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Behind a Billion-Dollar Bid to Save Lower Manhattan

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July 26, 2022


The Battery Park City Resiliency Project promises to protect some of the most valuable real estate in the US. Can it be a model for urban flood protection?

New York City was hit with an estimated $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. The historic storm displaced thousands of residents from flooded homes, inundated subway tunnels, and left much of Manhattan in darkness. But when B.J. Jones talks about that disaster, he often focuses on a less dramatic storm impact — the storm surge that left the baseball and soccer fields at Battery Park underwater.

Jones, the president and chief executive officer of the Battery Park City Authority, brings up the ballfields to show that, amid the high-rises, there’s a real neighborhood here in this low-lying area at the southern tip of Manhattan, with roughly 16,000 full-time residents and its own Little League. A decade after Sandy, Jones is the head of the state-chartered corporation overseeing the Battery Park City Resiliency Project, a massive effort to reshape the coastline to prevent future catastrophic flooding.

“If we don’t change it, Mother Nature will,” Jones said.

Like so many such projects in New York City and around the nation and the globe, the resilience projects around Battery City are billed as critical in an era of climate change. They’re also expensive: The first phase of this effort, the South Battery Park City Resiliency Project — which will run from the Museum of Jewish Heritage through Wagner Park, Pier A Plaza and the Battery to a topographic high point near Bowling Green Plaza — is expected to break ground in September, with an estimated price tag of at least $221 million; a second phase estimated to cost at least $630 million that will stretch along the neighborhood’s northern and western boundaries is predicted to finish in 2026.

With global design firm AECOM working as lead architect and engineer, the project amounts to a wholesale reconstruction of the already artificial Battery Park City — 92 acres created from soil and rock dug during the construction of the World Trade Center. An unnatural creation, this land didn’t even exist 50 years ago, yet it’s dense with infrastructure and underground tunnels managed by various city departments, each of which must be involved in every aspect of design and construction for the costly project. Advocates insist this investment is necessary to shield Lower Manhattan, a crucial node in the global economy and site of some of the most valuable real estate in the US. The overall objective: protection against so-called 100-year flood events, which are expected to be more frequent and intense.

The project is a rare exception, in many ways. The Battery Park City Authority can leverage bond funding and coordinate the endeavor in ways other local government entities can’t. It’s an example of an empowered local government entity in a wealthy neighborhood tackling rising water with immense financial resources.

“It’s a good model for climate change resilience, in that they have this more collective organization that can represent the neighborhood,” said Thad Pawlowski, a professor and managing director at Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes. “Frankly, most climate change adaptations are just cleaning up messes from disasters and waiting to tap into disaster recovery programs. In this case, the Battery Park City Authority is stepping up to do this. They recognize the urgency.”

Few waterfront areas have the resources of the Battery Park City Authority at their disposal, but there are broadly applicable lessons available to municipal and local groups embarking on climate change infrastructure, Pawlowski believes. The federal infrastructure law passed last year included $47 billion for spending, in part, to shore up coastal communities in the path of rising waters.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Pawlowski said. “Spending billions here shouldn’t take away from high-priority projects elsewhere; it’s not zero-sum. If anything, people should look at this project and ask, ‘Where’s the government, where’s our tax dollars, where’s the public investment we need in my neighborhood? Wow, a billion dollars was spent on Lower Manhattan. We need a billion dollars here, too. We need a Green New Deal.’”

Battery Park City’s transformation is part of an even larger climate mobilization: the multibillion-dollar Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency plan, an effort that traces its evolution to a series of post-Hurricane Sandy efforts to protect the city from future flooding. The 2013 Rebuild by Design competition asked cities to focus on resilience and reworking coastal areas to right past design wrongs; Bjarke Ingels Group’s BIG U design, the winning Manhattan project, proposed a horseshoe-shaped series of landscape projects that would layer social infrastructure atop flood prevention.

It also starts in the shadow of the adaptation project around Manhattan’s East River Park, which broke ground last year. That process became fraught as the city and various community and advocacy groups sparred over the planning process. The city’s decision in 2018, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, to ignore a previous plan developed via thousands of hours of public meetings — and essentially abandon the BIG U concept and go in a different direction that in effect buried a cherished public park — incensed many.

“It was just a failure in the public process,” Pawlowski said of the East River initiative. “There’s a lot of public conversation to have about how we adapt to climate change, because it’s not like there’s just a one-size-fits-all solution. It challenges our idea of what a public process is, because we need communities to be deeply involved in this work and to have a stake in it, or it just won’t happen.”

