“This is an absolute land grab,” says Katherine de la Cruz. During the afternoon of October 31, 2021, de la Cruz, and other activists from the 1000 People 1000 Trees movement and the East River Park Action community groups, gathered and spoke at Tompkins Square Park, on New York’s Lower East Side, in protest of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. The project, referred to as ESCR, plans to raze the 46-acre East River Park and then raise it 8 to 10 feet over the next five years. To achieve this, nearly 1,000 trees, over 100 bird species (including 11 species that are rare to New York state), and countless other animals and plants at home in the park will be uprooted, putting an entire ecosystem at risk.
Of the crowd of protesters, several were in festive costumes for Halloween. “Mother Nature” appeared in the form of a woman who dressed herself and her bicycle with fake vines. One man came as “Bulldozer Bill” wearing a suit and a de Blasio mask and walked around with a mock chainsaw labeled “ESCR.” He repeatedly pretended to cut down another protester dressed as a tree. Many others held signs with various calls to action: “Don’t cut down 1000 trees,” “Save East River Park,” and “Stop the greed, protect our green.” The protesters marched from the park through the Lower East Side and into the East River Park amphitheater, where more speeches were made. As they walked, the marchers chanted, “Breathe with the trees and the trees breathe with us.” Arriving at the amphitheater, the protesters observed a moment of silence. With the sounds of water lapping, birds calling, and the wind rustling through the leaves of the 80-year-old trees in the park, it was easy to forget that FDR Drive is just on the other side. Signs, still visible in the fading light, read: “Destroying a park is not resiliency! There must be a better plan!”
The next day, during the sunny and cool morning of November 1, the roar of chainsaws drowned out the sound of the birds, the water, and the trees. The beginning of construction at East River Park cemented a fate that activists and community members have been fighting against for years: the death of the park.
The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, signed off on by de Blasio, was not the first, nor the only, plan for flood mitigation in East River Park. Research and planning for the initiative began in 2011, right before Hurricane Sandy. The East River Blueway Plan, commissioned by then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, was designed with input from local community boards and groups and included natural flood mitigation measures such as beaches and wetlands for wave attenuation, as well as structural improvements to the park.
The next flood mitigation plan came from a US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) competition called Rebuild by Design, launched in June 2013. After four years of working with the community to develop the plan, the new BIG U project won Rebuild by Design and was awarded $335 million. Borrowing from parts of the Blueway plan, the BIG U planned for natural raised barriers to border the park on the side of FDR Drive as a natural flood wall to keep water from reaching the city. Construction of the barriers would have required the closure of one lane of FDR Drive every night for five years.
But in 2018, without much explanation beyond a described “design update,” the BIG U plan was modified into what is now the ESCR project—revising 70 percent of the project and erasing years of community planning. The cited reason for the change: a faster project timeline, and reduced traffic disruptions. The website for ESCR states that “The East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project emerged from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition.” But the statement is misleading, it implies that the BIG U is a larger part of ESCR than it really is: ESCR bears little or no resemblance to the BIG U or any other iterations of the original project. The portion that has remained unchanged includes only areas peripheral to East River Park; in relation to the park, the project was entirely altered.
During a 2019 press conference announcing the changes made to the original plans, de Blasio introduced ESCR as “a plan unlike anything that has been done before in terms of its scope, in terms of its impact,” calling it “audacious” and “necessary,” and reminding the audience that “There's nothing been done like this in the history of New York City.” By presenting ESCR as a model for future resiliency plans, de Blasio underscored the importance of both the plan and the process by which it came into existence. In response to the emergence of ESCR as a precedent, activists recognized the necessity to pay urgent attention to making the planning process fair.
When asked twice during the press conference, “When did your administration determine that the BIG U plan was not reasonable?” Mayor de Blasio did not respond. Much like de Blasio’s response to the question, there is no answer to the question of how to balance community needs, community engagement, and city policy. However, politicians like de Blasio have tried to skirt around community involvement, with some arguing that the community should not be involved, and most information provided about projects and actions have obscured the process of decision-making. Anti-ESCR activists are left wondering: How did their voice, once central to the plan, become so far removed from access?
