New storm-surge berm for L.E.S. could begin taking shape by 2017

The Big U plan calls for creating a storm surge-blocking berm next to East River Park. New bridges would ensure continued access to the park.
The Big U plan calls for creating a storm surge-blocking berm next to East River Park. New bridges would ensure continued access to the park.

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC  |  After Oct. 29, 2012, the city was faced with a new reality and an urgency to protect its coastline. Two years later, the “Big U” design is part of the plan to safeguard hard-hit areas such as the East Village and Lower East Side — but it is unclear where funding will be found for other sections of Lower Manhattan.

In June 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the Rebuild by Design contest, a “multi-stage design competition to develop innovative, implementable proposals that promote resilience in the Sandy-affected region,” according to its Web site.

Superstorm Sandy was the second-most expensive natural disaster in the country’s history, according to the Web site. One of the 10 competing design teams was BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), a design and architecture firm with offices in Denmark, New York City and China. (The BIG team also worked with partners.)

The team proposed the Big U, a series of protective measures, such as berms, that was envisioned stretching from W. 57th St. south down to the Battery and then around and up to E. 42nd St., creating a “U” around Manhattan’s southern half.

The BIG team divided Lower Manhattan, which was devastated by Sandy, into what they termed “compartments.” The first compartment, C1, runs from E. 23rd St. to Montgomery St. The second compartment, C2, stretches from Montgomery St. to the Brooklyn Bridge. The third, C3, extends from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery.

HUD awarded $335 million for the project’s C1, the first compartment, out of $930 million total for the winning proposals. In deciding which section to fund, HUD worked with the BIG team and decided on the stretch from Montgomery to E. 23rd St., said Holly M. Leicht, HUD’s regional administrator for New York and New Jersey. Part of that analysis included how the area would be affected by a tidal surge, the area’s vulnerability and the fact that it was a low-income neighborhood with public housing, she said.

HUD worked with the teams so that each phase of a proposal would be designed as a stand-alone project, Leicht said.

“It wasn’t realistic to fund all the phases for all the projects,” she said. “But we wanted to ensure that we got the ball rolling for as many of the deserving projects as possible.”

Leicht said that the Big U’s next two sections would not by funded by HUD. She explained that there is some funding available from the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which is somewhat similar to Rebuild by Design, but that it’s for all areas affected by disasters between 2011 and 2013.

For the BIG team, the focus on the first compartment was that it protected “a deep floodplain next to the F.D.R. Drive, which separates it from East River Park. The park, now badly connected to the community, has room for a protective berm,” according to a BIG spokesperson.

“There’s about 620 acres being protected there, about 130,000 people — 86,000 of whom are low-income, elderly or disabled,” the spokesperson said. “So, in terms of risk, both in the future and also as was demonstrated during Sandy, it made a lot of sense as a place to start.”

The team did a cost estimate for the three compartments. Each could cost between $300 million and $500 million, with a total of about $1.2 billion for all three, which would protect four and half miles of coastline from the Battery to E. 23rd St., according to the BIG spokesperson. If completed, the entire project would cover 10 miles of Manhattan coastline. There is no estimate of what the total project would cost, the BIG spokesperson said.

Aixa Torres, tenant association president for the Alfred E. Smith Houses, which will not be included in the Montgomery to E. 23rd. St. stretch, participated in several community workshops and meetings about the Big U.

“I’m not happy,” Torres said last week. “The hardest-hit are the ones that will be the least protected. What happens to the rest of us?”

During Sandy, the Smith Houses did not have power or water and experienced flooding.

The Montgomery boundary does include the Vladeck Houses, and Nancy Ortiz, president of Vladeck’s resident association, is happy about that. But she’s upset that other public housing, such as LaGuardia, Knickerbocker, Rutgers and the Smith Houses, are not covered.

“It’s very disheartening that other areas that should have been included were not,” said Ortiz, who also participated in community Big U meetings and workshops. “We were under the impression it was going to cover past the Smith Houses.”

“It was not clear to us that it was strictly going to be the compartment from Montgomery to 23rd,” said Damaris Reyes, executive director of the Good Old Lower East Side at an Oct. 21 meeting of the Community Board 3 Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs, Landmarks and Waterfront Committee. “The community, I think, was under the impression that the compartments were smaller…and that it could be any sort of combinations of stretches of land.”

She and her organization, GOLES, worked hard to connect with residents to attend Rebuild by Design meetings and workshops. Reyes said her entire staff dropped everything to focus on it.

“We’re not in a position to do that again in the future,” she said.

Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, gave a presentation about the Big U at the C.B. 3 committee meeting.

“We want to make sure we’re directing limited dollars toward the areas of the highest risks,” he said. “The Lower East Side comes up as very high in that analysis.”

There are a large number of people who live in the floodplain, explained Zarrilli, and that — coupled with a density of critical infrastructure of public housing — has made it a high priority for flood protection.

As of now, the Big U concept for this section includes a series of berms, along with bridges that would keep most of the East River Park open to the community.

“In many ways, we are at step one on this project,” he explained. “We have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of decisions to be made.”

The city has assembled a large team to facilitate the project, which will include the Department of Design and Construction, the Parks Department and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

“HUD awarded the money, $335 million,” Zarrilli said. “What they don’t do is show up with a sack of money and say, ‘Have fun, go build stuff.’ ”

There is a bit of bureaucratic process, said Zarrilli. HUD had just released recently what it calls “The Notice.” The city now has to write an action plan that details how it will spend the money, which will go out for public review and comment. There will be public hearings, the city will solicit public comment via its Web site, people can call 311 or write letters. Once the final plan is submitted to HUD, the federal agency has 60 days to approve it.

This process may be completed by next March. Currently, there are surveyors walking up and down the East River Park to gather baseline conditions. The city will also put out an R.F.P. (request for proposals) for preliminary design consultants and community engagement services.

“We have a very aggressive goal. We want to see groundbreaking in 2017,” Zarrilli said.

He also fielded questions about why other areas, such as Two Bridges, would not be covered by the Montgomery section.

“We’re certainly aware of the risks in Two Bridges as well further down to Lower Manhattan,” he said, but added that there aren’t funds yet for construction there.

“Honestly, it may end up being very difficult to make $335 million work simply within the boundaries that we’re talking about it,” he admitted. “It’s important to recognize — it sounds like a lot of money until you get into a big multilayered construction project.”

In an e-mailed statement, Councilmember Margaret Chin was optimistic about where the project stands now and the potential to achieve the whole vision.

“I believe this project will become an important part of our long-term approach to waterfront resiliency,” she said, “and I will certainly continue to advocate for the Big U to become fully funded, so it can eventually help to protect all of our Lower Manhattan neighborhoods from future storms.”

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