New York will demolish and elevate a waterfront park to fight floods, angering some neighbors

Key Points
  • Wagner Park, a cherished waterfront greenspace in Battery Park City that boasts unobstructed views of the Statue of Liberty, will be demolished and rebuilt soon.
  • 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 some neighbors who object to the agency's plan and who offered an alternative.
  • The conflict over the park reflects a broader challenge for governments that will be forced to take increasingly drastic measures to protect shoreline communities from the effects of climate change.
A waterfront area in Battery Park City, which is at the center of a major climate resilience project.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

Wagner Park, a cherished waterfront greenspace in Battery Park City, boasts unobstructed views of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor. Built nearly 30 years ago, the park 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 change will protect the neighborhood from flooding, storm surge and rising sea levels.

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."

Wagner Park will soon be demolished and built ten feet higher as part of the Battery Park City Resiliency Project.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

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. After a delay, the elevated park is set to be complete in 2025.

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 again in August 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.

Kizzy Charles-Guzman, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, wrote a letter in August defending the climate projections used by the BPCA for its flood plan, arguing its approach was consistent with other critical coastal resilience projects across the city.

In November, 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.

The new Wagner Park will be elevated ten feet and include a buried flood wall, elevated berms and pop-up walls — infrastructure that's been identified as critical in an era of climate change.
Battery Park City Authority

But 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.

Efforts by residents to halt construction were ultimately thwarted 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."

Battery Park City in Manhattan is a primarily residential neighborhood of upscale high-rise apartment buildings.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

Britni Erez, a Battery Park City resident and member of the neighborhood association, thinks the BPCA's resilience plan shouldn't have been approved. The neighborhood group's plan was a more sustainable alternative that would provide adequate protection for the area, Erez argued.

"The authority's plan is a more environmentally damaging approach," said Erez, who frequents the park with her family. "Yes, 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 will 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.

As part of the overall Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency plan, the project was set to be the third resilience plan to start in the borough, following the Brooklyn Bridge-Montgomery Coastal Resiliency project and East Side Coastal Resiliency project.

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," Chester said. "What the government is missing is a unified approach and a sole entity that is accountable to answer all the questions."

The reconstruction of Wagner Park is expected to be complete by mid-2025.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

For instance, officials updated the final plan based on community feedback to increase the amount of lawn space. But transforming construction plans entirely, they said, would have caused expensive and significant delays, putting the park and surrounding community at high risk.

"We're at risk until this work is done," Jones said. "We've got to get a move on."

"Ultimately, once we're through this difficult work and we have a more resilient Battery Park City and Manhattan, I think people will appreciate having great public spaces that can now stand the test of time."

Pawlowski, the urban designer, said the complaints from residents of a wealthy neighborhood about a new and improved park felt particularly privileged and self-serving. He said the high level of controversy over the Wagner Park demolition points to how climate adaptation and wealth inequality are strongly connected.

"Because the Wagner plan has this high-profile location and these high-profile players, it can raise consciousness about underlying issues here," Pawlowski said. "The sad truth about climate change is that poor people are going to suffer more ... and rich neighborhoods are going to adapt."

"This community is going to be fine one way or the other," Pawlowski said of Battery Park City. "But public housing residents and poor people are also really needing the resources for climate adaptation from the government."

The $52.6 billion plan to save the NYC region from climate change
The $52.6 billion plan to save the NYC region from climate change