The administration of Bill de Blasio is taking a fresh look at a Bloomberg Era proposal to protect a section of Lower Manhattan’s coast from extreme weather events and rising sea levels by using landfill to create hundreds of acres of new waterfront property at higher elevations than the current shoreline.
A story first reported by the Gothamist website notes that City Hall is considering a vast land reclamation project that would stretch from the Brooklyn Bridge south to the Battery Maritime Building, and extend out to the pier line, some 500 feet into the river.
When first proposed in 2013 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the project was dubbed Seaport City. Mr. Bloomberg said at the time, “it would be expensive to build. But over time it could prove to be a great investment, just as Battery Park City has been. We can achieve the same thing on the East Side of Lower Manhattan. We can build it out, raise it above the flood level, and develop it.” The outgoing Bloomberg administration also commissioned a feasibility study by the Dutch engineering firm, Arcadis. That analysis, concluded that a multi-purpose levee stretching 1.5 miles from the Battery Maritime Building to Pier 35 (just north of the Manhattan Bridge) would be the most effective and practical of 20 separate options considered.
The Arcadis study, released in 2014 (after Mr. Bloomberg had left office), was more pessimistic about the political obstacles than the physical hurdles, cautioning that, “the processes associated with such permitting and implementation will be complicated and will take a long time.” But even as it acknowledged the procedural difficulties, the feasibility review cited landfill, extending into the East River between 250 and 500 feet from the existing waterfront (and built up to a height of almost 20 feet over the high tide), as the most pragmatic option. The report also called for some 30 million square feet of residential and commercial development to finance the multi-billion project, as well as the creation of dozens of acres of parkland.
As with Battery Park City, such a project would be expected eventually to generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year in excess revenue — primarily through the collection of “ground rents,” paid by developers for the privilege of erecting new buildings on land leased from the government. These funds could then be allocated to other projects — in this case, likely to include flood and storm mitigation measures elsewhere in the five boroughs.
The idea for creating new land along the East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan is not new, even if the rationale of doing so to defend against natural disasters is. In 1972, then-Mayor John Lindsay proposed Manhattan Landing, a mile-long, 88-acre project that was to be built on platforms over the water. In 1984, the City floated the idea for East River Landing, which was to stretch from the South Street Seaport to the Wall Street heliport, and create 23 acres of new land (also on platforms). Both projects failed to get off the drawing boards, in part because of an invisible (but nearly insurmountable) difference between the area that became Battery Park City and location chosen for Manhattan Landing, East River Landing, and now, Seaport City. Along the East River, the depth of bedrock is nearly three times its distance from the surface of the Hudson. This increases, by several orders of magnitude, the cost of driving piles to support a platform, or pouring landfill to create new acreage.
In 2014, the incoming de Blasio administration expressed a willingness to consider the proposal for Seaport City that it had inherited, but six years of successive budgets have allocated no additional funds for further study or planning on the project. That intransigence may now be changing because the staggering cost of creating resiliency infrastructure for this exposed section of Downtown, estimated to run into many billions of dollars, appears unlikely to be underwritten by any project that does not fund itself by generating revenue.
In the meantime, the urgency of conceiving a viable plan increases almost weekly, because the area remains as vulnerable as it was more than six years ago, when Hurricane Sandy sent an eight-foot wall of water slamming into Lower Manhattan. Many climate scientists predict that it is only a matter of time before another storm, one possibly worse than the 2012 inundation, arrives. And even in the absence of extreme-weather events, rising sea levels, driven by climate change, also threaten low-lying areas of Manhattan, such as the East River waterfront.
Moreover, the political and fiscal outlook has grown, if anything, bleaker, as the Trump Administration has killed or cancelled multiple infrastructure projects that were intended to benefit New York City. (One of the few exceptions is a new plan for a federally funded sea wall in Staten Island, which was the only one of the five boroughs to vote for Mr. Trump in the 2016 presidential election.)
By contrast, the de Blasio administration can point to progress in almost every other section of Lower Manhattan. Federal funds allocated before Mr. Trump took office are supporting the creation of flood barriers and resiliency measures along the East River from the East 20s down to Montgomery Street, while the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project will erect safeguards between Montgomery Street and the Two Bridges Area. The Battery Conservancy is also devising measure to project the historic park at Manhattan’s southern tip, and the Battery Park City Authority is preparing a new bond issue that will raise $300 million to protect the 92 acres of landfill between Pier A and Chambers Street, along with Hudson River. Amid these interlocking plans, the only section of Lower Manhattan that is thus far covered by not even a conceptual proposal is the East River waterfront, south of the Brooklyn Bridge. In this context, a revived (and possibly revised) version of the Seaport City plan could represent that last piece of the resiliency puzzle for Downtown.
The irony in this dynamic is that Mayor de Blasio will soon find himself in a situation starkly similar to that of Mr. Bloomberg in 2013. Barred by current law from seeking reelection when his current term expires in two years, Mr. de Blasio’s best hope for making progress and securing a legacy on the issue of Lower Manhattan resiliency may consist of a formulating a grand plan that is left to his successor to implement.