An audacious project to protect Lower Manhattan from storm surges with an attractive, multipurpose collection of berms and barriers is moving forward.
The project emerged from a highly participatory process that itself was remarkable—not only for the tremendous depth of involvement, but also for its speed and efficiency.
An inclusive design development process
In June, 2013, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced an international design competition, Rebuild by Design, to come up with ideas on how to fix a region that had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The idea for the competition came from the Dutch water management expert, Henk Ovink, who had been brought on by Donovan to lead the federal recovery response (and whom I had the pleasure to spend some time with at the UN World Habitat Day conference on Resilient Design last year). Ovink saw an international competition as a great way to tap into a broader spectrum of solutions.
By all measures, the multi-stage competition was a huge success. Out of 148 initial applications, ten teams were selected to submit concept proposals.
Beginning in August, 2013, these ten teams, began a process of in-depth research to come up with ideas for interventions that could be done to reduce risk or damage from future storms. From this research emerged 40 different “design opportunities”—specific sites and interventions that could be carried out.
These 40 concepts were then presented in public meetings and, in greater depth, to the Research Advisory Group, the Rebuild by Design Jury, and government agencies (both local and federal). With input from these diverse groups, HUD picked 10 of the 40 Opportunities that would receive funding to proceed with further development and produce proof-of-concept plans.
That process lasted from November 2013 to April 2014 and involved hundreds of meetings with stakeholder groups, community associations, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government officials throughout the New York Metropolitan area and New Jersey.
In April 2014, the project teams showed off their final proposals to more than 1,000 people at receptions throughout the region and then presented their designs, implementation plans, and economic analyses to the Rebuild by Design Jury. On June 2, 2014, HUD announced six winning proposals, three in New York City, one on Long Island, and two in New Jersey.
Of the New York City proposals, two are being implemented by the City (one on the East Side of Manhattan and the other in Hunt Point, The Bronx), and the third, on Staten Island, is being implemented by the State of New York.
The BIG U project emerges
Arguably, the most exciting project to emerge from the Rebuild by Design Competition was the BIG U, the proposal from a team led by the Danish architecture firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) that included the Netherlands firm One Architecture, the New York City landscape architecture firm Starr Whitehouse, and various other regional and international partners.
The Team’s proposal builds off the City’s comprehensive climate resiliency plan, A Stronger, More Resilient New York, issued in June 2013. The City’s plan recommended an integrated flood protection system for Lower Manhattan, including on the Lower East Side, in addition to over 250 additional initiatives to improve the resiliency of the entire city.
The “U” in BIG U refers to a ten-mile-long protective barrier that the BIG Team proposed building around the entirety of Lower Manhattan, from East 42nd Street down to The Battery and up to West 57th Street. Unlike a typical flood barrier or flood wall, though, this would be a highly varied collection of locally appropriate berms, seawalls, raised pathways, parks, and mechanized operable barriers mostly built into the East Side and West Side Drives.
In the ideas phase of the competition, the BIG U plan involved three distinct zones or “compartments.” Each of these is distinct and could be developed independently from the others, yet all are coordinated. In the final HUD proposal, the project team zeroed in on the section from East 23rd Street down to The Battery, and this section was divided into three compartments. Team members went to great lengths to work with local community groups and the business community in each of these zones to create optimal solutions.
The first portion of the project was approved by HUD in mid-October, 2014 for $335 million. This compartment is designed to protect the Lower East Side and East Village, a 2.3-mile stretch of shoreline with a high density of particularly vulnerable low-income residential buildings. According to Carrie Grassi, a senior policy advisor at the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, this section could extend from East 23rd Street to Montgomery Street, the lower portion of which is along the East River Park.
This compartment is referred to as Bridging Berm in the BIG Team’s proposal. As presented, the primary strategy for the southern half of this stretch would be to create a landscaped berm that rises at least ten feet, serving as parkland and a recreational amenity.
Along the northern half of this first compartment flood barriers could be integrated into FDR Drive (East Side Drive). Grassi explained to me that the re-engineering of FDR Drive will be tricky, and the Department of Transportation will be looking at it very carefully. “At first blush, it wasn’t immediately dismissed by DOT, but once we get into the details, the technical feasibility will need to be analyzed,” she said.
