenced a plan that aims to provide both access to and safety from the water.

Photo by: David Shankbone

Superstorm Sandy hits the East River esplanade. The storm, and its predecessor Irene, influenced a plan that aims to provide both access to and safety from the water.

Imagine standing along the East river walkway with the railings gone, the bulkheads removed and a long ramp leading down to the water via a sandy beach. The iconic Brooklyn Bridge hovers above, but new light fixtures brighten the dark sections under the FDR Drive viaduct; a couple of boaters are ready to launch their kayaks into the East River, pushing their vessels along the beach stretching into the river.

New designs for the esplanade along the East River in Manhattan include the creation of saltwater marshlands, beaches under the Brooklyn Bridge and even the construction of mussel beds to clean the water. They’re part of the Blueway Plan—an initiative brought to life by Borough President Scott Stringer and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh in cooperation with community boards 3 and 6 as well as a design team at WXY+architecture that hopes to protect the waterfront from future storms and make it more accessible to communities on the East Side.

The Blueway Plan focuses on the stretch of waterfront running from 38th Street down to the Brooklyn Bridge. Running along the FDR drive, this area expands towards the East River and at times runs under the highway’s overpass—for example, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge at South Street.

After the devastating effects of recent super-storms Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012, the Blueway Plan had to be updated to include more wetlands. It was also revised to provide piers between the wetlands in answer to calls by communities along the river for direct access to the water.

There’s no question that the plan will provide that direct access to the water. What can’t be known yet is whether it will also provide protection from it.

Hard edges, hard truths

For the principal designers Claire Weisz and Adam Lubinsky of WXY Architecture and Urban Design, the Blueway Plan project began with a proposal in the spring of 2011, followed by meetings with stakeholder groups and the creation of a draft plan in November 2011.

The first focus was on crossings, especially the ‘pinchpoint’ or also ‘blueway crossing’ at 14th Street. Architects had to talk to representatives from ConEd about the substation on 14th Street about how to work with them. This part of the plan has the most community interest as an explosion at that plant during Sandy left all of Manhattan from 39th Street south in the dark for four days.

Now the plan includes a bridge that provides enough space for both pedestrians and bikers to comfortably cross the FDR. The flyover construction envisions two storm barriers on each side to protect the ConEd site from flooding.

To the design team at WXY Architecture, Hurricane Irene was an indicator of what was to come in the future. The designers had already been looking into creating saltwater wetlands along the Lower East Side part of the river in September of 2012, said Lubinsky. After Sandy, the community along the East River called for an expansion of those planned wetlands. Then piers were included in the plans to create access for people to directly go to the water.

“People seem to have more of an open mind to the things we suggested after Sandy,” Lubinsky said. Not only the public but also agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection were more enthusiastic about building more absorbent edges that have lots of grassy areas to keep rainwater from overflowing the sewage system, along the river.

Other parts of the plan include a mix of measures. “The boating community has been excited for increased kayak and boating launches included in the plan”, says Lubinsky. The Brooklyn Bridge Beach project of 11,000 square feet aims to expand the natural beach under the bridge for public access and storm buffering.

Stringer pledged a $3.5 million grant for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge Beach—matched by $3.5 million from the City Council, as Speaker Christine Quinn announced at a press conference on August 1st

Further north, a section of the FDR drive viaduct overhanging the esplanade between Robert F. Wagner Sr. Place and Market Slip will feature freshwater wetlands. These would include grasses that allow enough water to come in to keep the wetland green as well as prevent surging water from reaching the mainland.

Then there is the planned boat launch at Stuyvesant Cove Park near East 23rd Street that includes a movable dock for the display of historic boats. Piers could be utilized in many different ways, such as for environmental education about estuaries or for hobby fishermen. Ellen Hartig, a project manager at the Department of Parks and Recreation, welcomes the expansion of the education of the public about wetlands and their function in an urban setting. “It is important for the nation to learn and understand wetlands and their function,” Hartig says.

How much protection?

As far as protective measures go, the Blueway Plan aligns with Mayor Bloomberg’s recently released resiliency plan. According to the mayor’s report, most Sandy-related damage to buildings in southern Brooklyn resulted from stillwater flooding. The inundation of Jamaica Bay pushed floodwaters into creeks and basins that then overflowed. The report called for raising of bulkheads for neighborhoods, like Bergen Beach, Canarsie and Mill Basin facing the Bay. After identifying Newton Creek, located on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, as an inundation source, the resiliency plan suggested a storm surge barrier including levees. But it also calls for other measures such as beach and parks restoration to improve these areas to better absorb stormwater surges.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has projected that sea levels will rise up to 12 inches within the next 40 years—and up to 29 inches if ice caps melt at a faster rate than anticipated.

Hartig has been working to take sites of former wetlands that were filled in in the past and restore them. “We’re bringing back a remnant,” Hartig said. Some of those sites are clean; others are slightly contaminated. Hartig says marsh restoration in the city costs roughly $1 million an acre. Most of the expense is incurred from the cleaning of contaminated sites.

Other elements of the Blueway, like better lighting beneath the FDR drive to enhance public access, are relatively cheap. Projects within Blueway plan are supposed to be individually funded to avoid a large lump sum. The construction of wetlands and other pieces of the plan might be funded by citywide resiliency efforts.

For some critics the plans are a distraction from the incapability of any city to be prepared for a hurricane level 3 or above. Some warn that the protective aspects of implementing wetlands and docks have their limits.

John Tanacredi, director of the Center for Estuarine, Environmental and Coastal Oceans Monitoring (CEECOM) at Dowling College, says the probability in the long run “to reduce storm runs is naively optimistic.” He says while wetlands do absorb storm runoffs, thousands of acres are needed to have an adequate effect.

“A re-created marsh or wetland may never be as productive species- and plant-wise,” as the natural one that it’s meant to restore, Tanacredi says. That “does not mean it cannot help but it depends on extensiveness. One acre is not enough.” For him, the best insurance is a barrier dune profile, like the one that helped communities on Fire Island and parts of the Rockaways avoid the worst of Sandy.

Another critic, Martin Schreibman, founder and director emeritus of Brooklyn College’s Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREC), said the push to restore and create wetlands may be too late considering the massive bulkheads that surround most of the city waterfronts. Schreibman worries that some proposals only function to quiet the public rather than actually preparing the city for bigger storm impacts in the future. He welcomes the waterfont plans for their recreational and educational purposes “but not for storm mitigation. That’s nonsense.”

And the rest of the city?

New York City has 578 miles of coastline, and the Blueway Plan only affects a few. Bloomberg’s infrastructure plan will affect much more of the waterfront. But there are community based efforts underway elsewhere along the rivers’ edges.

CIVITAS, a non-profit, community-based organization working in Harlem and the Upper East Side, sponsored an ideas competition to generate “provocative approaches “to improve the waterfront above midtown. The finalists’ proposals have been shown at the Museum of the City of New York.

Hunter Armstrong, executive director of CIVITAS, pointed out that a lot of the design approaches had already anticipated rising water levels and possible natural disasters that might impact the waterfront significantly. The main theme was to soften the edges along the water. According to Armstrong,
“Everyone is eager to come up with a more functional place and to separate the waterfront from the FDR.”