The City government agency that will decide how and when to storm-proof Lower Manhattan will host an Open House meeting in Battery Park City tonight (October 6), starting at 6pm, in the event space at Six River Terrace (opposite the Irish Hunger Memorial and next to Le Pain Quotidien restaurant).
“We have the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Workshop on Thursday,” Nick Sbordone, director of communications and public affairs for the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), said at last night’s meeting of the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1). “This is second of the public kickoff sessions.” He added that, “it isn’t meant to be an event where you show up and somebody speaks for two hours. These are meant to be engaging sessions — working groups and workshops, where people can talk about some of the things the community might need, how we can do things better and how we can prepare ourselves for the inevitability of climate change and climate-related events.” Mr. Sbordone also noted, “this is going to be a long process, with many agencies, including the BPCA and other City and State entities.”
Tonight’s session will be led by staff from the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, who will review the current preliminary of plans for building countermeasures to spare Lower Manhattan from a reprise of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This meeting will follow a similar session held last night on the Lower East Side, and two meetings held in the Seaport neighborhood in July.
At those sessions, residents were invited to form panels that brainstormed about priorities, and selected from a menu of infrastructure options that could ultimately be built in Lower Manhattan. Among the strategies the team is slated to preview tonight are elevated sidewalks and streets, raised street medians, elevated pathways for bikes and pedestrians, and raised planters. Each of these approaches is designed to be incorporated into the waterfront landscape, and combined with new amenities (such as park space and gardens) in a way that will make them less obtrusive. More conventional measures under consideration include berms, permanent flood walls, and deployable systems that can be temporarily installed on short notice.
A handful of these measures have already been adopted by some stakeholders in Lower Manhattan. Several condominiums in Battery Park City have purchased “AquaDams,” which are giant, flexible tubes fashioned from strong materials like kevlar. They are designed to be unrolled around the base of a building when a flood warning is received, and then filled with water, creating an immovable, impermeable barrier to hold back an approaching torrent.
At the World Trade Center site, sockets have been drilled into the perimeter sidewalks and walls, which allow for reinforced vertical posts to be installed on short notice. Between these posts, horizontal metal planks can be slid into a groove, creating a watertight barricade. This form of protection was briefly deployed over Labor Day weekend, when Hurricane Hermine raised concerns about possible flooding, before veering out to sea.
But Lower Manhattan still lacks a comprehensive plan to protect entire neighborhoods, such as Battery Park City, the Financial District, and the South Street Seaport. One option is a plan variously called the “Big U” and the “Dry Line,” which would create a network of flood walls around Lower Manhattan that would (theoretically) hold back storm waters. In other Downtown neighborhoods, these barriers can be incorporated into ongoing waterfront development plans, so that they will not obstruct public access to (or enjoyment of) the shoreline. In Battery Park City, however, waterfront development was finished more than 20 years ago. As a result, it will be much more difficult to integrate levees and breakwaters into the existing landscape without significant disruption.
In another context, however, Battery Park City is well positioned to develop and implement a flood protection plan. The Authority has a staff and engineers who focus exclusively on the community and its infrastructure, as well as the capacity to fund any plan it formulates. The BPCA collects hundreds of millions of dollars per year in ground rents and payments in lieu of taxes (generating an annual surplus of more than $100 million), and has the capacity to borrow billions more, because its credit is deemed by bond rating agencies to be better than that of either the City or the State.
Indeed, the BPCA’s financial resources are so prodigious that the Authority could theoretically subsidize flood barriers not only for Battery Park City, but for much of the rest of Lower Manhattan. Such an expanded mission would require the consent of both City Hall and Albany, but both might greet with enthusiasm the opportunity to underwrite a project that is widely perceived to be desperately needed, and for which other sources of funding seem increasingly unlikely. (Such an agreement would also have the political virtue of giving the BPCA — a agency that has struggled to justify its continued existence in the years after development in Battery Park City was completed — a new reason for being.)
The bleak prospects for funding resiliency measures in Lower Manhattan came into focus earlier this year, when a $176 million federal award for building flood countermeasures Downtown, announced in January, was later discovered to specifically exclude Battery Park City, the Financial District, and the Seaport. (The money was earmarked instead for the Two Bridges neighborhood, nestled between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.) Although the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio later allocated $108 million for the remaining “Manhattan Tip” area — understood to extend from the southern edge of the Two Bridges community, around the Battery, and up to Tribeca on the west side — nobody expects that this amount will be enough to pay for a resiliency system covering such a large area.
Last November, BPCA board member Martha Gallo seemed to hint at the possibility of the BPCA playing a leadership role in both formulating and funding a local resiliency plan. At a CB1 meeting, Ms. Gallo (the only member of the Authority’s board who lives in Battery Park City), said, “we owe it to the community to talk about the things we are working on, and the things we plan to work on.”
In a preview of the series of quarterly Open Community Meetings that the BPCA began hosting the following month, she said, “the number one topic on my mind is a major infrastructure study that the BPCA board has funded, to look at the infrastructure of the neighborhood and resiliency. The City has left us out of every funding discussion of the ‘Big U.’ So somehow, we’re going to get some room from the agreement we have to turn over our excess revenues, to do this work.” Although three Open Community Meetings have been held since then, the Big U plan (or any alternative proposal for protecting the Battery Park City against flooding) has not yet appeared on the agenda at any of these sessions.