With the HUD funding approved for this first phase, project management moves to the City. The Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency will be letting contracts, first to conduct the detailed engineering needed to work out the specifics, and second, to carry out the actual construction work.
For the current phase of investigation that is getting underway, in addition to initiating a full survey of the project site, the City has issued a “mini-RFP” to pre-qualified engineering firms, according to Grassi. “Lots of details need to be figured out,” she said. “The approach may change significantly due to technical and financial constraints, but the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency is working aggressively to move this project forward.”
As for when this phase might break ground, there’s still a lot to do before that can happen. “Our very ambitious goal,” says Grassi, “is to break ground before end of mayor’s first term.” That would put the start of construction around the end of 2017, but that may well be an optimistic projection.
Other phases of the BIG U
Even as the in-depth engineering of the first phase of the coastal resiliency project gets underway, the City is working to find funding for the future segments. “We’re not ruling any sources [of funding],” Grassi told me. “It would be great if there were additional federal funding, but we’re not sure there will be.” Some details will be forthcoming in the Action Plan Amendment, which should be coming out before the end of 2014. The City is very aware that communities not included in the first phase were very disappointed; the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency is committed to a comprehensive plan for all neighborhoods around Lower Manhattan.
The BIG U Plan for the unfunded compartments includes some exciting elements. Continuing south from Montgomery Street, deployable flip-down barriers are to be attached to the underside of FDR Drive. The BIG Team has proposed that community artists would decorate these panels creating an attractive ceiling to the East River Esplanade. Nighttime safety could be enhanced by lighting, and the panels could even be flipped down in winter months to create a protected indoor-outdoor market area.
At The Battery—the southern tip of Manhattan—the Battery Berm would weave through Battery Park, protecting the Financial District. Upland knolls would define this area, creating space for pathways, picnicking, sunbathing, even gardens. At the east and west ends of The Battery, inlets allowed a significant influx of water during Sandy, so this area would receive extensive modification.
The Coast Guard Building near the Whitehall Ferry Terminal would be replaced, under the BIG plan, with either a new maritime museum or environmental education center. The plan envisions a building form designed to accommodate flooding—and, in fact, a reverse aquarium in which visitors could view the harbor through a thick glass wall where they can see the rise and fall of times and learn about sea level rise. The building itself would serve as a flood barrier.
Why the BIG U makes sense
Building berms, floodwalls, or levees to prevent flooding is often a bad idea. The levees along the Mississippi River have contributed significantly to the woes that New Orleans now faces—because the river’s flow has been channelized, the water moves at a higher velocity and carries its sediments far out into the Gulf of Mexico instead of building land in the river delta, where New Orleans sits.
When we prevent flooding in one place, there is the potential to exacerbate it in other places. That may happen to some extent in New York City. Some suggest that because floodwater won’t be able to spread into Lower Manhattan, more will spread into other areas, such as Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Jersey City. Some initial modeling done by the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, according to Grassi, suggests that this isn’t the case, but even if it were the case, protecting Lower Manhattan would be justified because of the tremendous investment society has in the area.
Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, an architect with Curtis + Ginsberg Architects in New York City, and a key participant in many of the post-Sandy planning efforts, agrees that the BIG U project makes sense. “I think conceptually it is the only way to go,” he told me. “We are not going to rebuild much of the historic core of New York. This will cost much less, and if done right create improved public amenities.”
Ginsberg has some doubts about the drop-down barriers along FDR Drive, and he notes that the funding approved by HUD covers only the first part of the project, but he likes the direction that this initiative has taken. “I think people are positive,” he told me, “but given how long it takes to get anything big done here, some question if it will actually happen.”
As we begin adapting our coastlines to the inevitable sea level rise that will accompany global warming, we will need to make countless tradeoffs between protection of existing development and relocating coastal development to higher ground further inland. For now, at least, investing in the protection of Manhattan makes a lot of sense.
Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. You can also sign up to receive e-mail notices when new RDI blogs are posted—at the top of this page.