Elected Officials Act Like Only the Wealthy are Entitled to Open Green Space [OP-ED]

Posted on: July 9th, 2021 at 5:03 am by

Photo: Susan Loeb

The following editorial was written by Kirsten Theodos, an East Village resident.

Governor Cuomo recently unveiled his plans for an Essential Workers Monument at Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City. The “Circle of Heroes” would honor the essential workers who carried the City through the pandemic. While the intent is honorable, it would require destroying 3,000 square-feet parkland by cutting down mature trees and replacing them with 19 new trees and concrete paths. Understandably, this caused an uproar from the local residents who camped out at the site to save their beloved park, spawning the hashtag #PauseTheSaws. Residents felt the project had been pushed by the state without any community input, and would forever alter the park they rely on for fresh air and green space for kids to enjoy.

Soon elected officials joined the chorus of opposition. In a letter to the Governor, local CM Margaret Chin said “The project is on course to create serious quality-of-life issues for local residents, who have relied on this open green space throughout the pandemic. I strongly encourage you to order construction to stop until there has been a proper process of community engagement with local residents and elected officials.” In another letter, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also asked the Governor to stop the project, lamenting the loss of trees and the “mistake” of not including the local residents claiming “they deserve to be consulted.”

Meanwhile, on the eastern loop of lower Manhattan, where CM Chin and BP Brewer actually have meaningful input, our elected officials remain silent as the City – based on a heavily redacted Study – rushes to destroy the 46-acre East River Park, which serves a far less affluent community.

After Superstorm Sandy, the City and the community toiled for four years on a plan to provide coastal resiliency to the Lower East Side waterfront. Then in 2018, the de Blasio administration abruptly scrapped that plan in favor of the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project, which, at $1.45 billion, costs almost twice as much and does not provide any interim flood protection. CM Carlina Rivera – whose district accounts for most of the project space – said at the time: “The community’s painstaking work over four years is being completely pushed aside. The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed.” CM Rivera was absolutely correct. There was no community engagement whatsoever, not even the elected officials knew about the ESCR plan until it was announced. According to the City, the decision was based on a Value Engineering Study. After years of the City lying about the Study’s existence, they reluctantly released it after a FOIL request. However, nearly the entire report was redacted so there is no way to evaluate the validity of the City’s claims.

East River Park has been a refuge for the ethnically and racially diverse, working class neighborhood it serves since 1939. This has been even more true during the pandemic, and yet the City is determined to bulldoze the 46-acre park, including almost 1,000 mature trees. According to the New York Times, “At a time when climate change is making heat waves more frequent and more severe, trees are stationary superheroes: They can lower urban temperatures 10 lifesaving degrees.”

Photo: Tommy Loeb

It is great that the united community voice prevailed, and the memorial planned for Battery Park City will be relocated, but where is the same outrage over the destruction of 46 acres of open green space that was sprung on the community in 2018 – with ZERO public engagement process – for a financially ballooned project that will destroy the only large open green space on the Lower East Side for at least a decade? Wealthy people are not the only folks who need trees and green space for their kids to play; evidently green space in a wealthy neighborhood is all that our local elected officials are willing to fight for.

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