Trashing the Community-Backed BIG U: East Side Coastal Resilience Moves Forward Despite Local Opposi

Archinect: In late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy crashed into the East Coast. Causing more than $70 billion in damage, the storm ripped buildings from their foundations and flooded streets. In New York City, the hard concrete edge that separates Lower Manhattan from the East River was breached, filling the FDR expressway with brackish water and short-circuiting ConEdison’s 14th Street Substation, causing the much-circulated image of a near-total blackout in all points south. With the freeway flooded and the Lower East Side dark, this unprecedented damage came to represent the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure.

In response to the destruction, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a novel competition in 2013: Rebuild by Design (RBD). Seeking to address the combined effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and aging infrastructure through interdisciplinary design solutions, the competition tapped into the combined expertise of architects, ecologists, and engineers. The goal was to make cities more resilient. Capitalizing on the large sums of federal funding, designers could create holistic plans, rebuilding while righting historic urban design wrongs. Indeed, many of the urban areas with aging infrastructure damaged by Sandy like Hoboken, New Jersey; the Rockaways in Queens; and Bridgeport, Connecticut have high levels of income inequality and vexing public health disparities.

In New York City, BIG’s plan, The BIG U, proposed a total redesign of Lower Manhattan’s relationship to water. Wrapping the southern tip of the island with an emerald belt of wave-buffering wetlands and parks, the plan combined flood gates with a redesign of the coastline. The proposal sought to soften this hard edge, concrete bulkheads and piers that hold back the rising waters of the Hudson and East Rivers from one of the densest and wealthiest urban settlements in the United States.

Where there is wealth, there is also poverty. Along the East River, the plan was produced with input from the residents of the historically working-class Lower East Side. As one of the largest blocks of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) tenants in the five boroughs, many of the 28,000 public housing residents supported a plan in which East River Park would gradually terrace into the river—allowing the rigid bulkhead to soften into a more natural, sloping coastline. The park would flood in high-water events and the addition of a long berm along the perimeter of the park would separate it from the inland housing during future flood events. Read more>>