Rebuild by Design: Big U - Transportation Elements

New York City has been awarded $335 million to build a flood protection system around lower Manhattan and protect the critical ground transportation artery FDR Drive, as envisioned in the Big U project proposal developed for Rebuild by Design. The Big U proposal was one of six winners of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Rebuild by Design Competition and was developed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The BIG U project proposes to build deployable walls that swing down from the underside of FDR Drive, which runs along the East River on the eastern side of Manhattan and has been an inlet for flood waters into Manhattan during extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. The walls will flip down during flooding events to create a flood barrier under FDR Drive and protect Lower Manhattan from flooding inundation.  This project is an example of how the impacts of climate change like flooding can be addressed through flood protection measures while increasing the safety of the area for pedestrians and creating a community space.

During Hurricane Sandy, floodwaters rushed into Lower Manhattan through inlets in the East and West boundaries of the Battery area of the island (a park and major tourist destination located at the Southern tip of Manhattan). This flooding shut down power for much of the city and closed public transportation in the area.  To protect Lower Manhattan from the next major storm event, the BIG U project will protect 10 continuous miles of lower Manhattan with flood walls and berms (artificial embankments), from West 57th Street south to the Battery and up the East side to 42nd Street. 

This project was featured in the July 29, 2016, ASAP Newsletter.

"The park design is precursor to another major NYC adaptation project in development – the Big U. This winning plan in HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition a series of multi-purpose seawalls and levees protecting ten contiguous miles around lower Manhattan. The Big U project attempts to merge traditional infrastructure approaches with innovations to landscape and land use to create recreation spaces and multi-function infrastructure throughout the protected neighborhoods."

The proposal includes three independent but linked plans called compartments protecting three separate flood zones.

  • Compartment 1 will run from the northern part of the Lower East Side neighborhood at East 23rd Street south to the East River Park at Montgomery Street. The project will build a protective berm (a raised barrier separating two spaces) in the East River Park, and connect the park to community with landscaped bridges. The berm will be structured to preserve park and recreational space, and will provide flood protection to the deep flood plain next to FDR Drive. Compartment 1 will prevent $780 million in potential damages with a benefit-cost ratio of 2.08.
  • Compartment 2 will protect Chinatown in southern Manhattan and run from Montgomery Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, and the project will include multi-use flood shields protecting the most vulnerable areas while serving as recreational-use platforms, benches, and skate parks, and deployable flood protection walls attached to the underside of FDR drive. Compartment 2 will prevent $237 million in potential damages with a benefit-cost ratio of 1.02.
  • Compartment 3 will protect the Financial District, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery. Raised structures (berms) will provide upland landscape to protect against flooding, and create usable space and elevated bike and foot pathways. Compartment 3 will prevent $1.9 billion in potential damages with a benefit-cost ratio of greater than 5.0.

To assess Lower Manhattan’s flood risk, the BIG U team used data on storm surge flooding from Hurricane Sandy (10 ft.), and future estimates of increased storm surge (14 and 18 ft.) with projected sea-level rise.  Estimates are based on the 100-year and 500-year floodplain projections for the year 2050 produced by FEMA. The team also considered recommendations from the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report A Stronger, More Resilient New York to shape the BIG U project; the SIRR report called for 8 continuous miles of coastal protection.

The BIG U project proposal included a detailed benefit-cost analysis.  The team calculated that each compartment project will result in a benefit-cost ratio of greater than 1.  Finally, in addition to providing flood protection, this project will also benefit the community by creating a more welcome, well-lit and usable space.  When not deployed to protect against storm surge and flooding, the flood protection walls will retract to provide an artistically decorated ceiling and lighting to the East River Esplanade, and a market space protected from cold and snowy conditions during the winter. The area is currently dark and unused, but the BIG Team envisions a vibrant community market and gathering place.

The proposal by the BIG team was chosen out of 148 applicants to compete as one of 10 finalists in the U.S. HUD year-long Rebuild by Design Competition.  Final teams were chosen for their innovative and implementable proposals for projects that would increase resiliency in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Throughout the year, the 10 final teams engaged with community stakeholders and residents to get feedback on their proposals throughout the design process.  Final proposals were presented to a Competition Jury and members of the public through receptions and online in April 2014, and U.S. HUD selected winning proposals in June. 

As one of six winning proposals, the BIG U project will be funded with a $335 million Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) as part of the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. Throughout the year-long competition, the BIG U team worked with the associated communities, and municipal, local, state, and federal governments.  Tangible results of the project are expected in 3 to 4 years, but the exact timeline is not certain.  The first element of the project implemented will be Compartment 1, the “bridging berm” at the East River Park which will provide vertical flood protection to the Lower East Side from storm surge and sea-level rise.  Funding will go through New York City, the grantee of the funds.

The Georgetown Climate Center's report Rebuilding with Resilience explores lessons that are being learned from implementation of the BIG U and the other Rebuild by Design projects.

This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on March 31, 2016.

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Publication Date: June 2014

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