(Photos: Diana Kruzman)

The city’s plans to reconstruct a 2.5-mile stretch of parkland along the East River on the Lower East Side have been pushed back to next year as nearby residents continue to call for access to outdoor space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $1.45-billion East Side Coastal Resiliency project, or ESCR, aims to protect the area from sea level rise as a result of global climate change, and is expected to be completed by 2025. But the closure of more than half of East River Park and the start of construction, which had been expected to begin this fall, will be delayed until 2021, according to the city’s latest presentation to Manhattan Community Board 3. 

In the presentation, the Department of Design and Construction, one of several city agencies overseeing the project, said it had “accommodated requests” to keep the park open as the COVID-19 pandemic puts a premium on outdoor space. Residents will receive at least two to four weeks of advance notice before any street or park closures begin, according to the presentation. Work on Asser Levy Playground north of East River Park is still expected to begin after a notice to proceed is granted in mid-November. 

The project, which took shape after Superstorm Sandy raised the level of the East River by 14 feet and flooded parts of the Lower East Side in 2012, would alter the bank of the East River from East 25th Street to Montgomery Street. Current plans call for using landfill to raise the level of East River Park by eight feet, as well as building new entry points and pedestrian bridges, redesigning the drainage system, and installing floodgates.

First proposed in response to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild By Design contest, which sought solutions to flooding following Superstorm Sandy, the ESCR is part of a larger project to encircle lower Manhattan with floodwalls known as the “Big U.” Initial announcements that construction would close all of East River Park starting in spring 2020 drew outrage from the community, and in October 2019 Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course, saying that the park would be closed in phases, with at least 42 percent remaining open at all times. 

The city is on a tight schedule to finish the project, as $335 million in federal funds allocated for the renovation must be spent by 2022. The project received the go-ahead to begin construction in August after a New York Supreme Court judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by advocacy group East River Park Action, which argued that the project should undergo an extra layer of environmental review.

East River Park Action will be appealing the lawsuit, said its founder Pat Arnow, because the current plan to raise the level of the park eight feet will not account for sea level rise past 2050. But on a larger scale, she and other advocates believe the plan for the park is a misguided response to the threat of climate change in the first place. Arnow argues that a greener solution would be to allow the park to return to wetlands, which serve as a natural buffer against flooding. 

“What we’ve said all along is that there’s ways to make a resilient park,” Arnow said. “Our park should be an absorbent sponge, which is what it is right now. Hurricane Sandy really damaged our neighborhood, but it would have been much worse if the park wasn’t there, absorbing a lot of floodwaters.” 

East River Park Action has also raised concerns about how construction will impact the environment and the health of local residents. Arnow said soil testing conducted by the Urban Soils Institute in September found lead in the soil of East River Park under the Williamsburg Bridge, and the city has not addressed how it will prevent construction from stirring up the soil and releasing toxic particulate matter into the air. 

On October 15, the group sent a letter to the Parks, Recreation, Waterfront, & Resiliency Committee of Community Board 3, where East River Park is located, requesting that air and soil quality data collected in and around the ESCR area be made public. And East River Park Action went on to do its own air monitoring tests on October 23, Arnow said. 

“We’re doing some citizen science, because we don’t trust the city,” Arnow said.

The ESCR will also remove over 1,000 trees, many of which were planted when East River Park first opened in 1939. Although the project calls for planting 1,800 more, the mature trees’ roots are too large to support their replanting, so the new trees will be saplings that don’t provide the same effect. The change will be felt in Corlears Hook Park, a park in the southern part of the project area that’s slated to lose around 40 mature trees, said Michael Marino, founder of Friends of Corlears Hook Park, a volunteer group that maintains the park. 

“It’s going to be a significant loss for some of the neighborhood,” Marino said. “There are many elderly residents in the neighborhood who love to sit in the park on a bench under those trees, and it’s going to be decades before those trees provide the amount of shade that we have in the park now.” 

The relocation of a compost yard in East River Park run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which was supposed to take place this fall, has also been put on hold, according to the center’s president Christine Datz-Romero. Although the center has suggested an alternative plan that would keep the compost yard in the neighborhood, the city is attempting to move it to Harlem and has not made a commitment to allow it to return once the ESCR is finished. 

“We don’t want to lose our connection to this neighborhood,” Datz-Romero said. “It’s been a nightmare to live in this limbo for two years. It’s taken a toll on us as an organization.” 

Although East River Park will remain open through the rest of the year, the city has refurbished other parks and playgrounds in the Lower East Side to try to provide more open space once ESCR construction begins. The Parks and Recreation Department recently added a new synthetic field to the Little Flower Playground at Madison and Jefferson Streets after demolishing the old LaGuardia Bathhouse, the department announced on October 8

The field, along with a separate project to upgrade the playground, seating area and plaza, is part of a $10 million investment in the park, and follows the addition of new synthetic turf and sports coating at other parks in the area, including Tanahey Playground and Alfred E. Smith Playground. The department also says it is in the process of planting 1,000 trees in Community Boards 3 and 6, of which 330 trees have already been planted on neighborhood streets and in neighborhood parks.

However, residents say that these efforts will not compensate for the park space lost once over half of East River Park is closed to begin construction. 

“It’s so hard in this crowded city to find places to be socially distant and to be able to move and breathe fresh air,” Arnow said. “And our park is wonderful for that.”