Thursday, November 08, 2012

Adapting To New Realities In Red Hook And Gowanus As We Move Forward Post-Hurricane Sandy

Gowanus Canal overflowing its banks during Hurricane
 FEMA Hurricane Flood map of the Gowanus Canal area
"In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that New York City's low-lying, heavily populated neighborhoods are more exposed to the threat of coastal flooding in a hurricane than most people realized
Large areas of southern Queens, southern Brooklyn, the lower east and west sides of Manhattan, and the perimeter of Staten Island could all suffer damage from a hurricane's storm surge. In addition, storm surge from a strong hurricane would not be limited to waterfront properties and could conceivably push miles inland in some areas. New York City's unique geography — located at a "bend" in the coastline between New Jersey and Long Island — makes it especially vulnerable.

Even a low-level hurricane that makes landfall near New York City could wash ocean waters over large sections of some coastal neighborhoods.
Storm surge can make landfall five hours before the hurricane itself. It can also take place after a hurricane has moved away from the city, as high seas slump back into confined spaces like Long Island Sound."

The flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy had a devastating effects on New York City. Here in South Brooklyn, it will take many months, if not years for low-lying neighborhoods like Gowanus and Red Hook to recover. However, as we move forward, let us hope that our City's officials have understood that these waterfront communities are fragile and that we need to consider the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise when planning the future of these areas. 

So far, Mayor Bloomberg,  New York City Planning under Amanda Burden, as well as members of our own Community Board 6 have ignored the warnings, especially in Gowanus. Instead, they have approved new developments, which will bring more residents to the shores of this EPA Superfund site and into a flood zone.  More people to evacuate and shelter in a storm.

It is up to us to hold them accountable and to get involved. And most importantly, we all need to get informed.
Below is a message from - Roland Lewis of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a non-for-profit group that has been working hard for over a decade to influence the development and use of our waterfront and shoreline. Please take some time to read it.
There are voices of reason out there.  

Pumping Out and Picking Up in a Changed World
Two hurricanes in two years. What we build and where we build at our shoreline are no longer academic questions. 
We need to adapt our shorefront plans -- and this could mean hard choices about where people live and how to protect the infrastructure that serves our metropolis. There will be calls for floodgates and other great barriers to defend our region, but we should also seriously think about a shoreline design that allows water to flow out as easily as it flows in, without damage to streets and buildings. We must work out a new relationship with the water, not fight it; think Venice, where the water is embraced and famously made part of the city, not New Orleans, hiding behind larger and bigger levees. Working with Mother Nature in this way could be more cost effective and less environmentally damaging, less likely to cut off the city from the rebirth of its waterfront. 
Most of all we need political leaders to make the response to sea level rise their highest priority. Mayor Bloomberg's nationally recognized Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability has a questionable future at the conclusion of the Mayor's last term. We must keep this office functioning at the highest levels and complement it with well-staffed regional, state and national level equivalents, all of them -- us! -- working in concert to develop coordinated plans for a safe, clean, thriving, wisely rebuilt waterfront. 
Roland Lewis, President and CEO, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

Incidentally, the MWA will be holding its 2012 General Assembly on November 14, 2012. They will be seeking input and advice on how to "substantively continue to make our harbor a great place for recreation, transportation, commerce, education, and restoration"

Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance 2012 General Assembly
November 14, 2012
South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street
New York NY
Reception and networking - 6:00-6:30pm
Meeting- 6:30-8:30pm


Anonymous said...

This is so small minded and self-serving. To stop all development along coastal areas would kill economies and relocate millions of people, as well as ignore thousands of years of human development patterns. But of course, you care not for the Jersey Shore, the Rockaways, the South Bronx, or even the commercial entities destroyed in Red Hook and Gowanus; you care for advancing your agenda.

Go ahead and use a natural disaster that was compounded by aging infrastructure and a toxic site that is in the process of being cleaned to push the notion that we must stop all development. Ignore the fact that newer development fare better, are built to a higher standard, upgrade their infrastructure and in all possible ways, weather storms far far better than the existing older buildings that got flooded. Ignore the fact that bringing people to the areas that need help grows constituencies, awareness, and is the only real way to see big change.

