Imagine you’re standing at the eastern foot of John Street in Manhattan’s Seaport neighborhood. To the west you see the bustling Financial District, more than just the world’s economic heart, now home to more than 60,000 New Yorkers and counting, amidst a burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene. To the north one of our most beloved landmarks, the Brooklyn Bridge, obstructed by the eyesore that is the tangled web of access ramps from the FDR Drive, and in the backdrop, Two Bridges, a neighborhood of low rise, low income housing on the brink of a massive redevelopment masterplan that will bring skyscrapers and hopefully, a rapid influx of new residents to fill them. To the south is the City’s busiest heliport and ferry terminals which reveal the vulnerability of the low-lying land that rings The Battery. To the east is impending danger, an ever-rising East River, the primary source of the destruction that left Lower Manhattan crippled for weeks after Hurricane Sandy. And beneath you, a sad excuse for a waterfront park, desperately needed to provide open space for the growing population but underused due to its undesirability. Above you the viaduct, the FDR Drive, an elevated highway in disrepair, no longer conforming to today’s highway safety standards, designed for a time when travel by motor vehicle was a luxury, where a leisurely Sunday drive was an experience in itself, a time when one could appreciate the views of Brooklyn, not the bumper in front of you.
The conundrum which is simplified as ‘the need to raise the coastal elevation to at least exceed the projected 6 foot rise of sea levels expected by the end of the century or ideally high enough to halt a potential 16 foot storm surge’ has been met with equally simple-minded solutions such as burying our concrete jungle behind a concrete wall like some medieval defense system. This may solve part of the problem, albeit with no regard to the blight it will add to an already substandard waterfront promenade, but it is far from the holistic solution New Yorkers need.
While the controversial East River Coastal Resiliency plan from Montgomery Street to East 25th Street as well as the southern section of Battery Park City is seemingly making progress, it draws further attention to the fact that the most vulnerable section of waterfront lies between the two, and is swiftly being identified as the part of the challenge no one has the solution for. A fate that is probably for the best, since the proposals still in consideration, such as a $10 billion landfill, would permanently destroy the historic character of one of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods, South Street Seaport.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel, (pun intended) and it starts with tunneling the FDR Drive. Enter the Financial District Coastal Improvement Program (FDCIP); a multifaceted waterfront improvement initiative that is facilitated by moving the elevated section of the FDR Drive underground. These improvements have the potential to create a vibrant, accessible, open waterfront and increase real estate value from Battery Park to Corlears Hook while solving the impending environmental threats.
Having reviewed the program, Richard McCarthy, a Principal at SB+C Architecture, D.P.C., comments, “Climate resiliency in Lower Manhattan requires comprehensive and proactive solutions. FDCIP offers a holistic approach to change and carefully crafts a brighter future for residents, visitors, and workers alike.”
Rising sea levels mean more to lower Manhattan than just the threat of water rushing over the coastline in slow fashion due to climate change or in an unfathomable blast as a result of a storm. It also has a lot to do with rainwater. Inside buildings, storm pipes that carry rainwater off roofs and their surrounding property and sewer pipes that carry wastewater from the drains of our sinks and toilets are separate; however, when they leave the building, they are combined until they reach a water treatment facility. An antiquated system, nearly impossible to overhaul or separate, moves by gravity under congested streets entangled in other utilities at near capacity. And all too often a heavy rain exceeds the system’s capacity, causing the contents to be pushed through overflow gates into surrounding waterways. There are two issues with this, the obvious one about dumping raw sewage into the East River and the non-obvious one that when the sea levels rise above the overflow gates, those gates will no longer function, causing water, and all of its contents, to backflow into the street.