People and Nature: Friends for Life

by Amy Berkov

Those of us who advocate for biodiversity in the East River Parks are not promoting nature over people. We believe from our hearts that people are part of biodiversity and that biodiversity provides many wonderful benefits for people. 

Trees extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it in wood; this is important because the carbon locked up in long-lasting wood no longer contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Engineers are exploring methods to capture and store atmospheric carbon, but plants—and the soils in which they grow—still represent the most efficient technology! Trees also provide shade that lowers summer temperatures, and intercept pollutants. 

Sustained exposure to open space provides well-documented benefits to both mental and physical health—especially for children. As an educator, I believe that nature study improves observational skills, increases attention spans, and promotes critical thinking. These are all important to the future success of our urban students, who get much of their exposure to nature in NYC parks.

I do not know of any precedent for a city to completely destroy a large, bio-diverse park—used on a daily basis by diverse neighborhood residents. Before making dramatic changes in the landscape, the city undertakes a process called the ULURP (Universal Land Use Review Procedure) and prepares an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). These reviews include at public hearings that give community residents a chance to weigh in on land use decisions.  For the benefit of both people and biodiversity, the city must take steps before approving the ULURP.  I believe that, before proceeding with this unparalleled destruction, the city must take the following actions: 

1) Bring in outside experts in coastal science to evaluate the city’s “preferred plan” to demolish the entire park.

2) Incorporate projections for sea level rise by 2100, not the 2050s (the city is currently planning for > 6 feet of sea level rise, by 2100, in the financial district, but for only 2.5 feet of sea level rise, by the 2050s, along the East River from Montgomery to 25th Street).

estimated sea level rise

3) Revisit the idea of decking over the FDR (which might actually provide flood protection through 2100).

4) Agree to phased construction (not just phased re-opening); keep sections of the park open as other parts are under construction. 

If the city is permitted to execute their “preferred alternative” without modifications, they will close, demolish, and bury all 57 acres of park for a minimum of three years. Children, seniors, those with fewer resources and the plants and animals in the East river Parks will all be the biggest losers. 

Amy Berkov, a member of the Biology Faculty at the City College of New York, uses NYC Parks as outdoors laboratories to teach NYC students about local plants, insects, and their interactions.

“I Love This Park. I Grew Up in This Park”

Harriet Hirshorn interviewed some 50 people in East River Park in recent weeks. Most of them do not know that the park is going to be closed, bulldozed and covered with eight feet of dirt for flood protection starting next March.

Daffodils bloom in East River Park
Photo by Harriet Hirshorn

The video Harriet made shows how people use the park in all weather. Their quotes toward the end shows how alarmed and heartbroken park-goers are when she tells them about the city’s current plan. While the community understands the need for flood protection, many question whether the total destruction of the East River Park is the best plan.

The city is claiming that the neighborhood supports the East Side Coastal Resiliency Plan. That is not true. Most of the neighborhood doesn’t know about it. And when they find out, they oppose the drastic, unsupportable measures the city is determined to take.

We need a better plan!

“We Have a Lot of Questions”

Hear an interview with East River Alliance’s Naomi Schiller about the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan for flood control. She covers the range of our issues including these points:

Naomi Schiller

“Brooklyn Heights, a very wealthy neighborhood, was able–with pressure on public officials–to convene experts to rethink the BQE design.”

“So we are also asking for an independent panel…Does this plan meet the demands of the most recent climate science?.”

“We’re really concerned that equity has been pushed to the side, and this fast-tracked plan has been forced down our throats.

“We’re in a difficult spot. We want flood protection.”

“One of the most popular ideas several years ago was to place decking over the FDR…and to use part of that decking and berms to create coastal flood protection, which would have the possibility of reducing emissions in the community.”

And there are many more cogent points in this six-minute interview on WBAI. You can play the piece below:

Naomi Schiller on WBAI, April 17, 2019.

Thanks Mr. Mayor

On the Brian Lehrer radio call-in show on WNYC recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio supported phased closing of East River Park during the construction of the East Side Coastal Resiliency flood protection project. This is a change from the plan that would have closed the entire park for 3 1/2 years. This phased closing is one of the things we’ve been asking for!

Here’s from a transcript of the mayor’s encouraging remarks:

“… the idea is to have the park redone in segments so that [there] will be pieces of the park available to the community at all times and once one segment is done then another segment is addressed. So it’s – we’re very sensitive to the fact that people need their park space. “

The remark was in answer to a caller, Billie, who asked about what she called an “enormously risky, expensive plan…with a huge risk of failure, of incompletion…”

The mayor acknowledged there might be reason for cynicism, but said, “This has been a very carefully assessed project.” While he said, reassuringly, “It is being discussed with the community,” it’s clear we don’t have much time: “We have to get going. The resiliency issue is one of urgency, but I do want you to know none of this has been done lightly and I think when you see more the facts, you’ll be more comfortable that the East Side approach is going to work.”

If it is going to work for our community, we must continue to persuade the city that our alternatives will be better. We know from the mayor’s statement about phased closing, that he is listening. Now let’s keep pushing on protecting our community from toxic dust and other hazards, and insist on meaningful mitigation of the enormous adverse impacts of clear-cutting and bulldozing over 70 acres of public green space.

To hear to the show with Billie’s question and the mayor’s complete answer, follow the WNYC link.


Direct Action in East River Park

“RIP East River Park 1939-2019,” say black banners that have been placed around trees along the East River Park promenade. No group has claimed responsibility for this action yet, but it seems rooted in the deep distrust citizens feel as the city cast away the community led plan in favor of a “Preferred Alternative Plan” that will close the park for years, destroy it, and rebuild it for flood protection.