This is not the first time community initiatives have been bulldozed by de Blasio. By the end of his two terms as mayor of New York City, de Blasio became known for his ties to developers, openly called “pro-development” by real estate developers. Christina Greer, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, described the mayor’s tenure to City & State as notable for his “suspect relationships with real estate developers.” In 2020, de Blasio was accused of doing business favors for real estate developers who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign and causes. He accepted donations from developers for his campaign, even after the Conflicts of Interest Board told him to stop. This was not the first time his donations from real estate developers violated ethics rules: According to The Real Deal, “The city’s conflicts board sent the mayor a private letter in July 2014 saying he had violated ethics laws by calling developers who needed his administration’s support for their projects.”
In 2017 de Blasio reinstated the 421-A tax exemption plan (renamed the Affordable New York Housing Program), creating a massive tax break for developers who made 25-30% of their units affordable housing. However, there was no clause that the units had to be affordable in perpetuity. The Columbia Political Review argued, with regard to the Affordable New York Housing Program, that de Blasio’s “promises to increase affordable housing for lower-income New Yorkers have been subverted by deals made with private developers.” In 2021, making another stab at solving the housing crisis in New York, Mayor de Blasio created a rezoning plan to bring in more affordable housing units — a move that opened doors to developers and gentrifiers faster than anyone wanted. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation wrote a report called “The Many Ways de Blasio’s SoHo/NoHo Plan Encourages Developers to Build Without Any Affordable Housing.” The report listed loopholes, workarounds, and exemptions which actually incentivize development without the requirement of affordable housing. An opinion piece in Washington Square News called it “gentrification in the making.” In East New York, the rezoning, which began in 2016, “only drove more speculators to scoop up homes, jack up prices and push out existing residents.” A 2018 report from the Center for NYC Neighborhoods found that investors were flipping more homes in Brooklyn’s Community District 5, which includes East New York, than in any other district in the borough in 2017.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have more affordable housing in Manhattan? Yes, but by taking the route of gentrification, income inequality is exacerbated with the purveyors of luxury housing driving the income gap higher in gentrified neighborhoods. The Atlantic got the de Blasio mix when it defined gentrification as “getting poor people out and replacing them with rich people (with a few token low-income units reserved).” The intention behind the use of affordable housing to drive gentrification is further visible in the privatization of New York City Housing Authority public housing. As part of a 2012 program allowing for an adjustment of funding for NYCHA housing, the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) funding plan, de Blasio allowed private developers to begin to take over 62,000 NYCHA housing units. This caused tenants to feel vulnerable, and reduced some extant protections and rights, such as mandated annual mold checks.
With private development taking over most of New York City under the guise of affordable housing, it’s not surprising that development would go farther, using the guise of climate resiliency to get shovels in the ground.
De Blasio worked hard to evade transparency. The process of creating and selecting a resiliency plan for the Lower East Side was underreported, except by local news outlets. This limited coverage made it difficult for community members to be involved in the decision-making process.
One large-scale piece was published in The New York Times. Written by Michael Kimmelman, the 7,000-plus word essay mused on the effects of involving the public in the decision-making process when dealing with an urgent crisis. “Some environmentalists argue,” he noted, “that climate change is a crisis simply too big and fast moving for the snail’s pace of participatory democracy.” He eventually came to the argument that in situations like redesigning the park for resiliency, “we remain mired in processes that can take much too long to resolve urgent challenges, with neighbors battling neighbors, experts battling experts, and no one with a mandate to take the long view.” Though he claimed some need for transparency, Kimmelman argued against too much community involvement, and ignored the aspects of ESCR’s creation that caused concern in the first place: the broad changes whose machinations were hidden from the public.
Kimmelman’s piece, while calling attention to the project, added nothing to the limited coverage of what was happening behind the scenes. He cited one notable resident of the Lower East Side—Nancy Ortiz, who has been outspoken in supporting ESCR—ignoring the others on the six-member task force meant to guide the city in the early stages of resilience planning. By narrowing the voice of a community, or even the voice of a task force, to just one person, Kimmelman suggested that there is widespread community support for ESCR—which may not be true. He added little to the existing complicated and unclear narrative about what this project is and who supports it.
