Activists Float Alternative to BPCA Plan for Wagner Park, Mull Legal Action
As the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) prepares to demolish and rebuild Wagner Park, to create resiliency measures designed to protect against flooding, opponents of this plan are advocating for their own alternative vision, which they say will preserve the park and provide the same level of flood protection as the official plan. At the same time, they are gearing up for a possible legal battle to prevent implementation of the Authority’s proposal.
About this alternate conception, the BPCA says, “in addition to its engineering, logistical, and design flaws, the proposed concept also does not appear to significantly reduce the duration of construction or provide greater public access while construction is underway. It would also leave the park vulnerable for additional years while we reopen the environmental review process, receive approval by relevant agencies, engage the community in the development of new detailed designs, complete construction drawings and specifications, and complete new procurements—all in pursuit of concepts that have already been reviewed, discussed publicly, and determined to be infeasible and imprudent.”
Save Wagner Park, a grassroots organization of community activists opposed to the BPCA plan, held an online public meeting in late October to detail their plan, devised by the Olin landscape architecture firm and Machado Silvetti architects. Olin was the company that formulated the original design for Wagner Park in the early 1990s (and collaborated on the Battery Park City Master Plan), while Machado Silvetti was the original architect of the Wagner Park pavilion.
The Olin plan would preserve the existing pavilion, along with a large number of mature trees, by moving the flood barrier outside Wagner Park to run closer to the Battery Place sidewalk. This plan would allow Wagner Park to flood during extreme weather events, but would aim to prevent waters from escaping the park and inflicting damage on nearby streets and buildings.
That would be accomplished with the installation of a flood wall that would thread through the exterior of the existing pavilion, while also narrowing the aperture that affords a view of the Statue of Liberty from Battery Place. The gap that remains would be closed temporarily at times of rising water, with a deployable flood barrier.
At the October meeting, which drew several hundred participants, Lucinda Sanders, the chief executive of Olin, explained, “this would not be a pop-up wall. It is a permanent wall with openings, so there is still porosity from the street to the park to the gardens.” The visible portions of this wall “do not have to be ugly,” she continued. “It can be a surface that is conducive to art installations.”
“I’m not a stranger to Battery Park City,” Ms. Sanders added. “As a matter of fact, this is the very project that I cut my teeth on as I was coming out of graduate school. I helped design Wagner Park,” as it was being created, more than 30 years ago.
Jeffry Burchard (an assistant professor of architecture at Harvard University, and a partner at Machado Silvetti, the original architect of Wagner Park’s pavilion) noted that the one significant modification to existing structure would be “the need to demolish a portion or all of the stairs that are on the landward side, so that we can rebuild them—or a version of them—with integrated flood protection. These stairs could be rebuilt very similar, or exactly as they are today. They could also be redesigned so there would be new opportunities for engagement.”
Ms. Sanders referred to independent engineering consultants who asserted that “the closer the barrier is to the water, the higher the barrier has to be. And the further away the wall is from the water’s edge, the wall can be slightly lower because the land acts as a dissipator of waves.” That noted, she also acknowledged that “sheeting will need to be placed 31 feet deep, so we don’t want to pretend that there isn’t some significant construction that will be required in order to implement this proposal. But the park would remain intact and open through construction.” Ms. Sanders additionally noted that the Save Wagner Park plan is designed (like the BPCA’s plan) to link on either side with corresponding plans to protect the Battery and the Esplanade, along with the nearby Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Britni Erez, a leader of the Save Wagner Park group, contended that the Save Wagner Park plan, in addition to preserving much of the existing park and imposing minimal disruption, could also be implemented quickly. “This is the same concept and same design that the BPCA has embraced in their plan for Rockefeller Park, which will allow it to flood,” she said.
Under the BPCA plan for Wagner Park, she said, “we’re going to be left for a few years with all current resiliency protections that the park currently affords—a park built in 1996 for a 100-year flood—removed through construction. And we are left with saplings instead of mature trees, less green space and a larger pavilion.” She added, “nine organizations, including the Parent Teachers Association of the elementary and middle school across the street, support the Olin/Machado alternative design.”
Several days after the Save Wagner Park meeting, BPCA president B.J. Jones issued a response. “The alternative concept’s components were considered early in the design development process and, due to key engineering, logistical, and design considerations, as well as feedback from community members, they were not pursued further as the project advanced,” he wrote. “Adapting and using the existing Wagner Park Pavilion as a component of the project’s flood barrier… is not feasible given the condition and design of the building, absent a full-scale demolition, redesign, and reconstruction… The underlying engineering assessment—that the Pavilion could not serve as a flood barrier—still stands.” He noted that the Authority’s plan calls for a comparable new building.
Regarding the Save Wagner Park plan to insert a flood wall through the existing park, he noted, “this idea was roundly rejected previously due to sightline, safety, and urban planning implications, namely the walling off of the park and waterfront rather than keeping it integrated with the surrounding Battery Park City community.”
Mr. Jones countered the notion of allowing Wagner Park to flood periodically, while protecting the inland areas behind it, by observing, “sacrificing Wagner Park and the pavilion to the more frequent and severe storms scientists predict are on the horizon… runs counter to the design principles of the project and would cause significant ongoing cost and disruption. If our collective goal truly is to save Wagner Park—and Battery Park City—for future generations, our resiliency designs should not guarantee the park’s eventual destruction by severe weather…. The New York City Panel on Climate Change and peer-reviewed coastal modeling predict that in decades—if not years—rising seas and recurring severe weather will inundate the existing Wagner Park and pavilion with ever-increasing frequency.”
Members of the Save Wagner Park group agree that storms will be more frequent, but argue that what they see as “nature-based solutions” allow green infrastructure to absorb water. Ms. Erez said, “our group believes that there is a better plan that saves the park and that the BPCA should have given meaningful consideration to an alternative that Community Board 1 and public have been advocating for going back to 2017.”
Mr. Jones rejoins that, “our team has been in constant contact with Community Board 1 over the six-year development of the designs for this project, as well as the years of community engagement when developing the City, State, and Federal reports leading up to design commencement. We have incorporated their feedback where practicable. We also have shared our reasoning when it was not possible, prudent, or advisable to do so. Our community engagement—and our work to protect Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan—continues.
In mid-November, the BPCA closed Wagner Park and installed construction barricades around its perimeter, as a prelude to the first stage of demolition work, which is slated to begin soon. But the Save Wagner Park activists are not giving up. The group is raising money, via a GoFundMe page, to bankroll litigation that will prevent the BPCA from moving ahead with its plan. So far, they have received more than $24,000 in contributions, which is more than 70 percent of their stated goal of $35,000.