By Eric Uhlfelder
Any day now bulldozers and chainsaws will visit Wagner Park to flatten it. This remarkable 3.5-acre space, named after the former head of the New York City Planning Commission, Robert Wagner, Jr., is an award-winning model of urban landscaping that was in fact designed as a flood plain. And when Superstorm Sandy came roaring through, the park never flooded.
Yet, the Battery Park City Authority, whose very existence is owed to the man after which the park was named, deems the park’s destruction essential to save it. This is city planning at its worst.
Plan for Wagner Park that was rejected
There is a cheaper and more effective alternative provided by the same design firm that planned the original park. It would save more than 100 mature trees that are essential for flood control and avoid the heavy air pollution that will be brought about by the park’s destruction and trucking in thousands of tons of earth to raise the park 10 feet.
After a NY State Supreme Court judge refused to extend the stay on the park’s demolition, arguing there is no time to wait and assess if the BPCA’s plan makes sense, the venerable Sierra Club wrote to Governor Hochul to intervene. The governor is the last hope we have to save this magnificent park.
An abridged version of the Sierra Club’s letter appears below. Here’s a link to the full letter and a detailed discussion of the planning issues: https://savewagner.com/
Here’s a link to the judge’s ruling: https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/fbem/DocumentDisplayServlet?documentId=E6nIxvjac9Wnn0/wKyx6SQ==&system=prod
And to better understand how the city can more effectively protect Lower Manhattan and fight climate change without destroying our parks, see my recent opinion piece in the NY Daily News: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-stop-clear-cutting-new-york-city-20230302-dyreexmuk5e7llezkr3ijrbbvy-story.html
March 21, 2023
Honorable Kathy Hochul
Governor of New York State
Dear Governor Hochul,
The Sierra Club New York City Group is calling on you as Governor to intervene to stop the unnecessary demolition of Wagner Park in lower Manhattan by the Battery Park City Authority. The destruction of a well-functioning green park and the destruction of trees should always be a last resort. We agree with the Authority on the necessity of protecting NYC from rising sea levels and more frequent and powerful storms. We accept the climate change-related predictions of NOAA and other respected scientific authorities. However, the community and the park’s original designers have jointly proposed an alternative plan that accomplishes the Authority’s stated goal of protecting inland areas from future flooding.
The Sierra Club calls upon you to intervene at this critical time to support and implement the better community-backed, more environmentally responsible option available. The Battery Park City Neighborhood Association and lower Manhattan community worked diligently with Olin and Machado Silvetti, the world-renowned architects and landscape designers that originally designed this award-winning and innovative park in 1996. Olin/Silvetti created an alternative design that protects the inland residential/commercial area from sea level rise and storm surge without disturbing Wagner Park.
By adopting this alternative plan, the park could remain continuously available to the neighborhood without the community enduring a protracted loss of a very needed park space during construction. Importantly, the community plan provides the same height protection as the Authority’s proposed elevation while leaving intact the water absorption elements of Wagner Park.
The BPCA plan will destroy 114 healthy and mature trees, which could endure for decades more to combat sea level rise. The Authority says it will plant a greater number of new trees at higher elevations, but these new plantings will take years to develop the same root systems that the current trees have established, which remain valuable to storm surge abatement and flood water attenuation. The NYC Parks Department states that, “A large, healthy tree removes almost 70 times more air pollution each year than a small, newly planted tree.”
The cost of the Authority’s plan significantly exceeds that of the community’s alternative solution…savings that could certainly be used for other critical environmental or social needs. Further, the Authority’s plans allow the park’s lone commercial restaurant building to add a subterranean floor. But such private sector commercial expansion should never justify destroying a public park and its trees at a needless taxpayer expense.
Governor, we recognize, appreciate, and support your environmental commitment and leadership. We call on you to remain true to your environmental record in this situation by intervening to stop the destruction of a critical green park space in favor of a plan that satisfies all the climate objectives and leverages the latest thinking on climate resilience, that’s also supported by the community.
Karl Palmquist, Alan Ferson, Irene Van Slyke, and Lucy Koteen