A Cenotaph for the Esplanade
Cuomo Announces List of Possible Locations in Battery Park City for Hurricane Maria Memorial
At Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration is pushing ahead with plans for a memorial to Hurricane Maria — the cataclysmic storm that claimed more than 3,000 lives in Puerto Rico in September, 2017 — which will be located in Battery Park City.
At the parade, Mr. Cuomo said, “we are setting up a Commission that is going to commemorate Hurricane Maria and the victims. And this September, which is the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, they will announce the winning design for that memorial and where it’s going to be in Battery Park City.”
This was the first visible headway on the project since Mr. Cuomo made a similar announcement last September, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria. But there appears to have been movement behind the scenes in the intervening nine months. Mr. Cuomo’s office also announced Sunday that his administration has narrowed the potential sites for such a memorial within Battery Park City down to six possibilities.
These include two sites within parks and four sites surrounding North Cove Marina. The park locations are the northern Esplanade, just west of Stuyvesant High School, and the sliver of Wagner Park immediately adjacent to the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The locations bordering North Cove Marina include the northern and southern edges of the yacht harbor, as well as the Belvedere Plaza (between the Marina and the ferry terminal) and the Esplanade Plaza, near the current location of the volleyball court.
This list of potential locations appears to have been developed without the participation of local leaders, such as members of Community Board 1 (CB1), which has not publicly discussed the matter since enacting a resolution last December, calling upon the Governor to set up, “a process [of] communication and transparency with the community prior to the placement of any new memorials in Battery Park City — or anywhere else in Lower Manhattan.”
At the meeting during which this resolution was ratified, Tammy Meltzer, chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, noted that, “Lower Manhattan has a higher density of memorials than anywhere else in five boroughs of New York City, with nine in Battery Park City alone.”
Within the community, these include memorials to the Holocaust, Ireland’s Great Famine, New York City police officers, the Berlin Wall, and rescue efforts by Battery Park City Authority employees during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as a tribute to employees to the American Express Corporation who perished on that day. Nearby, in the Financial District and surrounding neighborhoods, there are dozens more, including monuments to slavery, nearly every war from the American Revolution to Viet Nam, and the sinking of the Titanic.
Battery Park City activists and leaders have a record of opposing plans for additional memorials that they believed conflicted with the interests of the community. These include successfully derailing proposals to locate two relics of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 with the community: the so-called “Survivors Staircase” (a flight of 38 steps that once led from Vesey Street to the World Trade Center plaza above) and the Sphere (a metal globe sculpture originally located on plaza between the Twin Towers, and heavily damaged when they collapsed). Both were initially slated for relocation to sites within Battery Park City. But each was instead incorporated into plans for the new World Trade Center complex when the community objected to these proposals.
At the same meeting, Bruce Ehrmann, who serves as co-chair of CB1’s Landmarks Preservation Committee, observed that, “apparently we have no real say, but it’s a little odd to put a memorial to the deaths of almost 3,000 predominantly Puerto Rican people in the middle of maybe the whitest neighborhood in all of New York City. It makes no sense.”
Mr. Ehrmann’s point is borne out by statistical data. The Department of City Planning’s website estimates that Battery Park City has a total population of more than 15,000 residents, of whom fewer than 700 (or slightly fewer than five percent) are of Puerto Rican ancestry.
Demographically, the New York City neighborhood steeped most deeply in Puerto Rican culture is the area of the South Bronx between the Triborough and Whitestone Bridges. In this section, which includes the neighborhoods of Hunts Point, Soundview, and Castleton, residents who trace their ancestry to Puerto Rico comprise more than 40 percent of the local population.
Another section of the Bronx, Morris Heights, also boasts a large Puerto Rican population, as well as a State park named after Puerto Rican immigrant Roberto Clemente, who gained fame as a legendary right-fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente State Park, located on the east bank of the Harlem River, covers 25 acres, making it nearly one-third as large as Battery Park City in its entirety. But while locating a memorial to Hurricane Maria in either of these Bronx communities might mean more to their large Puerto Rican populations, it would almost certainly attract less national media attention than a parcel in Lower Manhattan. Whether this is a factor in deliberations by Mr. Cuomo, who is widely believed to harbor presidential ambitions, remains unclear.
CB1 chairman Anthony Notaroresponded to Mr. Ehrmann’s observation by saying, “Battery Park City is State-owned land, so Cuomo can put this here without anyone saying anything.” This was a reference to the fact that the Governor controls the Battery Park City Authority, which governs the community. For this reason, the community is one of the few sections of Manhattan that is directly managed by Albany, rather than by City Hall.
The resolution also observed that, “all public land within Battery Park City has already been designated for uses on which the community relies;” that, “Battery Park City has more memorials per square foot than any other neighborhood in New York City;” and that, “there are numerous locations within the State that could be better suited to locate the Hurricane Maria Memorial than Battery Park City.”
The measure continued, “CB1 insists on appointing a local Battery Park City resident to participate on the commission regarding the siting of the proposed memorial in Lower Manhattan;” and “CB1 requires a commitment from Governor Cuomo to allow meaningful participation by residents and community leaders in all phases of decision-making related to this project, including (but not limited to): voting membership on the commission that would determine final location, design and budget for the memorial.”
On this point, the Governor appears to have accommodated the wishes of CB1. His office announced Sunday the appointment of ten members of the advisory commission that will make recommendations about the final design and location of the Hurricane Maria Memorial. One of these is construction executive Elizabeth Velez, a trusted confidante of the Governor’s.
Ms. Velez served on the board of the Committee to Save New York, a controversial and secretive organization started by Mr. Cuomo in 2010, which was comprised mainly of real estate developers, bankers and lobbyists. The group was the State’s top lobbying spender in 2011 and 2012, but Mr. Cuomo shut it down the following year, after critics pointed to close ties between donors and State government.
According the multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation, Mr. Cuomo promised Ms. Velez a seat on the board of the Battery Park City Authority in 2016, but her appointment did not go through, for reasons that never became public.
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