The Guardian: A strip of land that borders New York’s East River has become the latest environmental justice battle as the city prepares to start construction on a flood prevention project in one of Manhattan’s most economically disadvantaged and diverse communities.
East River Park, which covers 57.5 acres and loops around lower Manhattan like a hockey stick, is about the only waterfront green space within walking distance of the Lower East Side’s public housing. During Hurricane Sandy, both the park and much of the nearby housing were significantly damaged by historic levels of flooding.
Nine years later, city planners have approved a plan to raze the park, bury it under eight feet of new soil, and build a redesigned park on higher ground. The new, elevated park would serve as a buffer from storm surges and protect residents in the Lower East Side from flooding.
At a time when the city is grappling with how to fortify neighborhoods across the five boroughs from devastating floods – such as the ones brought recently by Hurricane Ida – the plan to rebuild East River Park stands out, at a cost of $1.45bn.
But the plan is increasingly mired in controversy. A vocal opposition group, East River Park Action (ERPA), rejects the idea that the local neighborhood must lose access to vital green space (while the park is being rebuilt) in order to ensure a future free of floods. Members say the city had a better, more equitable and environmentally friendly plan for the park on its hands, which was scrapped unceremoniously for this lesser project.
The ERPA group has garnered media attention for its continued opposition to the plan to tear down and rebuild the park, calling it both unsafe and unjust. Nearly a quarter of residents in the Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhoods are rent-burdened, and ERPA says the city has not fully considered their needs – including reliable access to green space.
ERPA activists are also concerned that big, expensive development projects beget bigger, more expensive development projects; members frequently describe the city’s plan as a kind of Trojan horse for gentrification.
Many residents share this view, and are skeptical the city has their best interests at heart. In 2019, more than 1,800 tenants in NYC Housing Authority apartments signed a petition expressing concerns about the park’s redevelopment. But ERPA’s members have also been accused of standing in the way of meaningful climate action, which would ultimately protect some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.