But we say WAIT. It is not time for a funeral. There is a better way forward for flood protection, for our park, and for our community.

The East River Alliance is working with the community and the city to develop a plan that provides immediate flood protection this season, and maintains access to our greenspaces through the construction period.

“We will miss your breeze, your trees, your plants and flowers and your birds and bees.”
Alex Weidler captured these images. Thank you Alex for the photos and Charles Krezell for sending them in.

We can change the plan so that we

  • Gain long-term Flood Protection that is environmentally sound and will preserve parts of our park. In the meantime, in the coming year and through construction, we need emergency deployable barriers.
  • The city will work with us in a collaborative, transparent process to find alternatives to the current plan–which the city put together in a hurry without consulting our community or meeting the needs of our community. For instance, go back to an earlier proposal developed with our community: Build parkland over the FDR Drive, which would provide flood protection and new park space. It would also keep much of the current park intact. At the time, the idea was too expensive. Now, the budget has doubled to $1.4 billion. The plan is feasible.
  • Keep parts of the park open during the years of reconstruction (as the mayor promised just last week!)
  • Improve other parks in the East Side Coastal Resiliency area, and activate underutilized and unused spaces for the good of the communities they belong to.

(If you have been trying to email us and have been getting an error message, many apologies–we have fixed that.)

Tell it to Uncle Sam and Cousin deBlasio

East River Alliance NYC logo

The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project that will close and demolish our parks is undergoing environmental review. Due to federal requirements, city agencies must ask the community what we think. (I love Big Government!)

The deadline has been extended until March 22. 

We can—and must!—send in our objections to the current plan (if you haven’t already done so). Please send a copy to community@eastriveralliance.org.

Let us know if we can share it. And/or share it on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, and with your mom, who should also write in.

Here is the notice of the public review and request for comments, if you want to wade through the bureaucratic language. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/cdbgdr/documents/public-notices/escr_Early_Floodplain_3_13_19.pd

But here are the relevant and comprehensible bits:  

“First, people who may be affected by activities in floodplains and / or wetlands, and those who have an interest in the protection of the natural environment, should be given an opportunity to express their concerns and provide information about these areas. 

“Second, an adequate public notice program can be an important public educational tool. Commenters are encouraged to offer alternate methods to serve the same project purpose and methods to minimize and mitigate impacts. The dissemination of information and request for public comment about floodplains and wetlands can facilitate and enhance federal efforts to reduce the risks associated with the occupancy and modification of these special areas. 

“Third, as a matter of fairness, when the federal government determines it will participate in actions taking place in floodplains and wetlands, it must inform those who may be put at greater or continued risk.

“All interested persons, groups, and agencies are invited to submit written comments regarding the proposed use of federal funds to support the construction of the proposed project in a floodplain and / or wetland. The City is interested in alternatives and public perceptions of possible adverse impacts that could result from the project as well as potential mitigation measures.”

Write to Calvin Johnson, Assistant Director CDBG-DR New York City Office of Management and Budget 

255 Greenwich Street-8th Floor

New York, New York 10007

Telephone: 212-788-6024

Fax: 212-788-6222

Email: CDBGDR-enviro@omb.nyc.gov

Get it in before March 22.

The city came to listen. We filled their ears

East River Alliance logo

East River Alliance had a meeting March 13 at the Roberto Clemente School on E. 4th St. with city officials to hear about the revised plans for the East River in our community and to ask questions. We have a way to go before the city and the community are going to be besties on this project.

City officials at a meeting with East River Alliance. Photo by Pat Arnow © 2019
Jamie Springer, who is in charge of the city’s Department of Design and Construction project for East River and Stuyvesant Cove Park, presented the plan for coastal resiliency. In the Power Point presentation, he showed photos of community meetings where citizens had provided ideas. However, the plan remains essentially unchanged from when it was first presented in December.
City Council member Carlina Rivera speaks to East River Aliance. Photo by Pat Arnow © 2019
Our City Council member Carlina Rivera says we can make the resiliency plan work for our community.
Ayo Harrington. Photo by Pat Arnow © 2019
Ayo Harrington led the East River Alliance meeting. After one area resident complained passionately about the unrealistic timeline and left shouting, Ayo calmly said, “He’s right.” Let us be clear, she said, “We don’t like the plan. We don’t accept the plan.”
East River Alliance member Amy Berkow (right) asked if there was any precedent for destroying every living thing in a park. The parks official said, “I don’t know.”

Other questions:

What about adopting a previous idea–decking over the FDR —that would provide green space and playgrounds and also provide flood protection while preserving the park? Decking is a possibility in a future phase. It is not in this plan.

What about phased closing (so parts of the park would remain open during construction)? “We know it’s important to you. We’re working on it,” said Springer. Later he clarified that the whole park would still be closed but that some sections may be opened as they are completed.

Is there any way to save the beautiful art deco buildings in the park? No. “We have the opportunity to have brand new buildings. These (current structures) were built in the 1930s,” and are outdated. The new buildings will be better.

How will the system deal with flooding in the East Village, which has major drainage issues? This question has been asked at four public meetings and has not been answered. It was not answered again, but answers are promised.

How much money is allocated to mitigation (other park facilities)? An answer is promised.

“Can you put yourself in the shoes of the 110,000 people who live here and won’t have green space or open air for our children for years?” asked a woman at her first meeting of the group. Amy Berkow added to the question with information about a study that shows that children who have green space grow up with fewer mental health problems that children who do not have open space. The more exposure to green space, the better the mental health of the kids. The officials responded with promises of long-term good.

—Pat Arnow

Photos © Pat Arnow 2019