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Manhattan Pols Second-Guess Mayor’s Plan for Lower East Side Flood Barrier

The East River waterfront along the Lower East Side while Superstorm Sandy approached, October 2012.
The East River waterfront along the Lower East Side while Superstorm Sandy approached, October 2012. Photo: Chelsia Rose Marcius/DNAinfo

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As a key vote approaches on a controversial $1.3-billion plan to flood-proof the east side of Lower Manhattan, local officials have ordered up a second opinion on the first deputy mayor’s proposal.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced Monday that Hans Gehrels of the Dutch environmental group Deltares had begun an independent review of the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan, and will conduct interviews and gather information this week.

Brewer and Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) hired Gehrels after months of urging by locals who wanted a third-party examination of the long-anticipated shore-protection project project, which underwent a dramatic reworking last year led by First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan.

Dr. Hans Gehrels, an expert in hydrogeology, is helping to review the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.
Dr. Hans Gehrels, an expert in hydrogeology, is helping to review the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. Photo: New York City Planning Commission

“People want a separate opinion from that of the city,” Brewer said, referring to City Hall and the Department of Design and Construction, which have spearheaded the proposal.

The post-Superstorm Sandy resiliency plan faced considerable backlash from the neighborhoods next to the East River after City Hall last fall abruptly changed its design — and doubled the cost — for the flood-proofing measures.

A ‘Better, Quicker Way’

Fuleihan’s proposal to build a water’s edge flood barrier up 10 feet high, from Montgomery Street to East 13th Street, would bury recently reconstructed portions of East River Park and close the green space for at least three years during construction. Flood walls, gates and other anti-flooding measures would extend beyond the park north to 25th Street.

At the time, Fuleihan called the proposal an “enhancement” that would let the project be done in a “better, quicker way” than the concept that emerged from a design competition that won the city a $335 million federal grant in 2014.

Hans Gehrels, an expert in hydrogeology, is helping to review the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.
Hans Gehrels, an expert in hydrogeology, is helping to review the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. Photo: Deltares

The original plan, refined in consultation with community residents, would have installed a sloping earth embankment at the inland edge of the park to absorb rising waters and protect the neighborhoods behind it, while keeping the shoreline accessible.

Fuleihan was not immediately available for comment Monday.

Brewer said Lower East Siders “just want to hear from an outside expert — from someone of [Gehrels’] caliber.”

“This is a very big project and it’s very helpful to have somebody with his expertise be willing to give us that input,” she said.

Gehrels is an expert in urban resilience and sustainability planning, and his firm has worked around the world helping municipalities manage flooding in the face of climate change. He will be paid $20,000 for his review of the coastal protection plan, Brewer said.

‘Greater Scrutiny’ Sought

It’s unclear how his review may affect the timeline for the East Side plan, which is running up a federal spending deadline of September 2022.

The borough president said Gehrels is not “re-writing the whole plan,” but reviewing it and meeting with people involved with East Side Coastal Resiliency planning for years. Manhattan Community Board 3 members are among those he will interview, a board representative said.

In a statement Rivera, who represents the Lower East Side and East Village, said the review will bring “greater scrutiny and clarity” to project.

“I look forward to the Deltares team’s expert and independent insight into the project as we work to ensure the city gets its first major storm resiliency project done quickly and correctly,” she said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attends a press conference at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attends a press conference at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Brewer said Gehrels will complete his written report by Sept. 23 —the date the City Planning Commission is set to consider the controversial project. Theirs is the first in a series of votes needed to greenlight the proposal. Representatives from the Department of Design and Construction have said they hope to begin construction next spring.

In a statement, City Hall spokesperson Seth Stein said the city is “confident our plan is the best approach to protect the East Side of Manhattan” and is looking forward to working with the borough president to “further inform her and her team.”

“Through our extensive review and planning, we found a way to deliver the [East Side Coastal Resiliency Project] project faster to keep people safe in their neighborhoods,” he said.

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