Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, said he doesn’t support the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Economic Development Corporation (EDC)’s project to make structural repairs at the Vernon Boulevard waterfront end in Long Island City.
While he understands the importance of securing the shoreline, Elkins said his group, as well as community board members and the local council member, want a plan that creates access to the water, provides environmental benefits and reflects community input.
He noted that the Brooklyn side of the creek has a pocket park, while the Queens side is “desolate and empty.”
“It’s not just hideous,” Elkins said about the current plan, “it flies in the face of everything we’ve been asking for.”
In January 2016, the existing bulkhead on the Long Island City side partially collapsed into the creek, creating unsafe conditions. The DOT blocked off the majority of the area with a chain-link fence.
A team of marine engineers, managed by EDC, inspected the bulkhead, street end and sidewalk. They found that a row of timber piles was missing, and that the low-level platform was in critical condition due to deterioration.
The marine engineers then recommended that the platform and bulkhead structures be demolished and replaced.
Funded completely by DOT and the city’s waterfront repair budget, the plan presented to Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee in April is to demolish the platform, install bulkhead, rip rap revetment and timber piles, replace the outfall drainage pipe and repave the street end.
Newtown Creek Alliance, as well as CB2 and HarborLAB, had conversations with DOT over the summer, dialogue that Elkins said he felt were “productive.” But the agency later communicated that any plan that would add water access points would require funding for a feasibility study, which was outside of the scope of the repair work in this project.
In their November 11th response letter to the DOT, Newtown Creek Alliance wrote that adding the elements they requested after the construction is complete would be “substantially more difficult, expensive and restrictive.”
“Once they build an access,” Elkins said, “it’s not an easy thing to add infrastructure later.”
The organization also raised concerns that the eventual elevation increase of 13 feet will further restrict the ability to add public access.
Instead, the group suggested a shoreline resdesign that uses green infrastructure to “absorb and slow storm surge,” rather than a hard edge that “prevents the movement of water or displaces it” into neighboring properties.
Elkins said despite these requests to reconsider, it appears that DOT is moving forward with its proposal.
“It looks like they’re going forward with this plan that is not supported by us or the community,” he said. “We feel like this is being pushed through.”
In their letter, Newtown Creek Alliance noted that with the exception of Hunter’s Point South Park, the entire five-mile Queens shoreline along the Newtown Creek has no safe or official public access.
The Vernon Boulevard waterfront end remains the most “conspicuous and tangible locations” that could change the borough’s relationship with the creek, they wrote.
“This space has been so long neglected that this community has been pushing forward ideas on how to improve the site for many years,” Elkins said. “The community deserves real access to the waterway.”
A DOT spokesperson said that the project, managed by both EDC and DOT, will make critical structural repairs to the waterfront end and prevent further collapse of the street and protect it from future damage caused by shoreline erosion, coastal storms and tidal inundation related to rising sea levels.
“While the current scope of our work is limited to these urgent restoration needs in a time of fiscal crisis for the city, the current design does not preclude opportunities to expand public water access in the future,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Following the capital construction, we are open to continuing discussions with the Newtown Creek Alliance and other community stakeholders about options to enhance the spaces and access to the waterfront following this essential construction and for the long term.”