A Blueprint for a Resilient New York City

Posted on July 17, 2013 by Gail Port

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency recently promulgated a 438-page report titled “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” (the “Resiliency Report”) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating destruction on October 29th, 2012. The Resiliency Report emphasizes the inevitable effects of climate change and rising sea levels, opening with a climate analysis conducted by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (“NYCPCC”). According to the NYCPCC, 25% of New York City’s land mass, home to 800,000, will be in the floodplain by 2050. The Resiliency Report is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, an unprecedented program initiated in 2007, which currently has 132 initiatives to make New York City (“NYC”) more sustainable and adaptable to the effects of climate change. Given the historic impact of Hurricane Sandy and the concern that future weather events could be just as devastating—or even worse—the Resiliency Report was commissioned to build on the momentum of PlaNYC.

The Resiliency Report contains over 250 proposals, implementation of which is estimated to cost $19.5 billion. Approximately $15 billion has been or is expected to be appropriated from federal and city sources, but the remainder of the required funding may be dependent on whether further aid will be available from the federal or state governments. Among other things, the Resiliency Report calls for the restoration of dunes, widening of beaches, and erection of localized surge barriers, levees, and floodwalls in particularly vulnerable areas. The Report also calls for amendment of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which currently only allows for premium reductions if the house is elevated, to allow for flood insurance premium reductions if the homeowner makes other flood-related improvements. Additionally, a Building Resiliency Task Force (established by the Mayor and City Council Speaker Quinn) recently issued a separate Building Resiliency Report, focusing in greater detail on building structural and infrastructure resiliency. The Building Resiliency Report has 33 specific recommendations based on four central themes: constructing stronger buildings, securing backup power, providing essential services, and developing building-specific emergency plans.

Numerous issues have already been raised regarding recommendations in the Resiliency Report. One such example is the controversial proposal of a SeaPort City, which has already spawned community resistance. SeaPort City would be an artificial expansion of the lower east side of Manhattan modeled after Battery Park City, which was highly successful in reducing flood-damage from Hurricane Sandy on the lower west side. Although it has been emphasized as a resiliency initiative, SeaPort City would serve the dual purposes of acting as a protective barrier and providing highly coveted residential and commercial real estate. Nearby South Street Seaport residents and businesses, which were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, argue that this massive landfill would harm wildlife and would have an adverse effect on preservation of the historic neighborhood. Since the plan for SeaPort City is still in its infancy, the costs for such a development have not been calculated into the already staggering $19.5 billion costs to implement the other Resiliency Report proposals.

The Resiliency Report opens with an invigorating foreword by Mayor Bloomberg, stating that “[w]e are a coastal city—and we cannot, and will not, abandon our waterfront.” In contrast, on the state level, Governor Cuomo’s floodplain buy-out program provides an incentive for private homeowners to relocate from the coastline. This $400 million purchase program offers to buy houses in flood-prone areas, specifically in Staten Island, with the value offered depending on the vulnerability of the particular neighborhood. The houses would be demolished and the properties would remain undeveloped to act as a natural buffer for future storms. Governor Cuomo stated that “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns . . . and when she comes to visit, she visits.” Though the buy-out program still awaits federal approval, it has garnered substantial support from Staten Island representatives. The governor’s proposal is consistent with the views of members of the NYCPCC who have urged for a retreat from coastlines.

Regardless of methodology, all parties agree that some changes must be implemented soon to address the growing threat of climate change and rising sea levels. The success of the recommendations in the Resiliency Report and the continuing success of PlaNYC will hinge predominantly on the initiatives of Mayor Bloomberg’s successor. The Bloomberg administration has five months left to lay the foundation for these programs, but the responsibility to implement both the Resiliency Report recommendations and PlaNYC ultimately will fall on the next mayor. The incoming mayor must have the will, dedication, funding and community support to ensure the programs’ continued success. Will the new mayor be willing to commission studies of the SeaPort City proposal? Will the new mayor be able to secure the funding required to implement recommendations in the Resiliency Report? Will the new mayor build on the successes of PlaNYC? Will the new mayor become the flag-bearer for the adaptation of New York City and its coastal metropolitan areas to address growing environmental concerns? These and other questions have already become an important part of the campaign dialogue as voters form their positions for the upcoming mayoral election in November.