Even New York state politicians are in the dark. After the project was announced, a group including a Senator, several Congresspeople, State Senators, and a State Assemblyman, issued a formal statement opposing ESCR, saying,
While we applaud the City’s desire to take decisive action in response to the urgent risks of extreme weather driven by global climate change, we have serious concerns about the sudden transformation of the ESCR proposal in September 2018 from a plan that incorporated over 4 years of community input to a new plan unilaterally put forth by the City. … This unexpected change raises numerous questions about the process by which the City selected this new proposal.
In a November 2 radio interview with WBAI, Arthur Schwartz, the attorney representing park activists, described ongoing litigation. The lawsuit argues that ESCR never received proper approval to begin with because the selected construction bid was not in compliance with city policy. “Back in July they had a bidding process, there was only two bidders to do this $1.3 billion project,” Schwartz said. The City selected the lowest bid. Next, the bids, with the project, went to NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer (who had commissioned the East River Blueway Plan in 2011 while serving as Manhattan Borough President). The role of the Comptroller is to review city contracts for integrity, accountability, and fiscal compliance. When the construction bid came to his desk, he did not sign off on ESCR, temporarily halting funding to the project in July 2021. Springer cited the underrepresentation of minority- and women-owned businesses in the subcontracting for the project. Further, the 30-day review period had elapsed, requiring the project to go back to the Department of Design and Construction to fix outlying issues. Two weeks later, in August 2021, Mayor de Blasio overruled Stringer’s decision with little explanation. When asked about the project, the comptroller’s office said they would not speak on the subject.
Pushing ESCR was not the first time that de Blasio has evaded the system of checks and balances. Then-mayor de Blasio signed more than 100 executive orders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—all without comptroller input and therefore without the normal system of checks and balances. A lawsuit to make public some of these decisions and contracts was shut down by de Blasio’s lawyers in August 2021. De Blasio justified the lack of comptroller oversight with an argument similar to the one Kimmelman made in his piece: Communities should not be involved because of the urgency of matters such as the pandemic. This is not an argument to be made lightly.
Joining local community boards and going to meetings is a helpful way to be involved in the planning process and stay up to date. Apart from this, there is a webpage—only one—detailing some of the processes of planning and community involvement. The webpage does not explain the intricacies of planning, the rules and regulations needed for each plan, and the rights and modalities of community involvement. There is no information about processes beyond the starting stages. Given this lack of information, and despite silence from local politicians, East River Park activists followed the paper trail of the project’s gestation, revealing an even greater need for involvement and transparency.
Part of the process for creating ESCR included drafting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which advocates feel doesn’t address community-specific issues. An EIS is required for a major project when “the environmental evaluation reveals that actions carried out under the program will have both individually and cumulatively significant environmental impacts,” according to the Law Information Institute. For ESCR, residents and activists noted that the EIS did not address high rates of asthma in the Lower East Side, which are likely to be exacerbated by thousands of tons of loose dirt the project will produce. Over 200 comments from the community were submitted during the comment period on the drafted EIS with regard to ESCR. Some comments were in favor of the project, but many addressed concerns about the EIS, calling for an independent third-party review of the project.
At a July 16, 2019 hearing, while Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer didn’t reject the plan as activists had hoped, she agreed with community members that an independent third-party review was necessary, saying “We’ve only got one chance to get this right.” By the end of 2019, the independent review had been conducted, and recommendations were issued to the city. Two notable recommendations were that the city make the decision-making process more transparent, and that it involve community members in that process. These recommendations spurred the release of the Value Engineering Study, the document which explains the alteration of the resiliency plan in 2018, as well as cost changes, and other reasoning behind ESCR. The study was released a full three years after the project change; at the time of its release in March 2021, it was heavily redacted (a less redacted version was released in April 2021 only after activists filed a lawsuit). Any piece of information that offers discussion on changes from the Big U/Blueway plan to ESCR is blacked out. Other sections are blurred so that the legibility of the text was compromised.
Some clues as to who might have been behind some of these changes, however, can be found in who has spoken out most enthusiastically in favor of ESCR: developers. Jacobs, one of the engineering firms used in the early stages of the project, hailed it as a “needed” and “pivotal” intervention. Hazen and Sawyer, a firm that worked on the EIS, explained that it is the “largest post-Sandy resiliency project.” AKRF, who worked on the EIS, called the project “critical.”
