Another Park Taken Out of Service

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Battery Park City Will Demolish and Elevate a Waterfront Park to 
Fight Floods, Angering Neighborhood

Echoes of East River Park. Once again City planners have opted to destroy a local park in order to save it, meaning that for years residents of Lower-west Manhattan will be without another park, just like residents of the East Village and Lower East side have been since late 2021. This time its Wagner Park—the cherished waterfront greenspace in Battery Park City that boasts unobstructed views of the Statue of Liberty, will be demolished and rebuilt soon.

A waterfront area in Battery Park City, which is at the center of a major climate resilience project.© Provided by CNBC

The Battery Park City Authority, as part of a major climate resilience plan, will tear down the park and elevate it by 10 feet to “protect the neighborhood from flooding, storm surge and rising sea levels.” The construction follows years of protests and litigation by downtown residents who object to the agency’s plan and who offered an alternative.

Wagner Park, built nearly 30 years ago, has served as an escape for residents of the fast-paced, densely packed neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. But in a few weeks, the park will be demolished. As part of a major $221 million climate resilience plan, the Battery Park City Authority will tear down Wagner Park, reconstruct it with new flood-prevention features and raise it by 10 feet. The construction by the state-chartered corporation follows years of angry protests and litigation from local residents who have argued that destroying the park is unnecessary and have called for a less dramatic plan to fight flooding.

The raised Wagner Park will include a buried flood wall along with elevated berms and pop-up walls—infrastructure that’s been identified as critical in an era of climate change. The park will also feature a 63,000-gallon subterranean cistern for retaining, storing and reusing storm water, as well as planted gardens designed to withstand sea level rise and extreme weather.

The battle over Wagner Park reflects a broader challenge for New York City and other regions that will be forced to take increasingly drastic measures to protect shoreline communities from the effects of climate change. Nearly 2.5 million New Yorkers already live in a 100-year floodplain. As climate change projections grow more dire, officials, scientists and urban planners warn, the city isn’t moving quickly enough to avoid future catastrophic flooding.

“Wagner Park points to a lot of the challenges we’re going to face for years in terms of climate adaptation,” said Thad Pawlowski, managing director at the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University. “It’s going to be a lot of these little local battles over time.”

The main function of Wagner Park—in fact, the reason for its existence—was to provide the public with a dedicated space for rest and relaxation. In its unique setting, the cultural significance implicit in such a space is amplified by the privileged viewing the Park’s site affords of the Statue of Liberty across New York Harbor. This visual relationship, between monument and park, determines an axis that serves as the organizational backbone for the Park’s design. Upon this backbone, three main components are laid out in a “Y” shaped ensemble: a pair of garden allées that bring pedestrians from existing city sidewalks toward the main park entrance; a pair of pavilions suggestive of a colossal scale that frame the view of the Statue; and a grass lawn framed by a continuous path and benches.

In a NY Times architecture review of the park’s design when it was first constructed, Paul Goldberger wrote “Wagner Park, with its materiality suggestive of a colossal scale, form evocative of a literal colossus and layout conceptually rooted in the Roman temple typology, manages to remain intact as a public space, undiluted by the looming pressures of the surrounding city. And it is because of this persistence of presence that Wagner Park is so successful as a public space. What is most important is that every aspect of this design emerges from the realities of the park’s surroundings—the waterfront, the Statue of Liberty, the rest of Battery Park City and lower Manhattan—and connects to the imperatives of human use.”

Pretty lofty words. Destroying it and trying to replace it is no small task. According to the Battery Park City Authority the elevated park is set to be complete in 2025. No one believes the timeline. The cost is expected to exceed $221 million.

Community backlash against the Wagner demolition

Wagner Park is located in a primarily residential neighborhood of upscale high-rise apartment buildings in Battery Park City. It’s sited on a landfill from the World Trade Center site and contains 3.5 acres of lawns, walkways and planted gardens.

