Tottenville Residents in the Dark on $52B Harbor Protection Plan

By Judah Duke

Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The extensive proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fortify the New York harbor against storm surges has been met with a mix of eagerness and trepidation by most of the public. Yet in one of the most-impacted waterfront areas of the city, citizens are still oblivious.

The tentatively selected $52 billion Alternative 3b plan is still in its “preliminary” and “conceptual” planning stage, according to the USACE. But the window for public comment on the plan closed at the end of March after already being extended once, and the task of assuring the news reaches the public has been  across the city. 

One of many massive church gate structures slated for construction in 2030, the Arthur Kill barrier, would cut right through Tottenville Shore Park at the southern tip of Staten Island. 

The views of the waterfront will be typified by the large-scale project, if it were to take place, all throughout New York’s boroughs. The plan features elevated promenades for the lower East side, like the vertical retaining walls lining where Manhattan meets the Hudson River, as well as levees, deployable flood barriers and underwater floodwalls in addition to 12 surge gates throughout Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

Like the others planned, the Arthur Kill barrier would feature a band of submerged vertical lift gates stretching about 3,300 feet from shore to shore. While they may usually be open to maintain tidal flow, these non-navigable auxiliary gates, as well as a navigable gated passage 800 feet wide at the center, are meant to protect homes and businesses all along the kill by closing in the event of major storm surge.

There’s little indication that Tottenville’s residents have any idea what’s being planned.

“I can safely say it’s honestly a little hard for us,” resident Chris Bradford said. “If it doesn’t show up in the press … you really don’t hear about it. Nobody’s going door to door to tell you, nobody goes to the community board meetings.”

The problem stems from the government inadequately notifying New Yorkers about the plan and its public comment period. 

Other communities around the city where such gates are planned, including Jamaica Bay, Red Hook, Newtown and Flushing, caught wind of the projects and have held town hall meetings and have amplified public scrutiny thanks to outreach by river alliances and “friends of” groups’ continued divulgence. No such group has advocated for community involvement in Tottenville.

On the morning of March 26 at Conference House Park, none of the Tottenville residents approached were aware of the project. But after being given a brief summary of the plan — with the ravages of hurricane Sandy fresh in the community’s memory — many residents said they would support the project. 

“It’s certainly the first I’m hearing about it,” Bob Winslow, a father of two living nearby, said. “But even with all the construction, it would sound like it would be a good thing. You know, for the long-term.”

Storm surge risk, heightened by the onset of increasingly frequent coastal storms exacerbated by climate change, was the subject of the NY & NJ Harbor Tributaries Study that started 10 years ago with the signing of the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 by President Barack Obama. Alternative 3b is just one of five different solutions the Corps considered, ranging from building a massive floodwall to block off the entire harbor to doing nothing at all. 

Local Vanessa Jones was quick to voice her support. 

“It’s just going to get worse from here,” she said, beating dust off a rug in front of her home near the beach. “We can’t keep not doing anything and that’s really all Congress does.”

A joint statement on the project was sent to the USACE on behalf of various organizations, including the Newtown Creek Alliance, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and seven others. 

Listed in the statement on behalf of Staten Island’s Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill was the Coalition for Wetlands & Forests. The coalition, a local environmental organization whose most recent public announcement dates back to 2021, and its silence on the issue leaves little assurance of community involvement or awareness despite the insertion in the joint statement. Every other community organization or alliance listed additionally hosted town hall meetings and presentations in collaboration with USACE representatives — the Coalition for Wetlands & Forests gave no such indication of engagement.

One of the statement’s chief concerns, echoed by other organizations as well, was that the tentatively selected plan neglects to incorporate sea-level rise, only adjusting to protect shorelines against expected storm surges. 

It also outlined the “range of destructive ecological and social impacts that in-water

barriers would have,” including potential pollution, water flow disruption and a subsequent drop in water quality as well as the impacts of the construction process.

During Community Board 3’s monthly meeting on March 28, members passed a motion supporting a seven-foot-tall perimeter fence around a local park, approved a handful of liquor licenses and commented on some tree stumps that needed uprooting. Several other items were on the agenda. The Arthur Kill barrier was not one of them. 

The board members did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, nor the aforementioned coalition.

“It’s a little bit of a shame that they’ve been so lowkey about it,” Bradford remarked. “Because I’m certain there would be a lot of opinions.”

It’s still undecided whether the USACE will be moving forward as recommendations from partners and the public will ultimately determine its fate. The Corps said a report will be released after it has processed public comments when it reaches the “Agency Decision Milestone” in June.