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Lower East Side Fights Demolition of East River Park - Katie Anastas

MEGAN ZEREZ, HOST: In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused flooding and power outages, and left thousands of New Yorkers displaced. Last week, the city broke ground on a coastal resiliency plan to protect lower Manhattan from future storms. The project will level and completely rebuild East River Park, a popular green space on the Lower East Side. As Katie Anastas reports, many residents disagree with the plan.

CROWD: Don’t tear it down, it’s the only park around, save East River Park, take your hands off the park....

KATIE ANASTAS, BYLINE: More than 300 people gathered in East River Park on Saturday, to protest the cities East Side Coastal Resiliency Plan. They marched along the waterfront, under flowering trees, past busy games of soccer and Little League baseball.

CROWD: Save this park! Save this park!

ANASTAS: The 2.5-mile park is sandwiched between the Lower East Side waterfront and the FDR Drive. Blocks of NYCHA buildings stand on the other side of the highway. Residents access the park and waterfront via pedestrian bridges. Now the city plans to bury the entire park under 8 to 10 feet of fill, and build a new park on top of it. Dianne Lake is a longtime resident of the Lower East Side, and a member of the East River Alliance, a community group fighting to stop the planned construction.

DIANE LAKE: One of the major fears in the community is that the city will take ten, 20 years, to get all of this done.

ANASTAS: Community groups add that a recently remodeled running track would be buried. And two of the three historic buildings would be demolished.

LAKE: And above all, it’s the trees.

ANASTAS: The park is shaded by a canopy of more than one thousand mature oak, cherry, and other species of trees. Advocates say the trees clean the polluted air from the cars on the FDR, and also cool the park.

LAKE: One of the things that people love about East River Park in the summertime is that it’s 10 degrees cooler sometimes than it is inland.

ANASTAS: Area groups also raise concerns about how the city developed the plan to reconstruct the park. In consultation with community members, the City originally proposed a different plan in 2018. Instead of leveling the park, a berm would be built at the edge of the green space along the FDR Drive. While the park would remain vulnerable to flooding, the existing amenities would stay. And the land could act as a sponge in future storms, as it did during Hurricane Sandy. Ultimately though, the city decided on the plan now underway.

Michael Keane is an urban planner who specializes in land use and environmental planning. Looking at the two designs side by side, he said the City’s new plan makes sense.

MICHAEL KEANE: Raising the park and getting the trees out of the floodplain -- to me, that strikes as a rational approach, you know, in the interest of long-term preservation of vegetation. And not just the trees, you know, everything that the park holds.

ANASTAS: I asked the Mayor’s office for comment. They directed me to a recording of a press conference last week where Mayor De Blasio praised the plan and the community’s involvement.

MAYOR DE BLASIO: We’ve been working closely with the folks who represent the communities of the East Side who’ve been hearing the voicing of people, bringing back the needs, working with us to perfect the plan.

ANASTAS: Last month East River Action and other groups sued to gain access to the city’s engineering study comparing the plans and their relative merits. The published version was heavily redacted.

Tommy Loeb is a member of the group that sued the city over the redacted report. He says the city wouldn’t be so cavalier about demolishing a park in a wealthier neighborhood.

TOMMY LOEB: Would they close Central Park for five years? Would they close Riverside Park for five years? Why do they feel so free to treat this community this way? And one of the reasons is we think that they thought this community couldn’t fight back.

ANASTAS: The city broke ground on the East Side Resiliency Plan last week. Late this summer, sections of the park are set to close as construction begins.

Katie Anastas, Columbia Radio News.

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