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Birds Can Fly Somewhere Else (2022)

How The NYC Government’s East Coast Flood Project Is Panning Out


By Will Staley


The sounds of cars sailing down the FDR seemed deafening as the blissful ignorance, of the no more than 8-year-old girl, shined brightly on her face as she held up her sign that showed a marker-drawn-broccoli-shaped-tree. “I like trees plses”… “do not cut me donw”… “they are important to will life” were plastered around the edges of the construction paper sign. Breathing hot air into the cold weather, Sarah Wellington, a local lower East Sider and worker at the 1000people1000trees Group “Listening To The Trees” event taking place in Corlears Hook Park at the edge of Manhattan, continued to guide the young girl around the scattered trees. These once barren trees were now decorated brightly in blue ribbons, signs begging to be saved from being cut down, and even googly eyes. The groups’ 1980s AIDS activist like protest signs riddled every pole and bench in site, stating in messy scribbled black sharpie “Bear Witness/Refuse ESCR!!!” and call out the “city’s flood plan that would destroy 80 year old trees that stop climate change”. 


The city’s “flood plan”, named The East Coast Resilency Project, or ESCR, will tear down 1000 trees at Corlear Hooks Park in the next couple of months, endangering it’s animals and the mature ecosystems. This has caused many locals and activist groups to have concerns for their health and neighborhoods. However, the plan is also going to replant 2000 trees in their place, upgrade the sewer infrastructure of the surrounding neighborhoods with green infrastructure, and provide flood protection to save Manhattan’s vulnerable east coast.


ESCR is a multi-layered New York City Government storm damage prevention project, that has begun to be executed by the NYC Department of Design and Construction, or DDC, to protect Manhattan’s two-mile stretch of eastside coastal land from floodwater. The project comes after the catastrophic damage of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and 2021’s Hurricane Ida. The project ranges from Montgomery St. to East 15th St. in Project Area 1, and East 15th St. to East 25th St. in Project Area 2. 


According to the DDC’s Executive Director of Public Information Ian Michaels, this storm damage prevention is being implemented by “raising the five parks on the East Coast”. It also includes “fixing the infrastructure surrounding these recreation areas such as the old bridges”, “removing the parks’ trees that are at the end of their lifespan”, and installing floodwalls and floodgates to provide floodwater protection, said Michaels. 


The currently underway Project Area 1 of ESCR has resulted in the destruction of the East River Park Amphitheater, leading to a now empty and litter full plot of land, that mirrors Corlears Hook Park on the adjacent side of the FDR. The trees and entirety of Corlears Hook Park are next to be destroyed as “it's true that we are going to remove almost 1000 of these older trees, but we're re-planting close to 2000 trees”, according to Michaels. 


The DDC is not only going to re-plant the trees and “beautify the parks”, but the “ESCR plan includes $125 million of storm sewer improvements inside the neighborhoods”, said Michaels. These “storm sewer improvements” refer to a design type called green infrastructure, or specific types of infrastructure such as absorbent concrete, rain gardens, and catch basins, that collect and stop floodwater from infiltrating homes. These improvements would “spread throughout many blocks”, said Michaels. 


This type of green infrastructure has been used and proven to work well on a high-budget and large, although privately built, site before…the 9/11 Memorial site. 


David Walker, a designer of the 9/11 Memorial Project, succeeded in gaining LEED, the government sustainability rating system, gold certification by including “surface-and-drainage infrastructure” where, according to Walker, “water from rainfall and snowmelt is channeled into large holding tanks and re-used to support an enormous volume of soil--40,000 tons in total—beneath the plaza”. Green infrastructure like this has allowed for countless present trees to maturely thrive across the Memorial plaza by recycling rain and floodwater.


ESCR’s plan to improve the neighborhoods’ resiliency along with the parks’ is tangible, but the time between the, now, destruction of the Project Area 1 park to the, future, 2026 rebuilding of the new park, trees, green infrastructure, and sewer systems, has led many locals to have concerns about the negative health and environmental effects. 


Sarah Wellington stated, “The trees of this park are home to many endangered species of animals and act as an ecosystem of life…This is ecocide”. 


Retired nurse and community member involved with the 1000people1000trees-like East River Park Action Group, Joan Reinmuth, said how “a single tree gives off 60 cubic feet of oxygen, so every day they cut down 1000 trees, there go 60,000 cubic feet of pure oxygen every day. They are the only thing that’s stopping you from the 50 million car emissions that ride down the FDR every day.” 


Wendy Brawer, the founder/director of Green Map System, which engages communities in 65 countries in mapping green living resources, agreed that the infrastructure used in the 9/11 memorial is “interesting and a good example for the government to follow”. However, Brawer also disagreed with the ESCR plan and the green infrastructure completely, and offered a new proposal saying that “a one-mile deck adjacent to East River Park would add 8 acres of parkland, be a flood barrier, and redirect emissions from the windows of NYCHA residences.” According to Brawer, this is “where high asthma, the lingering effects of 911 dust, and COVID are exacerbated by bridge/power plant emissions.” 


But Ian Michaels doesn’t see it, saying “They thought the trees in Corlears Park, we're protecting them from the emissions? What effect do they think the trees have? I don't know how to react to something like that”. And to the concerns over the endangered animals and proposals of other projects, Michaels says, “This project has been number one, it was approved by the city council…Birds can fly somewhere else.” 

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