City admits it failed to inform residents on overhaul of East Side resiliency plan

Politico: City officials admitted on Wednesday they failed to effectively communicate to residents the changes wrought by a last-minute overhaul of the city's East Side Coastal Resiliency project — a multiyear project that will reshape part of Lower Manhattan to prepare for future flooding.

"Did we communicate the change properly? No, and that's on me and I take responsibility on that and I apologize," said Lorraine Grillo, the commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, at a joint Council committee hearing on Wednesday. "I do apologize for that. I cannot change that; however, moving forward it will be better."

In September, the de Blasio administration dropped a bombshell when it unexpectedly announced significant changes to the resiliency project that was first conceived in 2014 and has been vetted by design experts and community groups for years.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New York City was awarded $335 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's "Rebuild by Design" competition to craft the resiliency project. The initial design plan involved adding 2.2 miles of coastline that would run from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street. The new coastline would absorb flooding in the event of a storm surge, but act as a park with jogging trails and other recreational activities on a day-to-day basis.

It was expected to cost a total of $760 million, with the city providing the additional $425 million.

But several months before construction was set to begin, City Hall changed course. The new plan — which is significantly more expensive at $1.45 billion — involves burying the East River Park, building a new 8-foot flood wall and placing a new park on top of that wall. The new design runs from Montgomery to East 13th Street.

Those changes have sparked backlash with local community members, who said they felt slighted by the city's reversal after residents spent years providing input to help shape the plan.

"Not only were the new plans not communicated by the city, but there was no community input involved in their creation," said Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, a grassroots organization that played an active role in the original design. "Many of the residents who live on the waterfront are among the most vulnerable — low- and moderate-income people living in subsidized housing — and they're not being afforded a sufficient opportunity to weigh in about their future."

Council Member Carlina Rivera, who represents the Lower East Side and East Village, said she was also concerned by the de Blasio administration's lack of transparency. She referenced the devastating effects Sandy had on Lower Manhattan and the increasing likelihood of future catastrophic storms due to climate change.

"Decisions cannot be made by the government behind closed doors, especially when they will impact New Yorkers for decades," Rivera said. "At a basic level, this project must protect the tens of thousands of people living on our waterfront from another climate catastrophe" for generations to come.

Residents have raised a number of concerns with the new fast-tracked proposal, including a lack of clarity on its environmental impacts and the fact that the nearby communities won't have access to recreational space while the park is being constructed. Some have questioned whether the proposal was mainly driven by the city's desire to avoid traffic jams on FDR Drive.

City officials have defended the new approach, arguing there were "significant challenges" with the original design.

The prior plan would have involved shutting down parts of the FDR, requiring construction work to be done at night directly in front of nearby New York City Housing Authority housing, Grillo said. It would also involve building a tunnel around a nearby transmission line, a costly endeavor that "presented the greatest risk to the project."

The new plan shifts construction off the FDR by allowing for barges to bring equipment and supplies to the new site, Grillo added. It will also expedite construction, taking 3.5 years instead of five to complete construction.

"Let me be clear — this change had nothing to do with protecting traffic or keeping the FDR open; the change is about making sure we can build this project," Grillo said, a comment that was met by hisses from residents who attended the meeting. "Quite simply, we were not convinced it could have been done."

Grillo also argued the original proposal had turned out to be more expensive than city officials originally thought, estimating it would have cost $1.2 billion as opposed to $760 million. She said the city will get more than the original design envisioned — including a new flyover bridge — for roughly the same cost.

However, the city has yet to secure the additional funding it needs to realize the new project's $1.45 billion price tag. The city has only $700 million on hand to move forward — a combination of funding it received from HUD and the city's previous capital plan for the project. Despite the shortfall, the de Blasio administration is not planning on allocating new funding in its 2020 budget.

"I would doubt it would be this capital plan, but it would be in upcoming capital plans," Grillo said.

The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is the first element of the city's "Big U," a multi-component plan to protect Manhattan from surges seen during major storms like Sandy. Once it's complete, the city is supposed to start work on the Lower Manhattan Resiliency Project that would span from Montgomery Street to Battery Park City.

The Big U was the largest project awarded through Rebuild by Design, a competition launched after Sandy to encourage resiliency planning in cities, but it has suffered several setbacks. The East Side resiliency project was originally supposed to break ground in 2017 and, later, in early 2019.

Timing is of the essence, as HUD's $335 million grant expires if it's not spent by the end of 2022. Grillo pledged the city would break ground in 2020, even if new funding isn't set aside.

At the multi-hour hearing, jointly held by the committees on Environmental Protection and Parks and Recreation, Council members questioned why the administration wouldn't fully fund the project before construction begins.

"It does concern me. I know that the city is up against a lot of different priorities ranging from resiliency to the MTA, but I would like to see it fully funded," Council Member Barry Grodenchik, chairman of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, told POLITICO. "This is an immense public undertaking since this is just the first phase. ... That's going to take an awful lot of money."