During Hurricane Sandy, floodwaters overwhelmed bulkheads along Manhattan’s East River waterfront and spilled into neighborhood streets, inundating houses, businesses, and a power substation and causing widespread blackouts. Whether a freak 100-year storm, or a harbinger of the effects of global climate change, the flooding raised serious concerns about New York City’s ability to withstand such weather events. In answer, WXY Architecture + Urban Design has developed a scheme to bolster 3.5 miles of Manhattan waterfront from the Brooklyn Bridge to 38th Street.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer unveiled the East River Blueway Plan in his 2013 State of the Borough address last month. The presentation revealed new details in a program to enhance the riverfront that was begun in 2010 as a collaboration between Community Boards 3 and 6, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, Stringer, and State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh. “The goal of the Blueway was to redesign an often forgotten stretch of our precious eastside waterfront,” Stringer said in his address. “But as the Blueway evolved, it became clear that we also had to create a state-of-the-art plan to help protect this area from another catastrophic storm.” In his speech, Stringer committed $3.5 million in funding to jumpstart construction.
WXY’s plan calls for a softer edge along the waterfront that will mitigate threats from future storms and provide the community with recreational and educational amenities. “We addressed the dual goals of how to improve the East River habitat and water quality—to bring in more birds and fish—and how to slow down the water speed in the river,” said Claire Weisz, principal at WXY. “We’re creating more living edges, more surface area for nature.”
A series of salt marshes will extend to the edge of the East River’s navigation channel that Weisz said will bring a significant capacity for water storage and filtration. The wetlands will also help slow down the river and minimize waves, allowing the community easier access to the water. Beneath the FDR, WXY proposed a man-made tray system of freshwater marshes that will filter runoff from the highway. At two naturally occurring coves—beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and at a bend in the coastline above 14th Street—the Blueway calls for removing bulkheads and creating a series of river-filtering tidal pools and beaches. “We’re trying to make the coves more like natural coves,” Weisz said.
At the 14th Street substation the highway currently crowds out the waterfront. WXY proposed a dramatic bowtie-shaped elevated bridge for the site, what Weisz calls “a flyway for bikes and people,” that brings added security and a floodwall to the substation while providing a vital link for the community to access the water. Elsewhere along the waterfront, the scheme locates elevated platforms for walking and biking over the river. “We wanted to get out from under the shadow of the FDR,” said Weisz.
Weisz stressed that the Blueway is a blueprint that can inform waterfront interventions elsewhere in the city. “The Blueway plan addresses how we can move into a future of resilient cities with active and sustainable waterfronts,” Weisz said. “If you have to repair a road, why not make it more permeable? If you have to rebuild a bridge, why not think about bridges differently? It’s different from a master plan; it’s a game plan.” The full Blueway plan with technical details on how it can be built will be released in April.