Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

First Sandy, Now COVID: Lower East Side Activists Grapple With Construction for Climate Project

The East River Park is a transportation channel that residents of the Lower East Side use on a daily basis. Whether by walking, biking, or running. Photo by Samantha Springer.

Lower East Side and East Village community members found no solace in the news last week that construction for its $1.45 billion plan to elevate East River Park will continue in the fall, but likely not in the order the city originally announced.

Now, the community must juggle two disasters: the flood vulnerability that Superstorm Sandy revealed eight years ago and remains unchecked and the mounting concern for open park space that the COVID-19 pandemic has made urgent.

During Wednesday’s City Council executive budget hearing, Commissioner Lorraine Grillo, of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, said there will be a “shovel in the ground” in the fall, but that there may be some changes to the order of the phases and the numbers of areas that go under construction at a given time. The current timeline calls for completion by 2025. “We do not want to disturb social distancing in any way,” Grillo said.

“We worked very, very hard to make sure large portions will remain open during the project,” Grillo said in response to a question posed by Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who pushed the comprehensive East Side Coastal Resiliency Project through City Hall. Grillo said the department will make changes as needed, “but our goal is to maintain that timeline.”

Better quality of life and appropriate park access has been a core issue in community resistance to the resiliency plan since last August. Pat Arnow, founder of East River Park Action, one of the community groups rallying against the ESCR plan, said that she had been hoping the pandemic would strong-arm the city to put a pause on construction. Community activists have focused their dissent on sparing local residents from risk, whether it be from flooding, air pollution, or disease. 

“The situation is so dire with coronavirus that it makes our arguments even more urgent,” she said in a phone interview.

Arnow already had expressed displeasure with the idea of phased closures back when they were announced haphazardly in October, a day before an important community hearing. (During that meeting, Councilmember Rivera called the city’s decision to provide phasing information a day before the hearing as “unfair.”) Arnow, when told about Grillo’s announcement last week, said she had a knee-jerk reaction: “My first thought was just like whatever it is, it’s probably going to be bad for us.”

As the plan stands, it includes no provisions for interim flood protection measures during the construction period that is expected to last at least five years. And no one wants another Superstorm Sandy.

In 2012, Sandy ravaged the area with a 12-foot storm surge, snuffing out electricity and heat for thousands of people. Hospitals, severed from sources of power, had to evacuate. The trains, suspended since the day before, were inundated from track to ceiling. Over the course of a few hours, Sandy brought New York City to a halt. Those who heeded early warnings and had the privilege of having a car, a second house, a family friend with an apartment on higher elevation were lucky. But the poor, the working class, the elderly, and the disabled — like those who live in public housing in affected areas —  could not flee. And just like that, Sandy killed 43 people across New York City’s five boroughs. A similar story is unraveling now with the wealthy who have fled to vacation homes as the coronavirus takes hundreds of lives a day in the city alone, forcing officials to reckon with failures in its bureaucracy and infrastructure.

Superstorm Sandy is what inspired the city to elevate East River Park and its surroundings from East 25th Street to Montgomery Street. The ESCR is a much-altered portion of Rebuild by Design’sThe Big U,” a protective system proposed for the lower tip of Manhattan to safeguard the waterfront from sea level rise. The ESCR, which is the first of several “resiliency” projects, initially would have closed East River Park completely for three years. The plan called for the city to uproot 2.4 miles of coastline during that period, rework electricity, gas and plumbing, and pack fill. After community dissent  erupted from East River Park Action and East River Alliance, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last October that the project would be completed in two phases. 

This “phased” version of the ESCR announced in October still had the original goals: flood protections completed by 2023 and an elevation of the park by eight feet by 2025. In de Blasio’s press release at the time, he said the first phase of construction would take place from fall 2020 to spring 2023, during which the vast majority of the park areas from Delancey to Houston Streets would remain open, along with the amphitheater area in the south and the area to the north that runs from  from East 10th to East 12th Street. The second phase was to start shortly thereafter with an end goal of late 2025. Then, the press release said,  that the newly rebuilt portions of East River Park would open from Houston Street to approximately East 10th Street, as well as the vast majority of the park areas from Corlears Hook Bridge to Delancey Street. The Esplanade in the center of East River Park, is also scheduled for reconstruction, but on a separate schedule. 

