Scientist Paul Mankiewicz inspects his handiwork, a pop-up wetland at Pier 5.

River cleanup may point way to new park

Local environmentalists hope residents will help reshape a shabby four-acre plot on the Harlem River into a beautiful and useful city park.

Scientist Paul Mankiewicz inspects his handiwork, a pop-up wetland at Pier 5.
Scientist Paul Mankiewicz inspects his handiwork, a pop-up wetland at Pier 5.

With pop-up wetland comes new effort to open Harlem shore

Pier 5 on the Harlem River just north of 149th Street doesn’t look like much. It’s a scruffy plot of concrete and dirt. The Major Deegan Expressway overhead and the Gateway mall across the street cast their shadows on it. But local environmental groups hope to reshape it into the best park the community can dream up.

The Harlem River Working Group, a coalition of community and environmental organizations, has begun seeking local perspectives, in what will be a series of visioning sessions throughout the fall and winter months.

“There are a lot of different ideas,” said Chauncy Young, a Harlem River Working Group coordinator. “We want to give some real concrete options and allow people to vote on them.”

Pier 5 is part of the group’s larger goal of a connected greenway along the entire Bronx waterfront of the Harlem River, where, in contrast to the Manhattan side of the river, recreational access is scarce.  The greenway could also help to restore the health of the river, environmentalists say, by filtering the polluted water that flows from the Deegan whenever it rains.

At Pier 5, one such effort to offer natural solutions for highway runoff recently got under way, when the four-acre lot became the home of a yearlong pilot project aimed at keeping polluted water out of the river.

With a $200,000 grant from the federal government, the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality (BCEQ) created a floating wetland and prairie, two mini ecosystems designed to capture, hold and filter water that would otherwise pour from the busy highway into the nearby Harlem.

A 2011 plan from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning that proposed a wetland park for Pier 5, which is owned by the Parks Department, inspired the idea.  Developing plans for a park next door to the existing Mill Pond Park made the grassroots operation feasible, said BCEQ member Karen Argenti.

“If we can do something here that’s non-intrusive, inexpensive and mimics nature, then why not?” Argenti asked.

How the wetland works. Click to enlarge.
How the wetland works. Click to enlarge.

When it rains, motor oil, gasoline and other debris from thousands of cars and trucks using the Major Deegan wash down into the river.  But at Pier 5, the wetland is designed to catch the runoff from the portion of highway directly overhead and contain it, with any overflow absorbed by the prairie.

In a few days the water evaporates back into the air, filtered through the soil and plants.

Argenti said the project makes sense both financially and ecologically, especially when compared to the high cost of more heavily-engineered solutions to stormwater runoff that have been used in the past. “You don’t have to spend all this money trying to clean the water if you can just replicate what nature does.”

If it proves to be effective, the one-year project could become a model for dealing with runoff along hundreds of miles of elevated highway throughout New York and in other cities, too, according to BCEQ. The wetlands idea could also help to clean up other sections of the Harlem River waterfront as groups look to expand the greenway in the Bronx, said Argenti.

But whatever the results of the experiment, the environmentalists hope this project will help inspire residents to get involved to improve Pier 5. They are seeking community participation as they work to decide what comes next.

“This is a new model for engaging people in capital projects in New York City parks,” said Wylie Goodman, a coordinator for Partnership for Parks. “It’s a very collaborative process between the community, the elected officials and the parks.”

One Hostos Community College student, 17-year old Nayeh Yisrael, envisioned the new park as a space to study between classes and to enjoy nature.

“Sometimes when I have breaks from school I wonder what to do and where to go, especially in the summer,” Yisrael said. “I like to see the green.”

Pier 5 is already on its way to becoming greener thanks to the plant life growing in the wetland and prairie, according to one of their designers, Paul Mankiewicz of the Bronx-based Gaia Institute.

“It will be stunningly green by the time we come back in the spring,” he said.

Local residents will have another chance to weigh in on what they would like to see at Pier 5 during the next visioning session in early November.  Planners hope to bring a community-informed design to the Parks Department in the spring.

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