Following Hurricane Sandy, ideas for improving lower Manhattan’s East River waterfront have shifted from the aesthetic to the practical as city officials, planners and residents seek to make the hard-edged shoreline less vulnerable to flooding.

New designs for the esplanade along the East River in Manhattan include the creation of saltwater marshlands, beaches under the Brooklyn Bridge as well the construction of mussel beds to clean the water. The designs are being used to create a resistant buffer against future storm surges.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, working with community boards 3 and 6 as well as a design team from WXY+architecture, envision a waterfront protected from future storms and more accessible for local communities.

The Blueway Plan had to be updated to include more wetlands and to build piers between the wetlands to give visitors the opportunity to have direct access to the water. These piers could be used in many different ways, such as environmental education about estuaries or for fishing.

“The good thing about the Blueway is that it is a unifying plan for all of the East Side from Brooklyn Bridge up to 38th Street instead of lots of little plans,” says Dan Tainow, education director at the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

The existing East River Greenway has meager waterfront access and fewer piers compared to the West Side of Manhattan. Following the FDR Drive, it expands towards the East River and at times runs under the highway’s overpass, for example beneath the Brooklyn Bridge at South Street.

But the calls for a better waterfront are not new, according to Ellen Imbimbo, member of the Business Affairs and Street Activities Committee at Community Board 6 in Manhattan. Imbimbo recalled that former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger had given impetus to talks about the waterfront when she suggested a “green necklace” along the East River.

For the principal designers, Claire Weisz and Adam Lubinsky of WXY Architecture and Urban Design, the Blueway Plan project began with meetings with stakeholder groups before the plan could be created in November 2011. The first approach was getting access for the community along the water to the waterfront before one could even think of re-creating the waterfront itself.

Problem areas, like South Street Seaport, were discussed in terms of accessing the water. South Street was a problem because of large tourist buses parking there, blocking access to the waterfront. WXY conducted a baseline study three months before designing the actual plan. The results of the study were then shared with the community boards over the course of spring and summer 2012.

The first focus was on crossings, especially the pinchpoint” or “blueway crossing” at 14th Street. In talking to residents, the architects found out where people would want to reach the waterfront. Architects had to talk to representatives from Con Edison about the substation on 14th Street (which flooded and exploded during the storm) to possibly work together with them.

“After more community talks we began integrating ideas of how that crosswalk could be used as stormwater barrier,” Lubinsky said.

This part of the plan has the most community interest as the explosion after Sandy left the entire southern part of the city from 39th Street southwards in the dark for four days. Con Edison told the designers that extending the bike and pedestrian path out in the water was not allowed and building over the facility was also not an option; the way had to go over the FDR Drive.

Now the plan includes a bridge that provides enough space for both pedestrians and bikers to comfortably cross the FDR. The flyover construction envisions two storm barriers on each side to protect the Con Edison site from flooding.

The planners then came up with an X-shaped crossing that would allow people to get from public housing on East 10th Street to Stuyvesant Cove at East 20th Street. The designers began integrating ideas of how that crosswalk could be used as a stormwater barrier.

Environmental issues known before Hurricane Sandy

Even before Sandy, planners were concerned about the shoreline’s vulnerability because of the hard edges of concrete structures.  So-called soft edges, like marshes and dunes, have been proven to be more effective to keep the water from coming ashore. To the design team at WXY Architecture, Hurricane Irene in 2011 was an indicator of what was to come

The designers had already been looking into creating saltwater wetlands along the Lower East Side part of the river in September of 2012, said Lubinsky. After Sandy, the community along the East River called for an expansion of those planned wetlands. Then piers were included in the plans to create access for people to directly go to the water.

“People seem to have more of an open mind to the things we suggested after Sandy,” Lubinsky said. Not only the public but also agencies like the city Department of Environmental Protection were more enthusiastic about building more absorbent edges that have lots of grassy areas to keep rainwater from overflowing the sewage system, along the river.

Borough President Stringer got a $3 million state grant for the construction of wetlands, which were enlarged and tweaked post-Sandy.

Tainow of the Lower East Side Ecology Center said the Blueway plan had already anticipated storm surges because the designers had expected rising sea levels and included details to prevent flooding, such as creation of marshlands. But Tainow said that Hurricane Sandy gave the final political push to really focus on storm protection.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation has projected that sea levels will rise up to 12 inches within the next 40 years and up to 29 inches if ice caps melt at a faster rate than anticipated.

The sea level rise and the occurrence of hurricanes and storms in recent years have brought others to focus on heightening awareness of climate changes.

“We were trying to keep the spotlight on the issue” of potential environmental and economic consequences, said Kerri Culhane, associate director of the Lower East Side’s Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

She said the council is planning a waterfront community day with Paths to Pier 42, a community outreach to connect art with topics of ecology.

CIVITAS, a non-profit, community-based organization working in Harlem and the Upper East Side, sponsored an ideas competition to generate “provocative approaches” to improve the waterfront above Midtown. The finalists’ proposals have been shown at the Museum of the City of New York.

Hunter Armstrong, executive director of CIVITAS, said that a lot of the design approaches had already anticipated rising water levels and possible natural disasters that might impact the waterfront significantly.

“Everyone is eager to come up with a more functional place and to separate the waterfront from the FDR,” Armstrong said.