“The community spoke and we listened,” de Blasio said at the time. “Nearly half of East River Park will remain open throughout construction – without compromising essential flood protections for 110,000 New Yorkers. We are building a more resilient city to meet the challenge of global warming head-on.”

Currently, it’s unclear exactly how phasing will change, if it will at all, said Jeremy Unger, the spokesperson for Councilmember Rivera. Regardless of potential phase changes, the prospect of closing a park, even partially, during a pandemic in a city where fresh air is hard to come by has presented new concerns for the community. In the past few weeks alone, access to open spaces while social distancing in New York City has become a hot-button issue. While Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged that going outside is a necessity for mental and physical health, the city does not consider parks an essential service — leaving room for confusion. Either the  parks are packed (or are perceived to be) or heavily policed. Not to mention, the parks that are the most cramped tend to be in poorer areas with less access to open spaces and more air pollution

That fact is not lost on Arnow of East River Park Action. “You need to keep this park open for residents,” she said, “and you don’t need dirty air with construction during a pandemic.” 

It’s true — researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health found that higher levels of particulate matter called PM 2.5 were associated with higher COVID-19 death rates, the New York Times reported. The authors suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to the coronavirus; the research is currently going through peer review. 

Air pollution has been a concern for both Arnow and and Green Map System director Wendy Brawer, who has advocated for 1,000 trees to be planted in Community Board 3’s area (those trees are now split with Community Board 6). In a phone interview, Brawer mentioned that the removal of mature trees, whether in East River Park or on public housing campuses, presents a concern for air quality, especially now.

“Air quality is not just a nice thing,” Brawer said. “It’s actually a justice issue. It’s really important to slow down that destructiveness, whether it’s in the park or around the park and the work around the park has to do with.”

Arnow said that during the past few months of social distancing, it’s been hard to get an answer about the construction timeline. Initially, construction was supposed to start in the spring with conversion of  Lower East Side Ecology Center’s compost area into a rec space that would have been available for community use during construction in the fall.

Ian Michaels, the spokesperson for the design department said the community resistance to the project caused the delay, not the pandemic.

“There’s been no delay because of COVID,” Michaels said. “A few months ago, the local community asked that we push back the work at the Ecology Center so the compost area could stay open through the summer, and the City agreed. That’s all. The main work is still scheduled to proceed as planned in the fall.”

There had been hope that because of the pandemic, construction would be meaningfully delayed while groups like East River Park Action and Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens, known as LUNGS, push through with an alienation lawsuit that seeks to derail the project altogether or at least get more definitive interim flood protection while it is underway. Charles Krezell, president of LUNGS, voiced similar opinions and said in a phone interview that the lack of transparency or clarity about what’s going on is “such bad public policy.”

“It shows how much they don’t really care about the interests of the community,” Krezell said. “I don’t know what to think. We were hoping our lawsuit is going to put the kibosh on this thing anyway. So that’s that’s our hope right now. But right now, we need temporary storm protection immediately and there’s nothing like that in the offering. So whatever plan they come up with, we’re going to be unprotected for the next five, at least five years, of the community, and we’re having storms rolling in all summer.”

Izzie Ramirez is an NYU  undergraduate journalism student.


