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Boston Society of Architects

Safe Feature

A case study in complexity

After Superstorm Sandy, reclaiming the waterfront is a many-layered thing

Aerial view for LAM Page 1 EDIT

Pier 42 completes a critical missing link of public access along Lower Manhattan’s East River shoreline.

Image: Courtesy Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

When Superstorm Sandy hit the Lower East Side of Manhattan in October 2012, it changed the lens through which designers need to approach neighborhoods vulnerable to climate change. The storm surge combined with spring’s high tide created a flood event 4 feet higher than any previously recorded storm. In the months that followed, it was evident that relief and recovery alone would not be a sufficient response to this disaster. As landscape architects, we realized we would need to weave education—our own and the community’s—into our design process to achieve more robust landscapes that are capable of performing at multiple levels, landscapes that stretch beyond the beautiful and functional to those that strengthen ecological systems.

This is a story about designing a public waterfront park, Pier 42, while managing complexities of information and design triggered by a catastrophic event, trauma, and divergent regulations that contribute to the challenge of building a more resilient city. Pier 42 is located along Manhattan’s East River, roughly between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. The Lower East Side is a dense, diverse community with a total population of 72,000. Its shoreline is retained by a stone bulkhead constructed in the late 1800s, roughly 5 feet below the current 100-year floodplain. Not surprisingly, the areas within the city that experienced the worst inundation during Sandy were those built on landfill along the coast, and further inland, where there had once been marshes or streams. Much of the Lower East Side was built on landfill, and floodwaters traveled almost 2,000 feet inland.

Residents who live in low-lying public housing experienced floodwaters filling their basements, ruining electrical power and mechanical equipment. Elevators were shut down, along with heating and cooling systems, refrigerators, and the water supply, making living conditions difficult or untenable. Residents lost access to television and the Internet, leaving them unable to communicate or gain information. In many cases, they were trapped in their upper-floor apartments.

A few months before Sandy hit, the City of New York tapped our firm to design a park at Pier 42. The space is an 8-acre site made of roughly half landfill and half concrete pier platform on piles in the river. Currently a parking lot and decrepit warehouse, the site is sandwiched between a large public park and promenade, and is separated from the residential neighborhood by a six-lane highway, the FDR Drive. When complete, the park will fill a missing link in the bikeway and waterfront esplanade that circumnavigates most of Manhattan. Our initial concept was to celebrate the river and screen the highway. We began pursuing a design that would offer unique water-related experiences not available elsewhere in the neighborhood.

As part of any public park design in the city, stakeholder engagement is crucial. Between December 2012 and May 2013, we conducted 10 public meetings with the community board, nearby schools, public housing residents, and other local organizations. Neighbors were still reeling from the aftermath of Sandy. During those meetings, conversations often drifted to larger priorities and challenges facing the neighborhood, including protecting critical infrastructure and taking care of vulnerable residents who suffered from building-system outages. When considering the park, many asked for a flood barrier—using the land to protect them. They also wanted the park to strengthen resiliency by softening the shoreline, improving water quality and the natural habitat.

Stakeholder meetings became as much about capacity building as about the project itself. As designers we found ourselves having to explain that a limited length of land form with no inland tie-ins would just allow the floodwater to flow around the park and back into the neighborhood. It became clear that community members were confused by conflicting information regarding flood elevations and the meaning of protection versus risk mitigation. The park design and resiliency became inextricably linked. About a year later, community members selected a scheme that would address a broad array of resiliency measures while simultaneously giving them a unique park.

The design weaves recreational amenities including a playground, picnic knoll, and strolling woodland into a topographic fabric that performs at two scales—community benefit and flood mitigation—by accepting floodwaters into wetlands and tidal pools. By removing deteriorated sections of seawall, river water is welcomed into the park and enhanced by shoreline vegetation and an elevated boardwalk to enable visitors to engage with the fluctuating edge.

The next chapter in the evolving complexity of Pier 42 layers on broader neighborhood resiliency but also new regulations. The East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project originated with the Rebuild by Design competition awarded by the federal office of Housing and Urban Development to the “Big U” concept in June 2014. The Big U was conceived as a coastal flood-protection system around Manhattan to protect the city against coastal and inland flooding, and provide social and environmental benefits to the community. The award came with $335 million in federal disaster recovery funding to implement the first phase of the Big U, which encompasses Pier 42. The ESCR started design in late 2014 with our firm as the landscape architects.

Throughout both the Big U competition and detailed design phases of ESCR, the community’s goals remained consistent: reduce flood risk, improve access and connectivity, and enhance open space. Because of its larger project boundary, ESCR solves a key flaw of the Pier 42 park project—the ability to construct a watertight seal around the neighborhood by extending the flood walls inland to tie in to higher elevations. Also, because we are the designers of both projects, we worked to slide the flood wall along the highway to mask its presence and preserve the park’s open character. It comes at a neighborhood cost, however: The river will no longer be visible from inland streets.

Furthermore, the engineering requirements for ESCR, a federally funded project that must meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standards, are more exacting both in design and long-term maintenance than those required of Pier 42, a city-funded project. For example, for a land-scaped berm to be FEMA-certified as flood mitigation, it must have a reinforced concrete substructure; city standards merely require buildings to be elevated to the current code. So, for Pier 42 we manipulated the topography to achieve the mandated code level and then used the slopes to inspire a dune-themed playground and shaded, promontory picnic area with magnificent views down the river.

In basic terms, the ESCR flood wall is 3 feet higher than the highest land form on Pier 42, which complies with the postSandy city building code. Based on current climate projections, the ESCR flood wall will provide twice the number of years of protection than the Pier 42 land form. The ESCR protection system will require a federally defined maintenance regime to ensure its safe operation, whereas the park needs nothing more than routine park care.

At the community level, residents have begun to unleash concerns that previously were voiced only on an issue-by-issue basis: aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, and poor water quality. Neighborhoods grappling with resiliency initiatives question whether they will benefit from the promises of more waterfront access, improved parkland, better open space connectivity, and enhanced natural areas.

At the local level, strapped for operating revenue, city agencies do not necessarily embrace costs of long-term maintenance of FEMA-certified projects and drag their feet on decision making, slowing down innovative projects. Municipalities need to encourage federal agencies to recognize local conditions and expand the tool kit of resilient solutions. Every dollar spent on resiliency must be directed toward providing multiple benefits. For example, a flood gate across an inlet can double as a pedestrian bridge to link neighborhoods and offer expanded access to jobs or waterfront parkland.

At the federal level, the vast majority of dollars for resiliency implementation in New York City are premised on meeting certain stringent requirements with regard to design and maintenance. A growing concern is that federally promulgated hardening solutions can have negative impacts on communities and impart a false sense of security, potentially leading to complacency about climate change. Imagine living behind a wall, not seeing or smelling the river that you grew up with, but thinking that at least now you are safe from the threat of a storm destroying your home.

Pier 42 is an example of a project that has to manage complexities at multiple scales and ultimately asks the question “What does safe mean?” Do we mean resilient—the ability to recover from disaster and adapt to the impacts of climate change? Or do we mean protection—fortified by defenses that reduce the effects of disaster? And what does a resident of the Lower East Side think when we use the word protection? As designers, we need to do a better job communicating, engaging a broader spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing solutions that offer social, economic, and environmental benefits.