The support of developers did nothing to win the favor of the community, making many wary of the plan. The Architect’s Newspaper wrote that “general discontent seems to frame the East Side Coastal Resiliency project as a top-down endeavor that reflects little care for the expressed opinions and needs of the people who use the park most.” NY1 reported rumors in the Lower East Side that “the city was bowing to pressure from private developers or construction interests who wanted a more expensive project.” And in a March 14, 2019 press conference announcing ESCR and other resiliency plans for Lower Manhattan, the mayor and local officials evaded questions about funding for the plan. When asked if private development would need to come in, the mayor gave no answer other than ideas about how he would secure federal funding.
Activists, speaking for the advocacy group 1000 People 1000 Trees, said that if private development became more involved, it would no longer be a resiliency plan, and would instead be, “the real estate deal of the century.” As one commenter weighed in on Twitter, “Every time some project like this is pitched, it ends in glass luxury towers and Hudson Yards nonsense. And every time, the people pitching it demand we look exclusively at their promises and ignore what happened in the immediate past.”
De Blasio’s evasion of budgeting questions follows the backward logic of ESCR. Earlier plans were scrapped because “The city’s parks department said it didn’t have the money, workers or expertise to maintain infrastructure in a park built to flood,” according to the New York Times. The BIG U plan had a projected budget of $760 million, half of ESCR’s $1.45 billion budget—and ESCR is already running over budget. Only two construction companies bid on the project, both of them bidding at least $300 million over-budget, bringing project costs to a potential $1.75 billion.
Responding to the massive change in budget, the sudden switches in the plan, the quick signatures on documents that were not approved, and the redacted information, Schwartz, the lawyer fighting ESCR, expressed a sentiment that community members and activists have been feeling: “You can’t challenge something as being bizarre in court, but it’s bizarre,” he said in an interview on WBAI. (1000 People 1000 Trees put it more directly: “It's obvious that everyone is lying and hiding things.”) Schwartz went on to mention yet another questionable aspect of ESCR: “You’re building this floodwall from Montgomery Street to 14th Street, and then north of there, if the East River rises like they say it's gonna rise—6, 7 feet—the water would just go around the wall. And they’re not building up Battery Park 8 to 10 feet, they're not building up Hudson River Park up 8 to 10 feet, they’re not building Riverside Park up 8 to 10 feet, all those parks flooded massively during Hurricane Sandy.” His point? East River Park isn’t the only place where water comes in, and a wall there might not even make a difference. So, “Why this plan?” Schwartz asked. “I don’t know, some contractor is gonna make $1.3 billion. De Blasio is clearly trying to get shovels in the ground before he leaves office.”
When de la Cruz called ESCR a “land grab” in her speech at the October 31 protest, she invoked the way ESCR came to be: not through discussion, compromise, and collaboration, like earlier resiliency plans, but by keeping the public in the dark to make the plan that city leaders wanted, rather than what the city needed. The land no longer belonged to the community when it came time to make decisions. It belonged to de Blasio. What de Blasio’s team, or the new administration under Eric Adams, will do with it still is not entirely clear. However, whatever they decide may set a precedent.
On this, activists and developers agree. Hazen and Sawyer, one of the groups that worked on the EIS, stated that “ESCR will be [a] model,” that it is a “template,” and, most importantly, that “There is no precedent for a project of this size and scope in New York City.” ESCR is regarded as the first of its kind in the city, and possibly the country. But the potential to be a model for the future is precisely what activists fear most. “All of these issues are connected. The destruction of the park is a horrible, horrible precedent. If they can get rid of a park as beautiful and resilient as East River Park, they can go into any neighborhood and make up some bullshit, and destroy the park there,” said de la Cruz at the protest.
And if a park can be destroyed, then who’s to say an entire neighborhood can’t be sold to gentrifiers? If public works projects are so easily manipulated with development-friendly handshakes, then it will take a bigger fight for a community to control its neighborhood. Activists held a vigil for the East River Park on Saturday, December 4th at dusk. They planned their next action to protect the park, considering human sit-ins and blockades. Even as they continue to fight, the park is being laid to rest, doomed by the actions and selfish interests of a select few.