A New Paradigm for Waterfront Resiliency

The East and Harlem River Esplanade Waterfront Park is an under-appreciated asset for passive and active recreation. While CIVITAS is pursuing work to improve the Esplanade both south of Gracie Mansion and north of 125th Street, its focus has been on a stretch of the Esplanade from 90th to 125th Streets that has been severely under-maintained. At the same time, with the completion of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway and the prospect for the second phase extending to 125th Street, the growing population east of Lexington Avenue could benefit from an improved waterfront.

Over six years ago, CIVITAS began a process for devising a bold vision for this stretch of the Esplanade waterfront by commissioning an international design competition. The top designs were exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York. A number of those designs included the creation of a complex ecological edge with restored wetlands that would have environmental and storm resiliency protection. CIVITAS then retained Matthews Nielsen Landscape Architects to prepare an Esplanade Master Plan for this stretch that was released in 2014.

After obtaining guidelines from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), CIVITAS entered a partnership with the New York Harbor School to monitor habitat quality and test different kinds of edge materials between 100th and 116th Streets. The focus area became the pier at 107th Street, deemed unsafe following years of disrepair. A three-year study with Harbor School students supervised by faculty biologist Mauricio Gonzalez concluded that traditional sea walls produce very low habitat quality. These structures also do not adapt to sea level rise, or provide coastal resiliency in a storm surge.

As the Harbor School project was progressing, we met with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to discuss their possible support for a living shoreline (marsh restoration) pilot project, in conjunction with a $20 million pier replacement. CIVITAS also met with McLaren Engineering, a highly respected marine engineering firm that does work for the DPR, to ask them to undertake an engineering design study for a living shoreline project as part of a newly rebuilt pier at 107th Street.

If CIVITAS is to proceed with the McLaren design study, it is essential that DEC sees a living shoreline pilot project in a section of the Esplanade as a viable project for permitting. In addition, CIVITAS is hopeful that the DPR  will incorporate the pilot project into their pier replacement, and will join in advocacy for its capital funding.

CIVITAS, with the DPR, met with the DEC’s Regional Commissioner who is receptive to this project. We had conversations with the local State Assembly representative who has access to State funding, and could contribute to the 107th Street pier replacement project. We have inquired about increasing that level of support and including the living shorelines pilot as part of that project. These meetings will continue.

While the DPR has a cost estimate for pier replacement, neither the DPR or CIVITAS has a cost estimate for the living shorelines pilot. That is the purpose of the first phase of the McLaren engineering design work. If the DPR is supportive, we would undertake the first phase of the McLaren Engineering work, for which we need to raise $47,000. We intend to discuss possible public-private partnerships with the DPR.


Read the full plan here:

Vision Plan 

Part 1: Executive Summary & Historical Conditions

Part 2: Existing Condition 

Part 3: Outreach Process 

Part 4: The Vision