Plans within the Blueway Plan – Eco Dock at Stuyvesant Cove

The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has met with the Community Board 3, which stretches from Chinatown to The Lower East Side, and together with WXY Architecture tried to secure funds for an “Eco Dock” at Stuyvesant Cove, located near 20th Street. This would be the first of several docks along the East River. Stuyvesant Cove is a natural cove that invited plans to create an ecological habitat in the future. It contains a park with opportunities for hobby fishing. The dock, if funded, would be built during the first phase of construction of the Blueway Plan.

The eco dock would be a movable construction and could function as a storage dock for boats or other vessels. The eco dock itself would be a smaller but more effective structure where Solar 1, an environmental education center, could use the facility “which opens up the community,” Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, said in a telephone interview.

The park on which the dock would rest is owned by the city’s Economic Development Corp., which estimated the dock to cost $1.3 million to $1.5 million, according to Lewis. The waterfront alliance hopes that the eco dock project will be funded through capital funds allocated to Council member Dan Garodnick’s district.

“We are taking baby steps to get there,” Lewis said.

Chris Collins, executive director at Solar 1, said that the Blueway Plan and the planned eco dock evolved around Solar 1. The eco dock at Stuyvesant Cove is being promoted by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, which approached Solar 1 and asked to build the docks or a dock at Stuyvesant Cove Park because the park itself is maintained by Solar 1 for the city.

The eco dock would be concrete, making it possible for sea life to be attracted to the dock, much like other docks in the area. This in turn could inspire the community to do oyster cultivation as well, Lewis suggested.

“We’re hoping there is a strong ecological and environmental component to the dock itself,” Lewis said. Given that the dock would be overseen by environmental educators at Solar 1, communities would have the opportunity to gain insight into estuary life in the East River. The dock would be built to withstand strong currents.

Sustainable construction was also on the mind of the Blueway designers. “It is a huge concern of ours,” said Lubinsky.

WXY looked at how boats could gain more space to dock along East River Park. And a lot of thought has also been put into the construction of sewage run-offs and how rainwater can be absorbed before it enters the sewage system by creating enough grass area on the esplanade, Lubinksy said.

The question of sustainable construction is something “we all ask when building on the waterfront,” Chris Collins, executive director of Solar 1, said.

He adds that the Solar 2 building would comply with new zoning that changed after Hurricane Sandy, putting electricity-producing equipment on higher floors to avoid flood damage.

The design can be viewed on the organization’s website. “The cove is a great place for there to be an educational facility like Solar 2. The docks and getting access to the water are consistent with our mission,” Collins said. Having marshland protect the structure from future storms as well as having a solar-powered roof, Solar 2 is thought to be safe from damaging flooding.

“We’re completely in-sync with the goals of the eco dock and Blueway Plan.,” Collins said. “It is a good opportunity to have an anchor for the Blueway plan, already set up.”

The public’s reaction

The public’s reaction to the Blueway Plan had been very positive, according to Lewis of the waterfront alliance. Lubinsky said local residents are pleased with plans to create easier access to the river’s edge. Footbridges crossing into East River Park were proposed to be improved as they are not wide enough for pedestrians and bikers. The boating community has been excited about increased kayak and boating launches included in the plan, especially under the Brooklyn Bridge, Lubinsky said.

A bridge at the end of Delancey Street in particular got the designers’ attention. This is because of housing developments by the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a large spread of undeveloped land, are expected to bring more residents to go to the waterfront. Designers wanted to ensure that the bridge would not “drop people off at chain link fences but closer to the water,” Lubinsky said.

As far as funding for the Blueway Plan goes, projects within Blueway are supposed to be individually funded, so that it would not create a large lump sum, according to Lubinsky. The construction of wetlands and other pieces of the plan might be funded by storm surge efforts. A lot of the funding will have to come from fundraising efforts of different entities like community boards and other agencies.

EDC’s involvement offers the possibility that city-owned properties could be rented, raising money to enhance parks.

But Lubinsky said for the most part, the Blueway plan relies on public money. At the final presentation of the Blueway Plan on May 2, Assemblyman Kavanagh spoke about the low cost of installing additional lighting in areas of the esplanade that pass beneath the FDR Drive.

Mussel beds to clean water in East River

Mussels are a great indicator of water quality and they function as filters for the water, according to Tainow, education director of the LES Ecology Center, a community-based environmental organization.  “At low tide the public could get the opportunity to see the estuary life,” Tainow said.

Some state regulations hinder an aggressive pursuit of more mussel beds because existing habitats should not be altered too much. Tainow said it is important to keep the balance to create new eco systems without altering existing ones.

The designer of the Blueway Plan saw the mussel beds as a way to attract biodiversity to the area, along with other sections of the way, for example on the beach under the Brooklyn Bridge. Salt water marshlands would include grasses that allow enough water to come in to keep the wetland green as well as keep water surges from reaching the mainland. “There are details that need to be worked out, but it would be amazing because it would bring birdlife to lower Manhattan,” said Lubinsky of WXY. “You can see that in the Bronx River and Jamaica Bay. There’s no reason why that can’t come to lower Manhattan too.”

Photo: Beginning of East River esplanade near Brooklyn Bridge. (Julia John-Scheder).