Reshaping Lower Manhattan

Post-Sandy flooding near South Street Seaport: Photo: NYC Department of Small Business

Mayor proposes expanding the downtown shoreline up to 500 feet into East River to protect city from impacts of climate change

By Michael Garofalo

Mayor Bill de Blasio pitched an ambitious plan last week to prepare Lower Manhattan for the projected impacts of climate change by literally transforming the island’s waterfront.

The proposal would push the shoreline anywhere from 50 to 500 feet into the East River along a roughly one-mile stretch of Lower Manhattan’s east side between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Battery. The new land would serve as an elevated flood barrier protecting the Financial District and South Street Seaport area from future sea-level rise and storm surge events.

These low-lying neighborhoods suffered some of the borough’s worst damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and will become increasingly vulnerable in the decades to come as New York City sea levels continue to rise and extreme weather events occur with increased frequency and intensity, as projected in the 2019 report of the New York City Panel on Climate Change released on March 15.

By 2100, 20 percent of Lower Manhattan streets will be exposed to tidal flooding on a daily basis and almost half of all properties will be at risk from storm surge.

The shoreline expansion proposal is the latest in a series of coastline protection projects targeting specific segments of the Lower Manhattan waterfront.

The city has directed roughly $500 million to funding resilience strategies at the Battery, Battery Park City and the Two Bridges neighborhood, each of which will be under construction by 2021. The city’s study found that measures planned at the other sites — which include earthen berms, raised esplanades and “flip-up” flood barriers that could be deployed in advance of a storm — are not viable in the Financial District and Seaport area due to the complex infrastructure present, which includes the A/C subway tunnel and Hugh L. Carey tunnel.

To create new land extending as much as two blocks into the river would require a complex permitting and regulatory approval process. Still, the mayor and his advisors believe it is the best option available.

“We wanted to limit the shoreline extension to only the places where that was the only feasible solution,” Jainey Bavishi, director of Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency, said at a March 14 press conference. “And in the other areas where we know that there are technologies that will provide protection without going into the water, that’s what we are moving forward with.”

“It can’t move without a president”

The mayor’s office projects the undertaking will cost approximately $10 billion, an estimate that includes $4 billion for new stormwater drainage infrastructure and $6 billion for construction to extend the shoreline. The ultimate cost will be contingent upon the design of the project as a master plan is developed over the next two years, including how many feet of shoreline extension the final plan includes.

The city will look to the federal government for funding, which de Blasio acknowledged is likely a non-starter as long as President Donald Trump is in office. (The mayor made no mention of his own presidential ambitions, which brought him to New Hampshire days after the climate announcement.)

“We have a climate denier in the White House,” de Blasio said. “He’s not going to change it. And it can’t move without a president. So I would say it’s after the 2020 election that we open up the possibility of a serious new national resiliency policy and serious money being applied to it, and it is consistent with the vision of the Green New Deal.”

The city will implement interim protection measures such as temporary storm barriers in the Seaport district until the shoreline expansion is complete. The project might not be completed until 2030 under traditional permitting, de Blasio said, but could be completed by 2025 if the federal government cooperates to expedite the process.

The mayor was noncommittal on what, if anything, should be built on any new land that is created.

Whether the extremely valuable new real estate would be dedicated parks, schools, housing or other uses would ultimately be subject to community input during the city’s land use review process, de Blasio said.

Turning to private developers?

The mayor’s proposal, which he announced in a New York Magazine op-ed titled “My New Plan to Climate Proof Lower Manhattan,” has some similarities to a 2013 proposal explored by the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s plan, known as “Seaport City,” envisioned an entire new neighborhood build upon new land in the East River.

The mayor differentiated his vision from the Seaport City plan by insisting that his proposal is focused primarily on climate resilience and not new development. But absent federal funding, the mayor said, turning to private developers as a source of funding could become a necessity.

“From the perspective of the City of New York alone, this would be extraordinarily difficult to fund,” de Blasio said. “I think it comes down to simply this: if there’s federal money in play, it probably looks one way. If there’s not federal money in play, we have to get some private money and there has to be some development.”

Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan in the City Council, immediately pushed back against the idea of private development.

“With this plan to provide protection for the entire coastline of Lower Manhattan, we now have a roadmap to a more resilient and sustainable future,” Chin said in a statement. “However, this more resilient future cannot be paid for by private real estate development that would destroy the waterfront neighborhoods that we are trying to protect.”

Catherine McVay Hughes, the former chair of Community Board 1 and a leading voice in Lower Manhattan’s resiliency planning efforts, said she looks forward to learning more details of the proposal as the city prepares an engineering plan and engages local stakeholders. “To not do anything to protect the Financial District and the South Street Seaport is not an option,” she said, adding, “I encourage everybody who cares about the future of Lower Manhattan to attend and participate in the meetings.”