This case study of one urban coastal community’s preparation for sea level rise and storm surge is the first in a multi-part WaterWire series on resilience planning. The second part will widen in scope to look at resilience plans for all Lower Manhattan neighborhoods and how they work together, and a third part will discuss how—and if—these plans can be a model for the New York City and the region.
Battery Park City Case Study
Around 1970, when a new waterfront neighborhood in Lower Manhattan was being planned, designers and engineers weren’t thinking about the future impacts of climate change and the possibility that Battery Park City could be inundated by rising waters.
Fifty years later, with the climate crisis and its impacts undeniable, executives at the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA)— the state agency that governs the 92-acre neighborhood on the Hudson River—are setting into motion long–term plans to protect Battery Park City from rising waters. Guided by statistics for a 100-year storm surge in 2050, the BPCA is currently developing three flood protection projects designed to protect the entire neighborhood. The budget for comprehensive protection for this one coastal community? “The total price tag is in the neighborhood of $500 million,” said Gwen Dawson, BPCA vice president for real property.
Is this money guaranteed? Because BPCA is able to raise funds by issuing its own bonds, the organization’s president BJ Jones is confident that the funds will be available and the projects will go forward. “We require approval from the City of New York on our capital plan and financing, so, as our plan evolves, we do need to work with the City to obtain the necessary approvals,” he explained. But, “even in the midst of this economic uncertainty that we’re facing, resiliency certainly remains a priority for us and for the City as well. The financial picture doesn’t change the threat that we’re facing.”
Battery Park City’s three resilience projects propose various combinations of elevating parkland, temporary and permanent flood walls, and deployable gates. Known for its robust community outreach, the agency provides regular project updates via town hall meetings and Community Board 1 presentations, and keeps presentations and videos archived online.
Flood Protection for Battery Park City
BPCA’s three flood protection projects are:
- In the south end of the neighborhood, a continuous flood barrier will be built from Pier A plaza through Wagner Park and past the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The design is 75 percent complete and entails raising and redesigning the park with both buried and exposed flood walls, more elaborate drainage, and in-ground barriers that would rise in the event of a storm. An environmental impact statement is expected to be completed in November 2021. Construction will begin soon after that, and the project will be finished in 2024.
- Flood protection plans for the community’s waterfront esplanade and public space along the west and north edges have been combined into one resilience project. Designs for the Hudson River edge are in progress now, with the expectation that new walls will create a line of flood protection. A more detailed proposal for the north boundary, where Chambers Street meets Route 9A, was presented to Community Board 1 a few weeks ago. Here, to correct a low point that allowed damaging flood waters to rush inland during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, BPCA proposes building a block-long wall beyond the Chambers Street border of the neighborhood, along Route 9A north to Harrison Street, where it would connect to flip-up gates crossing the highway and then extend eastward into Tribeca. Construction of the combined west/north resilience project is estimated to be finished by 2025.
- The smallest resilience project with the quickest turnaround is an interim plan: a system of steel plates several feet high placed around the heavily used ball fields and community center, and ready by next summer. The barriers will go up along the north, south, and east (Route 9A) sides of the fields. The west edge is judged to not need flood protection because the landscape rises from Route 9A to the Hudson River, making the west edge of the fields higher than the east edge. Once the neighborhood’s other resiliency measures are in place, these barriers will be redundant and can be removed.
Concern for their neighbors often prompts community members to inquire how BPCA is working with people on the other side of its proposed barriers.
“I’ve been worried about Tribeca for some time,” Bob Schneck, a Battery Park City resident and Community Board 1 member, told the BPCA resilience team at a public meeting a few weeks ago. The team had just described how the future wall along Route 9A, connected to gates spanning the highway, would stop water from flowing south and into Battery Park City. Mr. Schneck thought about where surging water might go. “Is it possible to extend the wall to protect Tribeca, too?” he asked.
The Need for Broader Resiliency
“There’s definitely a need [for resilience planning] throughout Tribeca,” Ms. Dawson told WaterWire later. “What we’ve attempted to do is offer a design that can be extended. We understand that this is something the city is looking at and will be at some point making a proposal to do and hopefully we can provide something to use as a starting point.”
“Once there is a barrier, there’s a wet side and there’s a dry side,” she acknowledged. “It underscores the fact that, yes, there need to be additional measures advanced by others to address the needs of those extended communities.”
“We can’t protect Battery Park City without also protecting some areas outside of Battery Park City because water doesn’t recognize community barriers,” she continued. “If we stopped the South project right at the Battery Park City edge, then the water would simply come around through the Battery and we would wind up in the same position, and the same is true for the North. We have to connect high points to high points. If we don’t, if we stop short, then we’re not protecting Battery Park City. So, by extension, we are creating some level of risk reduction and protection for communities that are adjacent to Battery Park City.”
The Boundary Lines
While Battery Park City’s half–billion–dollar resilience plans will result in flood protection for parts of Lower Manhattan outside the Battery Park City border, there will always be an uncomfortable boundary line. The BPCA’s resilience work, however, comprises a significant portion of the overall Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project and the BPCA team is working with planners on all sides to create smoothly interconnected flood protection that benefits the area as a whole. “Like everything with resiliency, there are a lot of stakeholders involved,” said BPCA president BJ Jones. How many different Lower Manhattan resilience projects are there? How do they fit together? And what happens when a community doesn’t have the same financial resources as Battery Park City? Read part two of the series in the next edition of WaterWire or follow the link here.
“When you’re talking about resiliency, you’re talking about water, and—just like when you’re talking about air—you can’t totally isolate yourself,” Ms. Dawson said. “You can create measures that have their own independent utility, but ultimately, all of those individual efforts are much stronger and much more long–lasting and effective when they can be connected with broader resiliency efforts. So that’s our goal: to create measures that will offer protection for Battery Park City, and that ultimately have the capability of being connected to a larger resiliency network and system that will be better in the long run for everybody.”