There’s no stopping waterfront development, not even by the might of Hurricane Sandy. A month after the storm swept through New York City flooding basements and shutting down power, Brooklyn residents—who live near the water—are still dealing with its aftermath. But even as the city remains locked in recovery mode, developers are forging ahead with new projects on the waterfront, undeterred by the recent damage and the chance that another such storm, and possibly of greater magnitude, could likely hit the East Coast again.
Several new developments are slated for construction in areas damaged by the storm such as Gowanus, Red Hook, and DUMBO. While rising sea levels and climate change could pose a greater risk to waterfront properties in the future, developers have no intention on walking away from these projects. Instead, they say they’re taking into account the impact of the storm and re-thinking certain elements of their plans.
This, however, has some community members and government officials worried. Councilmember Brad Lander has been urging the developer Lightstone Group to withdraw its plans to build a 700-unit complex along the Gowanus Canal. In a letter sent to David Lichtenstein, the CEO of Lightstone, the councilman wrote: “I believe it would be a serious mistake for you to proceed as though nothing had happened, without reconsidering or altering your plans, and putting over 1,000 new residents in harm’s way the next time an event of this magnitude occurs.”
Ethan Geto, the spokesman for the developer, said that Councilman Lander never discussed his concerns with Lightstone.
“I think Brad Lander said, and irresponsibly so, that ‘it will put people in harm’s way,’” said Geto. “We not only designed the project to meet the FEMA’s standard but to exceed FEMA’s standard. We had designed the project responsibly.”
Geto says that Lightstone will move forward with the project, but will take whatever extra measures necessary to protect the buildings from flooding.
“Our parking will be above grade, our residential will be above grade, and our mechanical systems will be above grade,” said Geto. “We will design this project to be invulnerable to flooding.”
Councilmember Lander, however, is skeptical. He says that Lightstone hasn’t reached out to his office or provided a response to the letter. “Anyone whose immediate response is we don’t need data or more analysis isn’t serious about building a safe building,” said Councilmember Lander.
The Gowanus Canal is a designated Superfund site, and the substantial flooding from the hurricane has re-ignited residents’ concerns about the potential health and safety risks. Lightstone has agreed to help with the cleanup efforts, and in October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement in support of Lightstone’s environmental proposal for the Gowanus.
Prior to the storm, there had been dissent from community members. The Brooklyn Law School Community Development Clinic wrote a letter to Amanda Burden, chairperson of New York City’s Department of City Planning, on behalf of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, a local non-profit group, asking her to deny Lightstone’s application to modify a previously approved permit. Hurricane Sandy happened to hit the shores of Brooklyn on the same day that the Department of City Planning had scheduled a hearing to consider Lightstone’s modifications. A new date for the hearing has yet to be determined.
Like Gowanus, businesses and homes in Red Hook suffered from serious water damage, but two new ambitious projects are moving forward. Alessandro Cajrati Crivelli, founder of UK-based company Estate 4, is taking steps to develop the New York Dock Company building at 160 Imlay Street into a mixed-use space with condos, artist studios, and retail shops.
The architecture firm, Adjmi & Andreoli, has been selected to renovate this six-story building, in addition to a 130,000-square-foot old factory at 202 Coffey, which Crivelli also plans on transforming into a complex of artist studios and exhibition spaces. Morris Adjmi and Aldo Andreoli, partners at the firm, said that they had already prepared for the risk of flooding.
“We knew that the building was in Zone A so the hurricane only confirmed preventative measures that we were already working on,” said Adjmi and Andreoli. “We are also designing based on the knowledge that the water levels from Hurricane Sandy may not be the highest levels we should expect. Our flood plain line that we are working from is still several feet above where the water line was during Sandy.”
The architects said they will be taking standard precautionary measures such as raising the mechanical equipment above the flood plane on the first or second floor, filling in the basement level, implementing mitigation techniques, and flood proofing areas of the building including the fire pump, trash compactor, water heater, and elevator pits.
If anything, Hurricane Sandy was a strong indicator that flooding is a very real threat to buildings on the waterfront in Red Hook. The auction house, Christies, which leases the adjacent building from Federman, did have water infiltration on the lower levels, but no artwork was damaged since it is located on the second floor.
“The future of development in New York is on the waterfront and we will keep our direction with this, as it offers some of the most beautiful real estate in the city. With that being said, and Hurricane Sandy, we will take into account the same design intent we are using for 160 Imlay, of raising critical services, and being proactive in our approach to future flooding,” said Crivelli.
Crivelli will be re-submitting his architectural plans and applying for permits in 2013, but he is anticipating that there will be changes made to city codes.
“The storm has indeed delayed the permitting process as it is currently, but fortunately we are not yet there and do not expect to be until at least the new year,” said Morris Adjmi. “Regarding a change in permitting there will probably be some adjustments to flood construction requirements, but it will take more time for policy change to be enacted.”
The Department of City Planning (DCP) has been mulling over these issues, and at a hearing on November 13th, Amanda Burden discussed the revisions to the Waterfront Revitalization Program (WRP), which she said “take several important steps towards integration of climate change concerns in the planning and design of projects.” Burden requested an extended review period so the DCP can assess the data from Hurricane Sandy and make any additional revisions to the WRP. At a recent review session in late December, Howard Slatkin, the Director of Sustainability and Deputy Director of Strategic Planning for the DCP, presented a report, "Hurricane Sandy: Initial Lessons for Buildings." While his findings revealed that newly constructed buildings designed to code “fared better,” he said that upgrades to buildings codes and changes to flood maps must be implemented in the near future.
“We have been in continuous discussion with DCP and we have asked for data from them,” said Geto. “The DCP has to act before DOB can do anything. We are discussing these issues with City Planning and they will have a lot of authority and input into this plan.”
In spite of the risks, delays, and added costs, developers aren’t shying away from these projects any time soon. They are banking on New Yorkers’ strong and unrelenting desire to live and work by the water.
“Historically users respective to what they are—retails or residential–return to waterfront in metropolitan areas. There have been other storms. Obviously this was tremendous and significant storm, but people return and rebuild on the waterfront,” said Bruce Federman, Managing Director of Industry City and the former developer of 160 Imlay St, who owns a number of waterfront properties. “I am completely confident in the city, in its resiliency, and that there is a market for these properties.”