East Side Coastal Resiliency project, Manhattan, New York
Bjarke Ingels Group / Rebuild by Design / NYC DDC East Side Coastal Resiliency project, Manhattan, New York

In New York, one of the largest and most publicized resilient-design projects in the country is edging its way to shovels-in-the-ground reality. Initially dubbed the Big U—a not-so-subtle nod to the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the design leaders spearheading the proposal—the Dryline proposes to deploy a combination of architectural, infrastructure, and landscape gestures along 10 miles of shoreline around the bottom half of Manhattan (from West 57th Street, around Battery Park, and to East 42nd Street) whose vulnerability to rising water levels and extreme weather events was made clear during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Scope of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project
New York City Department of Design and Construction Scope of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project

The hurricane helped bring resilient design to the forefront of the AEC community as well as to that of the federal government. In June 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, the Municipal Art Society, the Regional Plan Association, and the Van Alen Institute, launched Rebuild by Design (RBD), a competition to develop innovative proposals to strengthen the resiliency of regions affected by Hurricane Sandy with input from parties beyond the building industry, including local residents and businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. Of 148 submissions, 10 teams were chosen to participate in RBD’s first round, a year-long collaborative research and design process to develop their ideas further. On June 2, 2014, HUD allocated $920 million to six of those proposals (another $10 million was later added to the total for the six winners plus one finalist) for implementation. Of that total, the Dryline received $335 million to implement the first phase of its 10-mile plan, a 2-mile-stretch running from East 23rd Street to Montgomery Street named the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project.

Earlier this fall, ARCHITECT spoke with Matthijs Bouw, principal of Amsterdam-based One Architecture, and Kai-Uwe Bergmann, AIA, partner and director of business development at BIG, on how the Dryline is redefining both Manhattan’s waterfront and the role of architecture in infrastructure. Bergmann will be presenting the Dryline tomorrow, Nov. 19, at Greenbuild 2015, in Washington, D.C., in the education session “Big to Boutique: How Diverse Practices Approach Resiliency.”

Stuyvesant Cove Park, between 18th and 23rd streets along the East River in New York, before and during a flooding event. Courtesy the Bjarke Ingels Group.

ARCHITECT: What is the status of the ESCR project today?
Kai-Uwe Bergmann: The project is run by the DDC (Department of Design and Construction) of New York and led by engineers AKRF. It has five of the original Big U members: BIG, One Architecture, (landscape architecture firm) Starr Whitehouse, James Lima Planning + Development, and (environmental engineering firm) Arcadis. The project needs to start construction by 2017 and be completed by 2020. That’s in the federal notice of HUD.

How did you determine which portion of the Dryline to start with?
Matthijs Bouw: The motives to start here are twofold. One, it is an underserved area, and the area is relatively easy to start with because much of the land is publicly owned in the form of East River Park. Two, the number of people at risk is sizable. This project would protect a lot of people.

Bergmann: It also includes the most difficult piece along the entire piece of the Big U, which is the Con Edison plant on 14th Street. Working with Con Ed, which has a lot of restrictions and site constraints, in addition to providing access and getting enough people around, is a very difficult nut to crack.

How do you coordinate a project with such a large number of stakeholders?
Bergmann: We have three agencies as our client: the mayor’s office through the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the DDC. It’s challenging, but we actually all want the same thing.

Bouw: It’s mostly very exciting because it’s a new type of project for three reasons. First, the community engagement continues to be front and center. Second, designers such as us were normally not involved as intensely with infrastructure projects. Third, it’s the collaboration of many city agencies. Everyone feels that this is the way of working in the future. Everyone is excited about trying it, and sometimes you discover that it’s not as easy. So far, we have overcome those problems.

Bergmann: We add a little bit of black color in an otherwise plaid-dressed room.

I find this new paradigm of project type and project team to be significant in the building industry.
Bergmann: Architecture and architects can deal with infrastructure projects that have historically been the domain of engineers. If we work together, we can bring a certain level of urbanism, excitement, aesthetics …

Bouw: ... community buy-in, intelligence, and looking at project a bit differently.

Manhattan has a lot of economic resources, both from public agencies and private companies. How can this project model be extended to other coastal cities?
Bergmann: We are very busy with getting this project off the ground and considering how other parts of the Big U will be financed and phased in the future. I think that what we’re learning from the agency point of view and from our own point of view will be adaptable. The Rockefeller Foundation does so as well. They’ve created Resilience Academies across the U.S., brought people together in Rebuild by Design, and are helping local communities understand the issues, and help them seek federal funding to resolve them.

Bouw: Design plays a great role. Design is this thing that integrates, it makes conversations possible between different stakeholders, shows a way forward, and can also help iterate through problems.

Passive strategies such as landscape berms are also employed.
Bjarke Ingels Group / Rebuild by Design Passive strategies such as landscape berms are also employed.

At which stage is the project now?

Bergmann: We’ve done the pre-design phase, which is running through November and December, and then we’ll begin construction documentation. Once those are complete, there will be a bid package that will be sent out. But I don’t have dates.

With parts of the Dryline not in use too frequently, in theory, how will the deployable and mechanical systems be maintained to ensure they can prevent water infiltration?
Bergmann: We made as much of it passive, meaning it’s an earthen berm. You don’t have to do anything but enjoy the berm. Those areas that are deployable are kept to a minimum so when they’re not in use, they hopefully will not decay. But places like Holland and Germany have these deployables whenever there’s a flood or surge. It’s a proven technology. The operations and maintenance of deployables haven’t been necessarily discussed. But all of the agencies, like Parks or the City, are well aware it’s their responsibility.

Bouw: It’s starting to be discussed now as because this is the first big resiliency project. Now that we are developing the concept design, it becomes an issue, and the agencies are thinking what is their particular vehicle or agency to organize this. But they haven't figured it out yet.

Bergmann: They're on the job.

Bouw: It also makes this project incredibly exciting to work on. It is both a new type of project and defining a new role for us as designers that make it a blast. The city is looking for flood protection. In all likelihood it would be there, but there’s a lot that has to happen. They are reluctant to overpromise. ORR director Dan Zarrilli and his people are working incredibly hard across five boroughs to make sure that a future Sandy will have much less impact.

The ESCR project utilizes a variety of active strategies as deployable flood gates that double as art media.
Bjarke Ingels Group / Rebuild by Design The ESCR project utilizes a variety of active strategies as deployable flood gates that double as art media.

Note: This article has been edited and condensed for clarity. This article was updated on Nov. 23, 2015, with a new image of Stuyvesant Cove Park before and during an extreme weather event.