A Seawall for the Seaport

Mayor Bill de Blasio: “We will initiate an effort that is estimated cost $10 billion to extend the shoreline of Lower Manhattan into the East River to protect the Seaport area and the Financial District all the people and live in work there.”
In a Thursday-morning press conference held across the street from Battery Park City, Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed what had been a spate of recent, tentative reports that the City will embark on a massive building project along the East River shoreline of Lower Manhattan to create a protective barrier against future extreme weather events and sea-level rise. This proposal calls for creating new land, at a higher elevation than the current waterfront, using landfill to extend the riverbank by a margin of between 50 and 500 feet, from the Brooklyn Bridge down to the Battery Maritime Building.

“We will initiate an effort that is estimated to cost $10 billion to extend the shoreline of Lower Manhattan into the East River to protect the Seaport area and the Financial District” Mr. de Blasio began.

“This is a very, very big undertaking,” he continued. “Nothing has been done like this in the history New York City. But it is needed. And I want to give you the plain facts that make clear why we have to do this. In the City with four and a half million jobs, one in ten jobs is located in Lower Manhattan; 75 percent of the subway lines in New York City run through Lower Manhattan; there’s $60 billion worth of property in Lower Manhattan, and hundreds of thousands of people who live or work there.”

“We have to get it right this time,” the Mayor observed. After 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which sent an eight-foot wall of water slamming into Lower Manhattan, he continued, “I toured neighborhoods in the City. And I remember vividly being in Lower Manhattan, and seeing the destruction and the impact of flooding, and seeing people’s lives totally upended, businesses destroyed, homes destroyed.”

Emergency generators lined up providing power after Sandy
Calling climate change, “an extraordinary threat to all of our country,” he reflected that, “when it comes to New York City, one of the great coastal cities of the world, we are particularly threatened, and nowhere is that direct threat greater than for the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in Lower Manhattan.”
Noting that a project of this scale and importance would usually rely on national leadership, the Mayor observed, “it’s incomprehensible to me that there’s no sense of urgency from the federal government to protect Lower Manhattan and all it means, not only to the City and State, but for this country. Here’s the stark reality: Federal funds only come after there’s been a disaster. That is the reality of our country right now. There’s no plan; there’s no vision. There’s no funding to actually protect us from what is looming in our future. It’s only when the destruction has been done, that money eventually starts to flow. We can’t live that way.”

“This single initiative is going to cost $10 billion,” he added. “Some might say, ‘how on earth are we going to afford this?’ Here’s a fact from the years of the Iraq War: The United States spent an average of $50 billion a year on that war and did not spend money protecting Americans from global warming. We have to get our priorities right.”

Describing “ten billion dollars to protect one of the most important places the United States of America,” as “pocket change,” for the federal government, he added, “they could do it in a heartbeat. We can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand. But that’s right now what our federal government is doing.”

Mr. de Blasio added that the initial planning studies for the project, expected to cost between $5 and $10 million, will take more than two years, which means the proposal will begin to take shape in the wake of the next presidential election. “If after 2020, there’s very different reality, and something like the Green New Deal moves forward, there will be a huge amount of federal funding and that would allow us to do these kinds of barriers.” If such federal support does not materialize, he said, “we’ll have to get some private money and there will have to be some development.”

In either scenario, the City intends to create a new agency, “a not-for-profit entity,” based on the model of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), according to James Patchett, president of the City’s Economic Development Corporation.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer emphasized the importance of consulting with the Lower Manhattan community as the design process moves forward, citing as a successful model the series public meetings hosted by the BPCA to discuss resiliency plans, the most recent of which was held on Tuesday of this week. Both the Mayor and the Borough President singled out the BPCA as an example of successful community engagement on resiliency. “The BPCA has not only come up with ideas, but they have been very instrumental in bringing the community into that discussion,” Ms. Brewer said. “And this community always has questions.”

Battery Park City is likely to serve as a model for the new project announced on Thursday in more ways than one. Also built on landfill, the community withstood the ravages of Hurricane Sandy better than any other Lower Manhattan neighborhood, because it is constructed at a higher elevation. And if the federal funding that the Mayor hopes for after the 2020 presidential election does not become available, Battery Park City’s financial model of leasing land to developers in exchange for yearly ground rent (which now yields hundreds of millions of dollars in excess revenue per year) may provide a mechanism to self-fund the new project.
But the obstacles remain daunting. Battery Park City’s landfill was poured in the 1960s and 70s, before the advent of a raft of new federal environmental regulations, which have made approvals for such land reclamation projects vastly more complex and difficult to obtain. Further, hostility from Washington can take more forms that withheld funding: Because any construction within a navigable waterway (such as the East River) falls under federal jurisdiction, the White House can wield a de facto veto over projects the administration doesn’t support.

The audacious vision outlined at Thursday’s briefing represents at least the potential, however, to the transform Lower Manhattan in perpetuity. Extending the shoreline by 500 feet for nearly one mile would create land the width of two new city blocks, with at least one longitudinal avenue between them, intersected by more than a dozen latitudinal cross streets. Development on such acreage might include affordable housing, schools, community centers, arts and cultural hubs, and vast stretches of parkland — along with for-profit construction like office buildings, retail, and market-rate apartments.

The prospect of building on dozens of acres of new land in Lower Manhattan inspired a note of caution from City Council member Margaret Chin, who said, “in the years since Sandy hit, we have struggled through the grueling process of recovery, made all the more difficult by the knowledge of how vulnerable our neighborhoods remain in the face of the next storm. With this plan to provide protection for the entire coastline of Lower Manhattan, we now have a roadmap to a more resilient and sustainable future. However, this more resilient future cannot be paid for by private real estate development that would destroy the waterfront neighborhoods that we are trying to protect.”

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