Betty Kay, a Battery Park City resident and community board member who has been involved in the planning and discussions around the project since 2016, said their resiliency project was more transparent and responsive. There has been extensive documentation and collaboration along the way, and videos of every meeting can be found online. While many residents and newcomers were surprised by the degree of change, including the razing of beloved green space, it has moved relatively fast for such a complex undertaking.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some community pushback: Daniel Akkerman, president of the Battery Alliance, told The City that he wanted more direct outreach and felt surprised by plans for the park. Others have complained about parks being temporarily closed and beloved trees removed, as well as construction noise and disruption that, for older residents, recalls the rebuilding after Sept. 11. Using the hashtag #Pausethesaws, members of the Battery Park City Neighborhood Association have called for rethinking the current plans and adding more neighborhood representation in decision-making. In letters sent to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Jones and other leaders, they raise questions about the scale, scope and science behind the project, as well as what they see as misleading claims about the flooding risks faced by the neighborhood. Columnist Steve Cuozzo recently echoed those complaints in the New York Post, writing that the end results would be a “grotesquely warped” Wagner Park. 

But Kay says the Battery Park process did better outreach, and gained more community support, than its counterpart on the East River. The public campaign was focused on boltering those who supported resiliency, convincing those on the fence, she said, and being fair with the naysayers, who weren’t expected to ever back up the effort. In particular, she felt that the series of public tours with architects and engineers to explain the larger vision helped address concerns. Tour leaders held up poles showing the projected height of floodwater at different sites, helping to dramatize the need for specific flood infrastructure, and showcasing a hands-on methodology for other cities and neighborhoods.

“The in-person tours really mattered,” Kay said. “You could show that there isn’t a lot of land to work with, and when someone had an objection or asked a question, they would be faced with the question, ‘Well, how would you reimagine it? How would you like to maintain it?’”

While the project covers just a small cross section of Manhattan, Battery Park City’s varying topography means even among this relatively small stretch of waterfront, different approaches to resilience and mitigation will be used. Wagner Park will be elevated 10 feet and include a buried flood wall, which requires the demolition and replacement of an existing pavilion. Other sections will have elevated berms and pop-up walls.

Pier A Plaza, meanwhile, will be envisioned as a bi-level landscaped park, with tiered seating that acts as a water barrier during low-level flooding, and flip-up gates on the upper level to be deployed for more severe weather events. The entire project is built with flooding in mind; the wood used for seating can stand being submerged for days at a time, new trees will be resistant to saltwater, and formerly brick structures will be rebuilt with structural concrete to resist erosion.

This underscores one of the prime selling points of the current plan: the effort to create public amenities that double as flood protection, adding and enhancing shared space instead of merely erecting large bulkheads — social infrastructure as climate resilience. Gwen Dawson, Battery Park City Authority vice president of real property, described the approach as using a “scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”

“Climate change will redefine our waterfront in terms of ownership, access, and natural versus hard edges,” said Pawlowski, who believes much of the city’s coast may ultimately be turned back to marshland and beach. “It’s a real civic asset today, and people love to walk along the promenade, and I think it will continue to be a great place for people to enjoy New York City’s waterfront and understand how it's changing.”

Part of the reason Battery Park City can move forward like this is how it’s footing the bill. The public authority is leveraging its ability to issue its own bonds, using revenues from ground leases and property tax payments (known as “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT) from Battery Park City. (Residents will see no increases in ground rent or PILOT, per the Authority.) It’s a good mechanism, according to Pawlowski, and speaks to the reality of resilience: Climate change adaptation is going to cost a lot of money, so it’s up to public agencies and government to structure such payments in ways that create jobs and become drivers for the economy.

That fundamental logic should hold even for local governments that lack the kind of economic means found in Lower Manhattan.

“There’s a lot of money that has to be found,” said Kay, about the dire need for increased resilience spending across the city. “No one knows where it’s coming from, and there’s a 20- to 25-year time frame to get it done.”

The urgency can’t be overstated. The rising sea level — a foot in the harbor already, potentially three to six feet by midcentury— means every tropical storm and nor’easter could have that much more impact. The reality of this changed landscape can be seen elsewhere in New York City: Residents of Staten Island and Jamaica Bay are raising homes — or taking post-storm buyouts to leave.

Pawlowski hopes this Battery Park City plan and development helps elevate the idea of what can be done for the public within resilience projects and proposals. Ideally, he sees this raising the standard, and helping other neighborhoods — such as Red Hook in Brooklyn or Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, which don’t have Battery Park City’s resources and face some of the highest risks from climate change — demand and receive more.

There’s a sense that there’s no time to waste, and the community seems to accept that. Kay recalls one resident who wanted to have a farewell party for the old Wagner Park before renovations and reconstruction begin.

“When you start putting concrete in the ground, you’re really admitting what’s happening,” she said. “You’re gearing up for war and about to fight, and that’s very scary.”

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