Governor Taking a Shrine to
Battery Park City
Budget, Possible Locations, and Deadline for Designs Announced for Hurricane Maria Memorial
The administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo has narrowed down its initial list of six possible sites for a Hurricane Maria Memorial in Battery Park City to just two: The Esplanade Plaza (at the southwest corner of South Cove Marina) and the Chambers Street Overlook (at the intersection of Chambers Street and River Terrace).
This winnowing, which was made public via the Governor’s website in August, eliminates multiple other possible Battery Park City sites that were originally under consideration: three locations surrounding North Cove Marina (the northern and southern edges of the yacht harbor, and the nearby Belvedere Plaza), as well as a site on the Esplanade west of Stuyvesant High School, and the sliver of Wagner Park immediately adjacent to the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
“Hurricane Maria claimed thousands of lives and destroyed countless homes in Puerto Rico, yet the resilience of the Puerto Rican community has shown the world anything can be overcome when we all stand together in solidarity,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “We want this spirit of strength and community to be reflected in the Hurricane Maria Memorial, and we look forward to seeing how the experts capture it in their designs.”
Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) president B.J. Jones said, “we are honored to site the Hurricane Maria Memorial in Battery Park City, made especially poignant as we proceed with our own resiliency infrastructure projects, designed to combat and overcome the threats presented by extreme weather. We look forward to working with Governor Cuomo, the Commission, and the winning artists/architects on a monument that honors and pays tribute to the Puerto Rican community and our collective resolve.”
Also announced in August was a September 19 deadline for final submissions by artists and designers (which appears timed to coincide with the third anniversary of Hurricane Maria), and projected budget of approximately $700,000 to complete the project. Given that this amount is a fraction of the cost needed to merely repair several existing pieces of public art and infrastructure within Battery Park City in recent years, whether that budget is realistic remains an open question.
Examples of costlier projects from the BPCA’s 2019 budget include $2.5 million to redesign the Police Memorial, $3 million to repaint the Tribeca Pedestrian Bridge, and $1.6 million for design and installation of way-finding signage. In 2018, the BPCA hired a contractor to repair the Pylons public art piece (between North Cove Marina) and the illuminated glass benches surrounding the Irish Hunger Memorial for $595,000, and estimated that restoration of the dozen-plus other public art pieces in the community would cost $1 million in the near future.
Both the original catalog of locations, and the shorter, final list appear 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.”
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.”
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.
Ninfa Segarra, a Battery Park City resident who once served as Deputy Mayor, and more recently chaired the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1, said, “as one of the few Puerto Ricans who live in Battery Park City, I think placing a Memorial here is ridiculous. The Governor should identify who in the Puerto Rican community asked that it be placed here.”
Mr. Cuomo first announced that he would order the creation of a memorial to Hurricane Maria in September, 2018 — on the first anniversary of 2017 storm. There was little visible movement on this project until June of this year, when the Governor announced (at New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade) that he was forming a commission to spearhead the project. Notwithstanding calls from local leaders for a meaningful role in decisions related to the proposed memorial, he included only one resident of Battery Park City on the ten-member commission that will oversee the memorial’s design and construction: 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.
In a separate, but related development, students at the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture have created a series of designs to ridicule Governor Cuomo’s decision regarding a Hurricane Maria Memorial. In a story first broken by the Architect’s Newspaper, a group of architecture students at the school briefly considered participating in Mr. Cuomo’s design competition, but rejected this prospect in favor of creating protest designs that amount to a criticism of Mr. Cuomo’s plan. Architect, professor, and former dean Francisco J. Rodríguez-Suarez explains that the students, “unanimously felt the wounds had not healed enough and also questioned the appropriateness of the politics behind a memorial in New York.”
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