Tags


Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

The Spirit of Little Haiti

Savannah Daniels October 14, 2020

Small business owners hope for future relief

Courtney Guarino October 2, 2020

Brooklyn Book Festival held virtually

Chuyan Jiang September 28, 2020

NYC Restaurant owners worry about maintaining business during winter 

Isabel Beer September 27, 2020

The pandemic is causing mental health struggles for many Latinos

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 24, 2020

Politically divided family can agree on one thing, rallies are bad during a pandemic

Michelle Diaz September 23, 2020

New Yorkers are vulnerable to mental issues due to pandemic

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 23, 2020

Healthcare professionals struggle with Trump’s decisions during pandemic

Tori Luecking September 23, 2020

Some Americans Say “Not So Fast” on Operation Warp Speed

James Pothen September 23, 2020

Trump voters unfazed by morality of Trump’s Covid response

Norah Hogan September 22, 2020

Trump rallies continue, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll

Isabel Beer September 22, 2020

Latinos weigh in on President Trump’s management of the pandemic

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 21, 2020

Fast track vaccine causes fear

Kaity Assaf September 21, 2020

It’s business as usual at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Tori Luecking September 20, 2020

Trump defiance to hold indoor rallies amidst COVID-19 sparks polarized responses 

Courtney Guarino September 20, 2020

NYC Cafes and restaurants try and survive the pandemic

Isabel Beer September 19, 2020

A typical afternoon at Shade Bar NYC

Kaity Assaf September 19, 2020

West Village staple, Caffe Reggio, remains open for outdoor dining in the wake of coronavirus restrictions 

Norah Hogan September 19, 2020

Fort Greene’s Dino adds outdoor dining to keep business flowing

Courtney Guarino September 19, 2020

COVID-19 hampers Fashion Week for photographers

Daniel Karel September 18, 2020

On the heels of revelation that Trump downplayed the covid threat, voters question rallies resuming

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 16, 2020

Overburdened mothers in Pakistan are relieved as schools reopens

Quratulain Tejani September 13, 2020

Students from different parts of the world struggle as schools reopen during a pandemic

Chuyan Jiang September 12, 2020

Special needs students face learning obstacles during Covid-19

Courtney Guarino September 12, 2020

Back to school – COVID-19 style 

Isabel Beer September 12, 2020

The new normal for school life is abnormal in Michigan

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 11, 2020

California School District Parents and Teachers Clash About Return to School

Norah Hogan September 10, 2020

A tribute to the mask pioneers

Bohao Liu July 11, 2020

Air pollution in China rebounds to pre-COVID level

Hannah Zhang July 11, 2020

ICE takes aim at international students

Maria Abreu July 10, 2020

Chinese students trapped by new ICE policy

Zishu Sherry Qin July 10, 2020

New ICE policy adds more turmoil to the lives of international students

Shiyu Xu July 10, 2020

Lawsuits follow ICE policy barring international students who are taking online classes

Joanna Lin Su July 10, 2020

Economists say the US needs a bold, generous fiscal response. Congress is likely to disappoint. 

Ahmed Mohamed July 9, 2020

Overseas Singaporeans have pandemic obstacles to voting

Yifan Yu July 9, 2020

Proximity sensors and hygiene stations are the “new normal”

Joanna Lin Su July 9, 2020

 Tour ticket vendors miss the hustle and bustle of Times Square

Narkwor Kwabla July 8, 2020

Dengue outbreak could be a greater threat than covid in Singapore

Yifan Yu July 8, 2020

Corporate bankruptcy: ‘A story that’s not going away’

Gaurav Sharma July 7, 2020

Beijing reopens as the second wave of coronavirus dies down

Hannah Zhang July 6, 2020

Masks or no masks?

Bohao Liu July 5, 2020

Varsity Flu

Madeline Gunderson July 3, 2020

Rail travel in China is popular during the pandemic and filled with safety measures

Bohao Liu July 3, 2020

Brazilian international student caught in US travel ban.

Marina Guimaraes July 3, 2020

MTA faces crisis following COVID shutdown

Daniel Girma July 2, 2020

Easter Market goes back to its roots

Kyla Milberger July 2, 2020

China’s Airline Industry Aims to Lure Back Passengers with Unlimited Flight Pass

Zishu Sherry Qin July 1, 2020

US corporate debt soars during coronavirus outbreak

Gaurav Sharma June 30, 2020

In Singapore, gay pride goes online

Yifan Yu June 29, 2020

The Hair Room reopens

Shiyu Xu June 29, 2020