In Recovery: How Sandy Reset Our Waterfront Dreams

| 17 Feb 2015 | 04:17

As the storm's impact on ecological systems and infrastructure becomes clear, what steps should be taken to secure the city against future floods? In the days following late October's hurricane-turned-superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city and state officials described the immense damage to the city. They talked about the death toll, the lost homes and destruction to infrastructure, landmarks, businesses and natural environments around the waterfront. The impact continues, and will continue, to be uncovered. In the weeks since Sandy made landfall on the East Coast, there has been much preliminary discussion of how to rebuild from here. One of the most important conversations taking place is what could have been prevented-the city's most evident weaknesses-and what must change in the future to address this. Ecological Impact Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center described the extensive damage East River Park sustained in Sandy's wake. Numerous mature trees were uprooted and lost. Significant numbers of other plants were also damaged, as water washed up and flooded FDR Drive. Even so, Datz-Romero said the full extent of Sandy's damage to waterfront parks will not be known until the spring, when it becomes clear which plants will and will not survive. According to her, however, the damage did not have to be so extreme. "The plants growing there do not tolerate saltwater," Datz-Romero said. She explained the natural environments around the waterfront could instead be used to absorb some of the impact of disasters like Sandy. "This storm is an opportunity to think about waterfront parks and what ecological function they provide," said Datz-Romero. "We could plant trees or plants that can withstand saltwater, or even slow down future storms by planting and creating resilient landscapes, like wetlands or salt marshes. There is a big lesson to be learned." Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who represents the 74th District, which includes the Lower East Side, agreed that while significant emphasis has been placed on implementing hard structural barriers to prevent storm surges, we must look to the possibility of "ecologically sensitive facilities" like the marshes and beaches Datz-Romero describes. "There are naturally occurring beaches along the East River that could help protect Manhattan," said Kavanagh. "It's important to recognize that kind of thing has ecological benefits year-round and can be very valuable in a storm." Kavanagh has been promoting the East River Blueway project, co-partnered with Borough President Scott Stringer, which aims to "rethink the waterfront from the Brooklyn Bridge to 38th Street." Matthew Monahan, spokesperson for the Battery Park City Authority, echoed the wait-and-see approach-he believes it's too soon to tell the full extent of the impact on Battery Park City's mile-long esplanade. Monahan said the assessment is still under way, but notably emphasizes the use of the word "impact" rather than "damage" to describe the storm's effect on the waterfront. Residential Infrastructure Ben Nitti, a downtown Manhattan real estate agent, said Sandy's blow to waterfront infrastructure will certainly have an impact on real estate in the area. "This will affect property values along Zone A," explained Nitti. "Values will go down, people will not want to develop in that area." Zone A, or the area most susceptible to potential flooding from any hurricane, encompasses Battery Park City, the World Trade Center site, the South Street Seaport, parts of the Meatpacking District and other low-lying areas in Manhattan-many of the popular, expensive waterfront neighborhoods. Nitti said while he knows fallout from the storm will be a problem, the full extent of the damage for real estate has also yet to be seen. Nitti thinks more developers will move to the Upper West and Upper East sides, where elevation makes for a "much safer area." "This is a huge section of real estate which loses value," said Nitti. "And there is going to be a continuing weather problem." As far as the future of waterfront buildings, Nitti indicated changes made to Battery Park following 9/11. Backup generators became standard in newer buildings following the terrorist attacks. "You'll notice the lights didn't go out in Battery Park [during Sandy]," Nitti said. "I think this will become the new norm." Walls around the water will be raised higher and more generators will be added, according to Nitti. "It's possible the city might require restrictions on how things are built in those zones," he said. "Requirements for different materials in certain areas is definitely possible." Assembly Member Kavanagh said that backup generators are not only crucial in waterfront buildings, but must also be routinely tested, and should not be installed in easily flooded areas, such as basements. "We need to remember backup systems need to be ready in an emergency," said Kavanagh. He also said protective walls are needed in residential facilities on the waterfront to mitigate flooding. Many involved in real estate in the area are scrambling to minimize the impact on their business. Since the storm, some agencies have even taken to advertising their properties as "high and dry" and "unfloodable." Real estate broker Peter-Charles Bright assures Our Town Downtown that this assessment on his real estate blog "APTcetera," of a condo rental mere steps from the New York Stock Exchange, is not a joke. Public Facilities Many of the concerns facing residential infrastructure extend to public facility infrastructure as well. Laura Gottesdiener, a housing and land-use activist in the city who has volunteered with Occupy Wall Street and helped with Sandy relief efforts, said the storm merely exacerbated problems that already existed, especially in public housing, along the waterfront. Gottesdiener believes there are a number of components to consider in moving forward. "Our public transit system is incredible," said Gottesdiener. "But it requires massive power, and we need more sustainable infrastructure." Above all, Gottesdiener emphasized the dire need for improvement in public housing projects along coastal areas, which had power restored long after other parts of Lower Manhattan. "These areas were less likely to get stuff up and running," said Gottesdiener, referring largely to complexes which house the elderly, disabled and poor. Residents were left stranded in high-rises, dependent on electricity to use elevators. They had no access to batteries or water-potentially lifesaving measures for some. "Moving forward, we need to realize the people who get hit hardest are overwhelmingly already more vulnerable," said Gottesdiener. "They are living in public housing in coastal areas, feeling isolated despite being a part of Manhattan." "We need more sustainable housing along coastal areas, especially public housing," she said. Kavanagh's district includes three hospitals that were shut down due to the storm-Bellevue, NYU Medical Center and the V.A. Hospital. The Assembly Member said a combination of stronger walls and more effective pumping operations are needed in these areas, in addition to the more reliable generators. "I don't want to prejudge," said Kavanagh. "But we have talked for years about sea walls that did not get built-if you're on a river, you need to do what people have done for years in other similar places." Moving Forward Vishaan Chakrabarti, the director of Columbia's Center for Urban Real Estate, recently told the New York Observer there needs to be a way to protect the "thousands and thousands of housing units" being developed, and promoted by Mayor Bloomberg, on the waterfront. Chakrabarti's suggestion-perhaps extreme-is the installation of massive sea gates that can close at times of peril and protect the city from flooding. "The costs are obviously astronomical," notes the Observer, also hypothesizing that Chakrabarti's suggestion would be "the most expensive infrastructure project ever undertaken." "Climate change is here, and we clearly have to acknowledge that these unusual weather events are going to become more and more frequent, and we're going to have to do something about it," Chakrabarti told the newspaper. While Chakrabarti's suggestion may be on the more radical end of the spectrum, government officials in New York echo a similar sentiment of overhauling the system. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement: "We have to take into consideration reforming, modifying our built environment, our infrastructure. This city, this region is very susceptible to coastal flooding. It's not something we had to deal with, with any frequency whatsoever. So we're not built in a way that has the built-in protections." Kavanagh believes the projected price tag is probably worth it. "It is early and we are still assessing," he said. "My sense from other places-other cities and countries further along in this-when a single storm can do this much damage, expensive projects could prevent the surge from coming in unimpeded."