'Big U' plan to protect Manhattan from storm surges begins with a sea wall

NEW YORK -- The $335 million in federal funds delivered last week for a sea wall on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is the first part of a much larger design vision for protecting the vibrant heart of the city, and its subways, against the threat of future storm surges.

The broader project is called the "Big U" for the Danish architecture firm that designed it -- Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG -- and the ultimate shape the lower Manhattan defense system would take, wrapping a continuous 10-mile U shape from 57th Street on the West Side all the way south around the Battery to 42nd Street on the Lower East Side.

The first phase was selected to protect the Lower East Side and the East Village because that part of the city was slammed during Superstorm Sandy and is still considered highly vulnerable to storm surges. It was this section of the city that saw a major Consolidated Edison substation catch fire, leading to a dayslong blackout, and floodwaters so high they leaked from the East River all the way past First Avenue.

A well-placed source in the mayor's office said this part of the larger project was selected for phase one because of high population density, including many lower-income residents in public housing, and the presence of key electrical infrastructure. The availability of federal Sandy-related dollars for a public works effort that would not likely attract private capital was also a crucial reason for the selection, said Henk Ovink, a special adviser to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

"You have a lot of people at risk and at the same time no market interest," said Ovink, the Dutch water management expert brought in by Donovan after Sandy to help rebuild and protect the city.

The sea wall and the $335 million it attracted are also a down payment on Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio's $3.7 billion overall plan for shoring up the city and improving defenses against big storms that was started by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (I) ambitious resiliency plan. The $335 million will fund a 10-to-20-foot-tall berm and bridges over the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive so New Yorkers can access the East River waterfront along a stretch that was a key inlet during the Sandy storm surge.

The project was hatched as a way to combine climate adaptation with improving recreational opportunities in the city, combining hard and soft infrastructure in a nature-as-buffer approach that has been refined in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands for decades. Also, the FDR Drive has long been considered an urban eyesore and a barrier by some who would like to see more waterfront activity here.

Building a defense by chunks

Ovink is the brains behind the Big U vision, which won the right to proceed through a federal program called "Rebuild by Design" he is managing for Donovan. The strategy, for now, appears to be using the federal money available first before trying to attract development dollars for ideas like Seaport City or high-priced condo concepts that could help bankroll projects along the Battery and up the West Side.

Ovink says the Big U idea, selected out of 148 designs, is fundamentally about coming up with a major infrastructure concept that becomes a community-driven solution through the design and engineering analysis of what protections would work best for the Big Apple. Ovink cites Rotterdam, Netherlands, as a city that has approached the problem of water as an opportunity, and he wants to bring the same emphasis to New York, moving the overall "U" forward in chunks or compartments.

"It's like the hull of a ship," he said. "If you take out one piece, the ship still sails."

Of the East Side wall, he added, "It doesn't stand on its own but it can stand by itself. It's also meant to inspire the next phase."

The New York approach, which may be used as a template for other coastal cities facing storm surge problems, will move forward in three compartments, assuming each phase finds the money to go forward. After the Lower East Side wall might come the stretch between the Manhattan Bridge and Montgomery Street, with deployable walls that would be attached to the underside of the FDR Drive and ready to flip down to prepare for flood events.

The design firm describes that part of the project invitingly, in its proposal, like this: "Decorated by neighborhood artists, the panels when not in use create an inviting ceiling above the East River Esplanade. At night, lighting integrated into the panels transforms a currently menacing area into a safe destination. Panels can also be flipped down to protect from the elements, creating a seasonal market during the winter."

Moving around the horn of Manhattan, the vision then sees a massive "Battery Berm" that would include "a series of upland knolls to form unique landscapes where people farm, sunbathe, eat and engage with world class gardens," on the structure that protects the Financial District from floods.

In the Netherlands, Ovink was director of the Office of Spatial Planning and Water Management, which means it was his job to keep famously below-sea-level cities like Amsterdam dry. He said he has tried to bring a "lab approach" to Rebuild by Design to come up with fresh resiliency ideas and avoid what he sees as poor design decisions in some coastal U.S. cities, including San Francisco, which he says has approached water management thoughtlessly.


"San Francisco is investing billions, and they don't know how to deal with sea-level rise and climate change," he said. "They are building billions of dollars in the floodplain. They have no clue. It's a little scary."

To Ovink, San Francisco's coastal identity has been overrun by economics, or "running a business on the shore." He says New York is much different because it did not see itself as a coastal city until Bloomberg came along and started to shake that up from square one with more waterside parks and green space along a waterfront that was historically used for industrial purposes.

'These problems are solvable'

"This was the first time the city opened itself up again to the water," he said. "There had been a culture of not doing anything with respect to the water."

Ovink added, "Water was never perceived as an asset; it was never perceived as a threat. The tough thing is we want this to happen overnight while in this whole region nobody really cares about water. This is a cultural shift. It will take time."

Still, Ovink believes New York and New Jersey are headed in the right direction. He said officials have been surprisingly open to new ideas in the aftermath of Sandy and its devastating economic impact.

"New York could be the next great example that these problems are solvable," Ovink said.

Samuel Carter, associate director for resilience at the Rockefeller Foundation, said the $920 million awarded by HUD last week under Rebuild by Design went to six projects including the East Side wall. They are the product of some amazing work on a fairly tight timeline, he explained. He hopes the actual construction phases will proceed as smoothly as has Ovink's planning phase.

Rebuild by Design, Carter said in a blog post, "was a tremendous collaboration of communities and talent across the Sandy-affected region: ten world-class, interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, designers, and architects spent nine months understanding the issues and designing solutions. There were meetings with 74 community and issue-based organizations and 157 government entities; walking tours of more than 30 neighborhoods, and more than 60 community workshops, conversations, and outreach events across the region."

The Rockefeller Foundation has donated $3.5 million to Rebuild by Design.

Other projects funded by HUD last week include: $230 million to be spent on a comprehensive resilience strategy for Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City; $150 million for the first phase pilot in the Little Ferry/Moonachie area to restore water-absorbing wetlands; and $125 million for southern Nassau County's north-south tributaries, which are threatened by surge water flooding and stormwater inundation.

Click here to see the final Big U proposal.

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