Wagner Park Resiliency Plan on Hiatus Pending Court Hearing
Opponents of the plan to demolish and rebuild Wagner Park, with the aim of creating resiliency measures designed to protect against flooding, have reached an agreement with the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) that no demolition work will commence until the State Supreme Court convenes a hearing, slated for February, on whether the plan should be allowed to proceed.
In a stipulation filed with Supreme Court on Tuesday, the Authority promised that, “its affiliates, agents, employees and/or others under their control will not, at any time on or before the date on which oral argument is heard by the Court, engage in, and/or cause others to engage in any physical construction within Wagner Park, with the exception of the erection of [a] security fence.”
“We consider this first step to be a tremendous victory for the right of our community to be meaningfully heard and considered in the governance of its neighborhood,” said Gregory Sheindlin, a member of the Battery Park City Neighborhood Association. “Equally important, we hope to establish a ‘best practice’ precedent for many upcoming resiliency projects throughout our cities, states and nation. They must include meaningful collaboration between governing officials, subject matter experts, and community stakeholders.”
Nick Sbordone, a spokesman for the BPCA responded, “the South Battery Park City Resiliency project was planned and approved in full accordance with the law. We look forward to continuing the urgent work of protecting our community and Lower Manhattan from the devastation of future storms in the decades ahead.”
At Wednesday’s meeting of the BPCA board, Authority president B.J. Jones said, “at this point, due to pending litigation, we are temporarily halting any physical construction within Wagner Park, and we will be proceeding with the construction of the permanent fence and continuing with other non-construction related steps. We look forward to the resolution of the litigation so that we can continue with our important work.”
At issue is a pair of dueling visions for the future of Wagner Park. The BPCA plan would mostly demolish the existing space, replacing it with a new, elevated park atop a buried flood wall to act as a bulwark against future storm surges and sea-level rise, providing protection for the southern part of Battery Park City and certain additional areas of Lower Manhattan. This project would also link to separate plans designed to offer protection for the remainder of Battery Park City to the north, and the Financial District to the east.
The Neighborhood Association views this option as overkill, arguing that the existing park can be preserved, while being modified with less-intrusive resiliency measures that will maintain its character and also afford significant flood protection. The group partnered with the Olin landscape architecture firm (the company that formulated the original design for Wagner Park in the early 1990s) and Machado Silvetti architects (the original designers of the Wagner Park pavilion) to refine their alternative plan.
The Neighborhood Association vision would seek to preserve the existing pavilion by moving the flood alignment barrier outside of Wagner Park—locating it instead adjacent to nearby Battery Place. This plan would allow Wagner Park itself to flood during extreme weather events, but would aim to prevent waters from escaping the park and inflicting damage on nearby streets and buildings.
About this alternate conception, the BPCA says, “in addition to its engineering, logistical, and design flaws, the proposed concept also does not appear to significantly reduce the duration of construction or provide greater public access while construction is underway. It would also leave the park vulnerable for additional years while we reopen the environmental review process, receive approval by relevant agencies, engage the community in the development of new detailed designs, complete construction drawings and specifications, and complete new procurements—all in pursuit of concepts that have already been reviewed, discussed publicly, and determined to be infeasible and imprudent.”
Kelly McGowan, a member of the Neighborhood Association, said, “hundreds of community members and organizations have contributed time, money and talent to stop this destruction and help bring about a resiliency design that is effective and befitting the character of Battery Park City. We all deserve no less.”
Prior to oral arguments, both sides are expected to file additional legal briefs. The Neighborhood Association will likely argue that the BPCA was arbitrary and capricious in its pursuit of the project, and has failed to meet the standards set by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which mandates that all arms of government within New York must consider environmental impacts (equally with social and economic factors) during discretionary decision-making. If the Court is persuaded, this could have the effect of voiding the approvals that have enabled to Wagner Park project to begin.
The BPCA will likely cite dozens of public meetings held over six years (along with modifications to the Authority’s plan, based in part on feedback offered at these meetings) as evidence that every requirement of SEQRA has been met.