Red Hook

Will Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods be walled in?

Army Corps of Engineer’s tentative plans to build sea walls, flood gates

March 7, 2023 Mary Frost
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RED HOOK — The deadline to comment on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) massive $52.7 billion resiliency plan has been extended to March 31, and Brooklynites are going to need every day of that extension to absorb the 500-plus-page flood protection proposal.

The Corps’ tentative plan to prevent flooding includes storm-surge gates, 17-foot walls, levees, elevated walkways and other measures that could result in dramatic changes to Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods including Greenpoint, Red Hook, Gowanus and Coney Island. 

The plan is known as HATS, short for short for “Harbor and Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study.” Construction, after design and environmental approvals, could start in 2030 and be completed in 2044.

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Rep. Dan Goldman and Brooklyn Community Board 6 hosted a Zoom town hall Monday night with USACE Project Manager Bryce Wisemiller to present the plan for the Red Hook and Gowanus area. There were 263 in virtual attendance.

USACE held a similar presentation for north Brooklyn on Feb. 21 hosted by Rep. Nydia Velazquez and other elected officials.

The study looks at five different plans to ameliorate storm surge flooding from 1% storms (storms having a 1% chance of happening in a given year), such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012 or Hurricane Ida in 2021.

“Alt 3B is the tentatively selected plan,” Wisemiller said. “It generates the greatest net benefits with the least adverse flooding elsewhere, and it dovetails with other city projects.”

Alternative 3B includes storm surge barriers on Gowanus, Newtown and Flushing creeks in Brooklyn and Queens, along with retractable surge gates and shore-based measures in some areas. In Southern Brooklyn, a combination of shore-based measures along with multiple surge gate structures could be built.

“The plan is very preliminary and very conceptual, and there will be components that will need to be put into the plan that aren’t there now, so it’s really much of a framework,” Wisemiller said.

Wisemiller recommended that residents take a look at the plan on the USACE website, starting with the Storymap.

The Red Hook and Gowanus portion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $52.7 billion resiliency plan. Map courtesy of USACE

Concerns about walls instead of natural solutions

Comments from participants ranged from concerns about cutting off access to the waterfront and the exacerbation of the area’s sewage problems and toxic sites, to skepticism about building hard walls and gates where natural solutions might be more ecologically sound.

Tyler Taba, senior manager for climate policy for Waterfront Alliance, said the plan relied too much on water barriers and not enough on “natural, nature-based, non-structural solutions. Berms, dunes, etc.”

Tim Gilman, executive director of the nonprofit RETI Center, said, “We would like to see a return to many of the natural systems that flowed through the estuary and have that be the key to both protection and restoration of the system.” The idea of adding on green space as an afterthought “is not the way to do this process.”

Tracy Brown from Riverkeeper said USACE was using a “decades-old approach” towards cost-benefit analysis. The plan “sacrifices water and wildlife, and is at best a stopgap measure to buy time.”

Some areas would be “sacrificed,” participants noted.

“Where is Sunset Park in all of this?” asked longtime Sunset Park advocate Maria Roca. “If you put up a wall, all of that water — where does it go? … You’re leaving tens of thousands of people totally unprotected.”

Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Simon: People will need more time

“Two things are clear: the public engagement needs to be dramatically improved and while the deadline for comments was extended, I think people will still need more time to wrap their heads around a proposal this massive. Getting this right is key,” Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“Participants’ questions were well thought out and expressed, which bodes well for future engagement,’ she said.

“While the USACE focused on storm surge, in this part of Brooklyn flooding occurs for a variety of reasons, including sewer capacity and underground streams,” Simon added. “The Gowanus/Red Hook area was built on wetlands and this poses many challenges, as does the highly polluted nature of the Gowanus Canal and its uplands.”

“The effects of climate change are a daunting challenge for our communities, as the devastating storms of the past decade have demonstrated,” said Michael Racioppo, districtmanager at Brooklyn Community Board 6.We asked for further study of resiliency efforts in 2018. We were glad to collaborate with Representative Goldman on last night’s town hall, attended by over 250 people with a wide range of concerns. We hope the USACE’s extension of the comment period will give more CB6 residents a chance to be heard.”

Proposed floodwall concept in Red Hook at Coffey and Ferris streets. Walls can be seen to the left and right. Rendering courtesy of USACE

Don’t ‘destroy the village in order to save it’

“The most important issues for PortSide are ensuring that maritime activity can grow and that resiliency plans are not so obstructive they ‘destroy the village in order to save it,’” said Carolina Salguero, founder of the maritime nonprofit PortSide New York.

“Last night’s informed comments and critiques demonstrated why it’s worth talking to the community. We hope the USACE will confer with this deep bench of expertise going forward. PortSide is ready to continue helping,” Salguero said.

She added, “Our advocacy helped make that meeting and extension happen, our outreach got many people on that zoom Town Hall, and we’ve been doing community resiliency education since Sandy.”

This will not be the final plan but we do need to develop one or more strategies to address the issues we are faced with. That is critical for the future resilience and sustainability of New York City, ” Lisa Bloodgood, Director of Horticulture & Stewardship for the North Brooklyn Parks Alliance, told the Eagle after the Greenpoint meeting.

“Climate change is not going away. Sea level rise is not going to stop. Storm surges are part of our future. We have to have a plan, and it’s essential that New Yorkers be part of the development of that plan,” Bloodgood said.

Bloodgood said there is concern that sea gates proposed for the mouth of Newtown Creek, a federal Superfund Site which also is affected by combined sewer overflows (CSOs), could have “a real impact on tidal flow and therefore water quality long term,” even when the gates are open. “Water flushing out is already a problem for the waterway,” she said.

“If the gates are closed and it may contribute to worse upland flooding, will the gates exacerbate the problem?” Bloodgood asked. 

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