Ignore those facts because there is an opportunity to push your agenda.

You're smarter than this, and so are your readers.

Katia said...

I think I pointed out that we need to face the reality that
low-lying areas are fragile, that sea level rise is a reality that affects all residents in zone A, B and even C flood areas and that we need to get informed and force our politicians to do the same.

There is a sustainable way to develop our shorefront, which can and should include housing and businesses, but I don't believe that 700-unit buildings right on the waterfront are the way to go.
if we do, we better get used to massive evacuations and even more displaced residents during storms like Irene and Sandy.

As Roland Lewis points out, we need to rethink our shorelines and make sure that flood waters can flow out as easily as flow in.

Anything else is pure folly.

Anonymous said...

As far as smart development goes, just look at the difference between how Fairway fared vs Ikea.

Anonymous said...

9:00 You are the one who is small-minded, and self-serving. Katia is only the messenger of facts she did not make up - facts that are not convenient or money-making to people who think development has got to continue at whatever costs, because that's the name of the money-making game. You are doing your best to try to belittle the environmental realities, to try to support your position as the need to continue business as usual.
As far as development along water - the flood zone - Gowanus is not just "waterfront" property, as developers eyeing it for big bucks would have us try to believe - it is toxic, and, unless the sewage system gets a complete overhaul, full of crap. I know, my building is still under mandatory evacuation, and we tenants have no way of figuring out how to deal with the residue of toxicity and crap in our cellar.

Anonymous said...

Residential above parking garage base is a sustainable flood plain development strategy but that sucks for the neighborhood as the streets are devoid of life (visit 4th Avenue).

It is far better to have garages located below flood level and have to pump out the water once every 100 years. Lives lost in this storm were in low density areas - not high density areas. The Greenpoint-Williamsburg and DUMBO towers had the resources to clean and re-occupy after this flood while many low density Gowanus buildings continue to be vacant with businesses and families displaced.

The 700 units being built will include flood management so had that been completed by Toll / prior to the storm, the damage to buildings along Carroll, 1st, 2nd and Bond Sts. would have been avoided.

carole g. said...

Way to go Katia. Great post! Readers might also want to see:

A POO POO Tsunami hits the the Gowanus Canal and other crappy news.

in order to see how the raw sewage in the Canal is more just crap.

Anonymous said...

2:44 - at what cost to the surrounding areas? That water WILL go somewhere, has to! A development in a flood zone impacts the lands around it. You need wetalnds to help absorb water and flooding. Don't build densely if at all on wetlands. Common sense.

Marlene said...

Just don't understand the "narrow minded" notion that we should develop at the waters's edge at any cost. The current wave of coastal development is not based on any open market notion.

page 43 of the 2010 NYS Sea Level Sea Level Rise Task Force has this to say on the matter:

Risk  in  coastal  areas  is  also  increasing  due  to  decisions  that  favor  coastal  development  at  the  local  level.  Local  governments  are  at  the  front  lines  of  decision  making  about  regulation,  taxation,  zoning  and  development  decisions  in  New  York  State’s  315  coastal  cities,  towns  and  villages.  . . . .  They  decide  how  close  landowners  can  build  to  the  water,  enforce  building  codes  and  permit  development  projects.  In  most  communities,  these  decisions  are  made  in  isolation.  . . . .  In  addition,  many  local  leaders  have  little  knowledge  of  the  risks  posed  by  sea  level  rise  and  continue  to  permit  new  development  in  high‐risk  coastal  areas.  
Local  political  pressures  generally  favor  economic  growth.  New  residential  development  is  the  primary  means  to  raise  revenue  for  these  governments  through  assessment  of  real  property  taxes.  . . . .  This  situation  presents  a  serious  obstacle  to  dealing  with  climate  change  impacts  locally.

That report favors "non‐structural solutions" for coastal areas on NY State. The Gowanus is just such an area.
Non‐structural solutions, means not building structures.

Anonymous said...

to 9am "Typical land‐use planning and permitting processes and public‐health policies seldom explicitly address the public-health implications of development in areas at high risk for flooding." see
p. 44. Much good info there to counter your argument that the info Katia conveyed is "small-minded and sel-serving." And it is coming from the government itself!

