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Battle at Battery Park City Over State Plan to Plow Under Waterfront Green

A crowd came to the defense of Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park on the eve of a project to elevate the public space to withstand rising New York Harbor waters.

SHARE Battle at Battery Park City Over State Plan to Plow Under Waterfront Green

Fannie Ip of East River Park Action lent support to the Battery Park City Neighborhood Association’s fight against the demolition of Wagner Park, Aug. 16, 2022.

Stephon Patrice Pujols-Johnson/THE CITY

Protesters against the planned demolition and reconstruction of a Lower Manhattan waterfront oasis are demanding a state authority halt plans to fortify Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park against rising seas.

On Tuesday evening, several dozen local residents, educators, school children, elected officials, and community leaders descended on the landscaped green space to demand changes to the South Battery Park City Resiliency Project’s design — and a seat at the table.

Local activists contended that even after public presentations and a town hall meeting on the proposal, they have not heard enough. They want to keep the current open lawn space — with its sweeping view of the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty — instead of plowing it under and then elevating it on a hill. They want consultation on the plan.

As the rally was set to begin, the Battery Park City Authority, the state-controlled agency that runs the park, announced an expansion of planned lawn space, Crain’s first reported, with 12,800 square feet added to the project — 74% more green space than initially anticipated for the project.

Britni Erez, a member of the Battery Park City Neighborhood Association (BPCNA), wasn’t buying the last-minute announcement.

Erez told THE CITY that the recent change to the project’s design appears rushed. “I don’t know. Strategically timed, right? I mean come on,” she said.

The new iteration of Wagner Park would have an elevated terrace overlooking New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, and a 63,000-gallon subterranean cistern to be used to retain, store and reuse stormwater. The project is a part of the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Plan, a larger effort to prepare lower Manhattan for climate change.

Some of the protesters also lamented the recent demolition of another downtown riverfront green space, on the Lower East Side, for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, involving the demolition of sports facilities and hundreds of trees.

“The one thing Robert Moses ever did correct was with the parks,” Anna Theofilopounou, an east side resident, told THE CITY. She said that communities needed green space and he created them. Now, they’re temporarily under renovation. 

Closed for Two Years

Initially, Wagner Park would close for two years and be elevated almost two dozen feet. Some local groups, including the Battery Alliance, a volunteer nonprofit, have been skeptical about the plan

The authority has been soliciting feedback from the community and making sure locals aren’t inconvenienced by the new design.

In an email to THE CITY, BPCA sent a collection of documents and links to community meetings spanning December 2016 to July 2022 as proof of their community engagement.

In a statement, BPCA president and chief executive officer B.J. Jones said that throughout the six-year development of the resiliency plan he had “worked hard to balance the urgency of creating a more resilient Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan with the importance of incorporating community voices.”

This architectural rendering shows how Wagner Park may look after redevelopment for coastal resiliency closes the green space for two years.

Screengrab/Battery Park City Authority/YouTube

With a hotly contested election for Congress currently underway in the area, one would-be local representative emphasized the need for community consultation.

“Before undertaking any resiliency project,” said Tevin Williams, political director for Dan Goldman, who’s running for the new NY-10 House seat, “it is absolutely essential that members of the community and those who will be impacted the most by the project are brought into the discussion.” 

Speaking out at the rally was a local candidate for State Senate, Vittoria Fariello, who called the project an exercise in blocking out local voices.

“You’re gaslighted and talked at and they said ‘We met with you, we listened to you and it doesn’t matter,’” Fariello said.

Last week, City Councilmember Christopher Marte, Assemblymember and NY-10 congressional candidate Yuh-Line Niou, local school PTA presidents Maggie Dallal and Amy Buskirk, and Battery Park Montessori and Pine Street School founder Dr. Jennifer Jones signed off on a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, demanding that she help “instruct the BPCA to more actively interface with elected officials and local stakeholders such as the Jewish Museum, PS276 and the BPCNA to ensure Wagner Park becomes a protective, resilient park that also meets our community’s needs.

“Residents understand and recognize the threat that climate change poses and that work must be done across the city to protect from rising tides and fiercer storms,” the letter read. “However, the community does not understand why the proposed design calls for a significant reduction in usable greenspace and prioritizes paved paths and plazas instead.”

The addition of expanded green space earned cautious praise from elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Councilmember Christopher Marte, state Sen. Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Yu-Line Niou, who all emphasized that discussions with the community about the park’s fate are ongoing.

Crosstown Solidarity

On Tuesday, some people came across town to show solidarity with those who live near Wagner Park. Fannie Ip, of East River Park Action, told THE CITY that she sees echoes of her community’s battle, and that while she understands the pressure to withstand a superstorm like Sandy, protection could be achieved in another way. She doesn’t want another park to get bulldozed.

“There should be a plan that could achieve something that is more environmentally friendly,” Ip told THE CITY. “That’s less destructive.…We understand that we need protection. Yes, we understand climate change. We get that.”

Schools founder Jones told THE CITY that Battery Park City — built on landfill from the construction of the original World Trade Center — has become an extension of the city in more ways than one. To destroy it would be to destroy part of the city’s soul, she added.

Her preschool teaches children in three languages, and she says area residents and workers have higher expectations for how to respond to climate change.

“A lot of folks who come here from other countries are very tuned into sustainability in ways that we’re not,” Jones said. “They track the Paris agreement, they track the UN’s goals, that kind of thing.”

This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the Battery Alliance’s position on the Wagner Park project. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the positions of elected officials on the updated Wagner Park plan. It has been updated to reflect their public statements.

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