To sell the River Ring towers that it’s building on the Williamsburg waterfront, the developer Two Trees Management is leaning hard on all things green: an energy microgrid, a wastewater-recycling system, urban farming, and beehives. It’s going especially big on native shoreline ecology, of all things. Instead of centering attention on the pair of swooping Bjarke Ingels Group–designed residential towers, the taller of which is 710 feet high, the developer is talking up the new privately owned park in its front yard, which boasts a circular breakwater structure that arcs out into the river. Alongside the two arcs that make up the “ring” are a series of salt marshes and tidal flats that can readily soak up floodwater — checking off nearly all the boxes for what an urban waterfront should look like in the climate crisis.
According to the Two Trees master plan, the shoreline park would provide flood protection for 500 buildings adjacent to the two new towers, which will sit right next to where flooding in Williamsburg peaked during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (the site straddles the 100-year and 500-year floodplains). Unlike hard flood-protection infrastructure such as seawalls, which push incoming water away, inevitably making flooding worse in nearby unprotected communities, wetland habitats like the one proposed here trap water, allowing some to soak in and the rest to slowly flow back into the river. Soft landscapes that absorb flooding have already proved themselves, such as Hunter’s Point South Park in Queens, which soaked up a six-foot storm surge during Sandy and spared the rest of Long Island City. Today just 10 percent of New York’s natural tidal wetlands remain, and only 160 of the city’s 578 miles of shoreline is parkland, and much of that is hardened rather than spongy. Rather than building new flood barriers, like the one planned for East River Park on the Lower East Side, reestablishing this kind of spongelike native landscape is really the solution to the question of how New York City might withstand the rising waters of climate change.
While River Ring wends its way through the public-planning and rezoning process, Two Trees is turning the property into a sort of temporary green-themed carnival zone this summer. There will be the aforementioned urban farm and the beehives, as will an 18-hole mini-golf course. The latter, dubbed Putting Green, has an environmental theme too: Instead of a windmill knocking your ball off course, each hole, designed by a local environmental group, designer, or community organization, makes climate change the threat to each putt. But no matter how much environmental education Two Trees crams into the vacant lots, it cannot cover up the fact that the new wetland habitat isn’t the pitch in and of itself — it’s a carrot to the stick of the two new towers. And those would come with the steep cost of an estimated 2,500 new residents living in a floodplain, in what could be the high-tide zone by the end of the decade. In other words, exactly where we shouldn’t be putting new buildings.