Batman said...

From the candor of the comments here, it appears no one here is actually in the Flood Plain management industry or even the construction industry.

It is possible to build safely and correctly in a floodplain. There are terms like "break-away walls" that sound ridiculous, but are used in non-habitable areas of buildings ("below-flood enclosures") to ensure that water pressure from surges does NOT build up and adversely affect properties around them.

Additionally, the surrounding residents of the canal do not have much to fear, as nearly all of the homes are uphill from the canal. For the water to get to even just Hoyt Street would take a MASSIVE surge, something well beyond a 100 or 500 year storm.

As for low-lying areas like Red Hook, that is a more complicated answer. While correct that wetland tended to buffer inland areas, to return areas to wetland in an amount that they would matter would mean that all of Southern Brooklyn, a lot of Red Hook, most of the South Shore of Long Island, half of Jersey across from Manhattan, and, oh yeah, ALL of the NYC airports and stadiums would have to be wiped out and restored. Look at the map:

Without that done, keeping tall buildings out of your Gowanus backyard will have no impact on storm readiness or impacts.

Anonymous said...

The wetlands of Brooklyn are well protected. Gowanus has not been a wetland for over a century.

The 98% paved industrial lots will be replaced with pervious surfaces and storm mitigation measures when they are redeveloped. The engineering is not complicated.

The status quo (& flooding) will continue unless Gowanus properties are redeveloped. EPA's Superfund requires that they are cleaned and redeveloped.

Anonymous said...

The current city approach to climate change in coastal areas is to just “manage” the situation till it is no longer manageable. This approach, as we see now, has a certain set of costs, not just financial but costs to social and physical well being.

The city needs to be held accountable for these re-zoning decisions by demonstrating that those costs of “manging” don't align very well with projected additional tax revenue from coastal development.

The most difficult part of this equation is accounting for costs to social and physical well being.
For cost of risk, analysis should look to insurance assessments. Insurance companies are definitely covering their bottom line and the government should use similar reasoning in assessing whether projected tax revenues form a coastal development will ever offset the costs of “managing” the risk of the coastal location.

And while FEMA is a necessary Federal agency, bringing necessary help just now, it is the resources of this Federal Agency that makes new development financially affordable for developers who are not covering the cost of FEMA.

When we had more of a free-marked system, people weren't opting to build in the coastal flood areas the city is now looking to develop.

Anonymous said...

The Gowanus has a Flood-Plain management system in place. The current elevation was engineered, as a community wide Flood Plain management system to drain the upland meadows. It is the reason why portions of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens even exist. The height of the bulkheads, the grade levels, and the slope of the land are essential features to the current Flood Plain management system. It is this system that needs area wide improvement to help the region deal with climate change conditions.

Most present day Flood management systems are temporary solutions--typically they last till the next major storm. And when flood plain management systems are built in isolation they create harm in adjacent areas-- from change in water table levels to trapping and prolonging flood waters.

The Flood management plans for the Lightstone project in Gowanus may temporary protect their own physical structures by raising the bulkhead and elevating their particular site. What are the region wide repercussions to making these isolated changes? Under current regulations, Lightstone must account for only a certain amount of rain in typical weather conditions. Lightstone isn't accountable for adjacent areas, but the municipality is. Any changes to the existing Flood Plain Management system must serve the region and not just a particular site. The city of NY is responsible for knowing that these sort of developments don't create more harm given the known effects of climate change this region can expect. Currently there is no municipal process in place to make regional assessments on these impacts.

There are good reasons the NY State Sea level report advises a "non-structural" solution to address climate changes impacts to coastal areas.

Margaret said...

5:04 - If Gowanus has a flood management system in place, then why all the mess? In my building, still under mandatory evacuation, the basement is still flooded. The electrical boxes, only 4 years old, look like they are 50 years old - all electrical has to be replaced down there. The boiler, which was submerged, is likely nonrepairable. We have to worry about mold in the basement as well. The electricity cannot be restored until a lot of work is done - but you cannot get parts now - so at least two weeks, which will turn into more weeks. So no power, no heat, mold concerns - all due to flooding.