Flooding in Riverside Park: Good for Ducks. Bad for Amtrak Trains Below?

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Visitors to Manhattan’s Riverside Park sunned themselves on a bench after a recent rainstorm, admiring the sweeping view of the Hudson River. Behind them, two ducks were also enjoying the sunshine, coasting along the surface of an enormous puddle that never seems to recede.

Built along a steep embankment on the western edge of Manhattan, the 330-acre Riverside Park has long posed a flooding challenge when it rains. But this is no ordinary flooding, because Riverside Park is not an ordinary park. Underneath and alongside the pooling water, there is a man-made structure — the so-called Freedom Tunnel — that covers train tracks where Amtrak trains travel back and forth from Albany, Niagara Falls and points beyond.

In recent years, the park’s flooding and erosion has reached a critical point, park advocates said, because of failures in the park’s aging drainage system, which dates from the 1930s or earlier.

When it rains, the stone staircase at 103rd Street turns into a waterfall. Lawns and paths are covered with mud. Unintended stream systems have developed, cutting furrows into the hillside and becoming feeders for impromptu ponds, including the largest one at 115th Street, where the pair of mallard ducks was coasting.

The tunnel, which became famous in the 1980s for its elaborate graffiti and large population of homeless people, forms Riverside Park’s secret infrastructure, a slight of hand creation of the master city planner Robert Moses. Almost a century old, the three-mile-long tunnel is a steel-reinforced, concrete box through which Amtrak runs its trains 26 times daily.

The worst of the standing water sits directly above and around the top of the tunnel, alongside an esplanade designed to highlight the river view. Large metal grates near the puddles provide glimpses to the tracks below.

The city, which owns the tunnel, says that the flooding does not pose an immediate risk to the tunnel infrastructure, but park advocates are concerned. In the winter, water seeps around the tunnel walls, freezing and expanding.

The weight of the water, they warn, adds to the regular weight of the dirt and trees above and around the aging concrete structure. Plus, rainstorms seem to be getting more frequent and intense, a probable result of climate change.

“Water is the most powerful and inexorable force there is, and it also weighs a lot,” said Adrian Benepe, a former city parks department commissioner who has lived near Riverside Park for 60 years. “What would be very bad is a catastrophic failure of a section of those old walls that hold up the park that are on top of the railroad tracks.”

Anessa Hodgson, a parks spokeswoman, said inspections had shown there were “no major issues or immediate hazards associated with the flooding and the tunnel structure.” However, she added, the city was “exploring strategies for long-term maintenance and eventual upgrades to the 1930s-era drainage systems in this area.”

In the meantime, she said, a new storm-sewer truck would help clean the drains.

For Dan Garodnick, the head of the nonprofit Riverside Park Conservancy, that approach is not urgent enough. The conservancy and its supporters asked for $10.5 million to be included in this year’s city budget to study the drainage issue and begin to mitigate it. They did not receive it.

“They have advised us there is no evidence of harm to the tunnel,” Mr. Gardonick said of the flooding. “But in the meantime, it is destroying the park.”

Riverside Park, one of the city’s most innovative parks and a designated scenic landmark, was built over more than a century. The uppermost level, the main part of which runs along Riverside Drive from 72nd to 155th Streets, was largely designed in the 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park, to provide a green respite for the residents of the stately boulevard.

The lower two levels of the park — the esplanade that runs about 30 feet above the Hudson River’s water line, and playing fields along the West Side Highway at the water’s edge — were created as part of an audacious city planning project in the 1930s, which covered the tracks of New York’s Central Line and filled in the land to the east to make the park resemble a natural slope. In all, the project added some 130 acres to the western edge of Manhattan.

One issue is that the sloped Manhattan streets around 115th Street form a natural basin, funneling large amounts of rainwater into the park to create the worst of the flooding, according a master planning document for the park written in 2017.

Water also seeps through the Olmsted-era wall, or through sinkholes from the upper level of the park. The water ends up pooling on the flat plain around the train tunnel, where it has trouble draining.

There has been talk of working with the changing landscape. Heather Liljengren, a supervising seed collector at the city’s native plant nursery in Staten Island, said she was impressed by how water plants were colonizing the makeshift pond at 115th Street. With the hillside constantly being eroded by water and mud, she suggested scrapping the original lawns and instead planting native “rain gardens” filled with plants that “like to get their feet wet.”

“Adapting the park to use and work with the water is a good short-term approach,” she said, taking a break on a May afternoon from collecting violet seeds.

Hannah Mond, a recent Teachers College graduate, was walking through the park on Thursday. There had been a heavy rainstorm the night before, and many paths were impassible with puddles and mud.

“It’s pretty destructive — the flooding — for the habitats,” she said. Pointing out the eroding hillside, she sighed. “That’s really going to be affecting the plants, trees and wildlife.”

But some residents have more or less made peace with the new marshes, which are at their worst between 105th and 119th Streets, around the park’s midsection. Ice skaters have been spotted on the 115 Street puddle in the winter. Children in high boots tramp through its knee-deep water in the fall.

“I’m actually thinking it’s a pretty good water feature,” said Sheryl Reich, 65, a bird watcher, of the pond at 115th Street, which was about the length of four school buses that day and several inches deep. She said she hoped it would attract migrating warblers.

“After serious storms, it’s a very imposing amount of water, to be sure,” said John Horton, who has lived in the area for 35 years. But, he added, “the dogs love it. The children love it, too.”

Laura Bontrager, 52, was walking in the rain with her dog, Audrey, on Thursday, past a grassy area near 104th Street that resembled a muddy swamp. But, she said, “the other day I was playing Frisbee here, so it dries out.”

Looking at the new marshlands, she said, “I only worry about the bugs.”

Sharon Otterman has been a reporter at The Times since 2008, primarily covering education and religion for Metro. She won a Polk Award for Justice Reporting in 2013 for her role in exposing a pattern of wrongful convictions in Brooklyn. @sharonNYT

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