By Eileen Feldman and Annie Winter
Hazen and Sawyer
March 19, 2020
On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York, causing catastrophic damage to vital infrastructure in lower Manhattan. Hurricane Sandy, declared a national disaster by the President, highlighted the need for increased efforts to protect New York City’s vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure from extreme coastal storm events. The East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) Project is the largest post-Sandy resiliency project within New York City, and the first to be implemented within Manhattan.
The project involves construction of an integrated flood protection system for a 2.4-mile section of Manhattan. The project consists of a combination of floodwalls, floodgates and other infrastructure improvements to enhance protection against a 100-year storm surge event including sea level rise through the 2050s. The project also raises nearly all of East River Park to the flood protection design elevation and redesigns the park to provide improved programming, which refers to the elements of a park that define its usage (i.e., sports courts/fields, passive open spaces, seating, etc.)
Once completed, the benefits of the project will be apparent to anyone who resides in, works in, or visits the project area. Storm-related flooding will be drastically reduced, with fewer power outages and costly losses of personal property. The benefits of the project will also be seen during calm weather, with almost the entirety of East River Park (approximately 46 acres) being raised and reconstructed, along with reconstruction of three pedestrian bridges leading into the Park. The result will be enhanced park programming, increased park resiliency, and improved connectivity between the City and the waterfront.
ESCR will provide comprehensive coastal flood protection to a historically underserved community, including 9,000 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents. The protected area under the proposed project includes lands within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 100-year floodplain, as well as those projected to be within the 100-year floodplain in the 2050s, taking into account the 90th percentile projection for sea level rise.
The project area was selected because it covers a significant amount of at-risk critical structures including a major pump station and electrical substation, sections of the FDR Drive, over 1,500 buildings including homes, schools, and institutions, and other vital infrastructure. Local businesses will be better protected against storm surge, minimizing or eliminating disruptions after an extreme weather event. ESCR will benefit over 100,000 residents and 250,000 workers and provide long-term flood protection to a significant portion of Manhattan.
Implementation Challenges and Solutions
To implement ESCR, New York City and its federal partners have committed approximately $1.45 billion in funding. The City has entered into a grant agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to disburse $338 million of Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds for the design and construction of the proposed project.
As the project is the recipient of federal funds and will be undertaken on New York City property under the oversight of City agencies, it is subject to the environmental review requirements as outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), and the New York City Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQR). The purpose of environmental review regulations such as NEPA, SEQRA, and CEQR is to evaluate the project and disclose any significant adverse impacts to the built, social, and natural environments and, where appropriate, identify mitigation for those impacts. These documents serve to inform the design to minimize impacts and to provide decision-makers with the information necessary to design and implement projects in the least impactful way possible. Given the potential for the ESCR project to result in significant adverse impacts, a more intensive and robust environmental review was required in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The ESCR project involves major modifications to City infrastructure: NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), NYC Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks), New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), and New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC). Any single portion of the design/construction effort (raising and reconfiguring East River Park, installing floodgates and barriers, installing interceptor gates and parallel conveyance, etc.) would be considered a major capital project in itself. Under ESCR, these project components are designed, undergo environmental review and permitting, and will be constructed as one, requiring extensive coordination between multiple city agencies and stakeholders.
The project team initiated work on the EIS in January 2015, and the Draft EIS was only released in April 2019, reflecting the scope and complexity involved. The Final EIS was published in September 2019. While projects requiring EIS-level review are traditionally larger and more complicated, a five-year duration is unusual. The project team conducted a complex and tiered environmental review and permitting process that had to simultaneously meet the requirements of local (CEQR, New York City Uniform Land Use Review Procedure [ULURP]), State (SEQRA, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC] mitigation requirements), and federal (NEPA, HUD-specific funding) requirements and regulations. NEPA alone requires that With Action Alternatives be evaluated at an equal level of detail, so the EIS team had to carry forward four design alternatives of varying design advancement and provide sufficient analysis of all alternatives to inform decision makers and the public.
The tiered environmental review and permitting process required the team to quickly adapt and respond to the multitude of requirements, quickly mobilize to complete necessary evaluations, identify mitigation, and assist the City with updating their Action Plan for use of federal funds, among other tasks. Specifically, the HUD funds came with a requirement that they must be spent down by 2022, which required this complex, tiered environmental review be conducted on a constantly evolving design under an accelerated schedule with strict deadlines. This in turn required an ongoing feedback loop between the environmental team, the designers, and the City to avoid and minimize impacts as design rapidly advanced.
The environmental team developed innovative tracking tools, such as an interdependency timeline, and applied existing techniques, such as risk registers and schedules. The interdependency schedule showed how critical path tasks to meet seemingly unrelated federal, State, and local regulatory requirements and approvals often had overlapping timeframes and were, in fact, dependent on one another. Use of risk-registers and schedules and regular follow-ups ensured that data needs and decisions were clearly communicated to the team. These tracking tools and techniques were critical to engage project team members and regulators to ensure that information needs were shared as the design evolved.
Establishing a Model for Future Resiliency Projects
ESCR is the first of several resiliency projects planned for lower Manhattan that will eventually provide comprehensive flood protection. As such, ESCR has been the pathway by which numerous City agencies have developed procedures and preferences for outreach, design, maintenance, operations and environmental reviews, allowing future segments, including the Lower Manhattan Resiliency Project (currently in conceptual design), to proceed more rapidly. ESCR establishes a model for designing, evaluating, and permitting future resiliency projects both within NYC and in other metropolitan areas at risk of extreme weather events.
(The environmental review documents are publicly available at the website here: https://www1.nyc.gov/site/escr/progress/environmental-review.page)
Eileen McCarthy Feldman is a 2002 graduate of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology (M&T) and holds a BS in Management from Wharton as well as a BS in Environmental Systems Engineering. She is currently an Associate Vice President at Hazen and Sawyer where she leads engineering studies, designs and construction projects.
Annie Winter is a 2009 University of Pennsylvania graduate with a double major in Environmental Studies and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She currently works at Hazen and Sawyer, an engineering firm headquartered in NYC that specializes in all things water. She provides environmental permitting and planning services to a diversity of Hazen clients across the country, and can be contacted at awinter@hazenandsawyer or on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/annie-winter-607420b/.