The final plan to tear down and rebuild Wagner Park did not come easily. Over the past few years, residents came together to form the Battery Park City Neighborhood Association and held protests against the BPCA’s resilience plan. The neighborhood association hired Machado Silvetti and Olin, the two design firms that helped develop Wagner Park nearly three decades ago, to propose an alternative strategy that didn’t involve demolition.

The group’s plan involved maintaining the existing green spaces, trees and pavilion while adding a permanent flood protection wall located behind the park and further from the water. The wall would go up about 7 feet and would be manually opened and closed during extreme weather events. Residents rallied in August 2022, after learning the BPCA’s project would reduce the amount of lawn space from the existing Wagner Park. On the same day of the protest, the BPCA changed its design plan to slash the size of gardens and walkways in order to boost greenspace. But the raised park will still include 10% less greenspace than the existing park.
In November 2022, the BPCA notified elected officials that it had rejected elements of the neighborhood association’s alternative plan, citing key engineering, logistical and design considerations. The BPCA had previously drafted a comprehensive document addressing the group’s concerns about the project’s climate modeling and design as well as the level of community involvement in the process.

One month later, the neighborhood association filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court that alleged the BPCA failed to comply with state environmental review law by not fully examining alternative designs and by using exaggerated climate projections. The lawsuit alleged that:

  • In the name of climate resiliency, the Battery Park City Authority—a group of unelected state bureaucrats—has approved a $221 million plan that needlessly demolishes this Picassoesque green oasis into a spiritless concrete-laden amphitheater with a reduced-sized horseshoe-shaped lawn.
  • The Authority’s plan not only harms the community and negatively impacts the natural environment, but that its approval was irrational and arbitrary, for two general reasons. First, the Authority failed to give an appropriate hard look at a reasonable, less costly, and more effective alternative design proposed by the initial firm hired to evaluate the need for a resiliency project. Second, the Authority also failed to properly consider the appropriate climate science studies and information when determining their design for climate protection barriers.

The lawsuit requested that the Court issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction because the Authority violated its duty to strictly comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) by failing to give fair and reasonable consideration to an available and effective alternative plan that is less destructive, costly, time consuming and has broad community support.

The lawsuit was dismissed in February, after New York Supreme Court Judge Sabrina Kraus denied the neighborhood association’s request for an injunction to temporarily stop the plan, citing “considerable” costs of delaying a “critical flood risk reduction project.”

B.J. Jones, president and CEO of the BPCA, said the agency took into account extensive public feedback as part of its plan but that the BPCA ultimately has a duty to make the neighborhood resilient to climate change. “Change is hard and change is necessary. Getting a unanimously, universally approved design is not possible,” Jones said. “The Wagner Park plan has gotten some critical attention from a few, but it’s also gotten a lot of support. We’re at risk until this work is done,” Jones said. “We’ve got to get a move on.”

The BPNA stated: “The authority’s plan is a more environmentally damaging approach. Their plan will protect from sea level rise and storm surge, but in the process, they’re contributing to the climate problem by reducing greenspace and emitting more greenhouse gases.”

Conflicts over climate resilience plans will grow

Community conflicts like the one over Wagner Park and East River Park are likely to become more common in the coming decades as city, state and federal agencies attempt to impose climate resilience plans with different approaches and levels of communication with residents.

The BPCA’s broader plan, called the South Battery Park City Resiliency Project, develops an integrated coastal flood risk management system from the Museum of Jewish Heritage through Wagner Park and Pier A Plaza and along the northern border of the historic Battery.

BPCA’s plan is unique in some ways, as the agency can use bond funding and coordinate resources in ways that other government entities with less financial leverage and power can’t. BPCA officials have emphasized that the community has been deeply involved in the flood risk plan for Wagner Park, including a slew of public meetings that addressed residents’ concerns.

Amy Chester, a managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that helps communities recover from disasters, said collaboration between the community and government is critical to achieving successful climate resilience plans across the city, state and country. All climate resilience projects, she added, will require substantial change and tradeoffs. There are so many complexities to these resiliency plan designs and approval processes, and they’re not going to get easier in New York and anywhere else. What the government is missing is a unified approach and a sole entity that is accountable to answer all the questions.”