The Future of Resilience

New York’s New $335 Million Storm-Surge Barrier Will Transform the Lower East Side

A rendering of the Bridging Berm, which will both protect the Lower East Side from storm surges and reconnect the neighborhood with the waterfront. Photo credit: The BIG Team / Rebuild by Design

Manhattan’s Lower East Side is about to get a waterfront park/promenade/play space to rival the High Line, but instead of being repurposed from last century‘s leftover infrastructure, this one will be brand new and on call to protect the city from future storm-surge events.

As reported by Next City this week, the project is called the “Bridging Berm.” Chosen on Monday as a winner in HUD’s recent Rebuild by Design contest, it will receive $335 million for implementation from the federal government — the lion’s share of the contest’s available funding. A timeline for completion has not been set.

“The proposal will protect this area, which includes 29,000 public housing apartments, 150,000 residents, as well as the ConEd Substation, from rising sea levels and future storm surges,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at yesterday’s press conference announcing the winners.

From an analysis of contest materials, it appears that the Bridging Berm will run 2.19 miles along the East River from East 13th Street to Corlears Hook Park, which is just south of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Bridging Berm will effectively raise the riverbank to nine feet above current level, which is more than four feet above Hurricane Sandy’s high-water mark.

That area is currently parkland, separated from the rest of the city by the FDR Drive. Though there are elevated bridges that span the highway and serve as access points, the area is, by Manhattan standards, extremely isolated from its neighboring communities.

“Though the rising waters necessitate a change in elevation to keep water out, the strength of the proposal is in the way they have addressed both the vertical and the horizontal through a series of programmed berms and bridges that mediate the boundary between the waterfront and the edge of the city — defining a place for community gathering and a way to inhabit the in-between,” said Jeremy Barbour of Tacklebox Architecture.

Right now, the parkland along the East River (left) is largely cut off from the neighborhood (right) by highways and other infrastructure. Photo credit: David Shankbone via Flickr

According to the Rebuild by Design website, “Bridging Berm provides robust vertical protection for the Lower East Side from future storm surge and rising sea levels. The Berm also offers pleasant, accessible routes into the park, with many unprogrammed spots for resting, socializing, and enjoying views of the park and river. Both berms and bridges are wide and planted with a diverse selection of salt tolerant trees, shrubs and perennials, providing a resilient urban habitat.”

The plans also include a pedestrian path atop the berm, bicycling facilities along the water’s edge and waterfront access sites for boating and fishing. The berm will undulate to accommodate the area’s existing sports fields. It will also include significantly upgraded ADA-compliant ramps. Its construction will involve slurry walls, concrete blocks, a compacted embankment, a clay cap, topsoil and salt-tolerant landscaping.

The Bridging Berm is just one of three compartments that made up the original so-called Big U proposal, submitted by the BIG Team http://www.rebuildbydesign.org/teams/big-team/. That proposal’s other components included roll-down storm gates hanging from the FDR to protect Chinatown, a berm along the Battery to protect the Financial District and a maritime museum or environmental education facility featuring a reverse aquarium.

“We watched BIG throughout the competition process as they developed their strategy and the pilot site for the berm,” said Brie Hensold, a senior associate at Sasaki, which was a finalist in the contest. “They initially started with the ‘Big U,’ which encompassed all of Lower Manhattan. Through a smart analysis of vulnerabilities, opportunities, infrastructure and the realization that there was a large concentration of public housing, they focused on the Lower East Side. That means that the berm will protect a large density of people, and provide a public park as an amenity to the community as well — which is really important.”

Though all of the areas that the Big U plan sought to protect were inundated with water during Hurricane Sandy, the Lower East Side suffered some of the worst flooding. Furthermore, damage to the ConEdison Substation at 14th Street triggered a power outage that lasted for days and added billions in dollars in lost revenue to the storm’s total cost. Presumably, the Bridging Berm will be designed in such a way that it will not only protect the residential communities directly to its west, but also help to prevent flooding at the ConEd facility just to its north.

The BIG Team developed the Bridging Berm plan in consultation with the local community. According to their proposal:

On the Lower East Side (LES), the BIG Team worked intensively with LES Ready!, an umbrella organization of 26 community groups focused on coordinating emergency response and preparedness. With LES Ready and RBD’s support the team held a series of workshops at various locations in the neighborhood. At the first workshops, the community debated the merits of various flood protection approaches, using the BIG Team’s models of different prototypical solutions. In the second series of workshops, the results of these discussions were incorporated in two possible integral design solutions for each compartment. These designs were also discussed at length by community members, whose feedback was used to refine the final designs. Over 150 community members attended these workshops; many returned to join the team for a celebration at the end of the process.

Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b

Tags: new york cityresilient citieshurricane sandyfloodingsea levelsrebuild by design