All Wet

Bloomberg's man Dan Doctoroff has an answer for rising seas: more coastal condos!

A Rosenzweig associate, Radley Horton, spelled out these sea-level uncertainties, calling the attempts to calculate the melting of polar land ice "elusive," but noting that scientists are now observing "faster rates of melt" and may be forced to recalibrate their models and "increase sea-level projections." Rohit Aggarwala, a historian with an MBA hired by Doctoroff six months ago to run the sustainability project, says the five inches is "a moderate scenario," one of nine that Rosenzweig has configured that factor in "different probabilities." Doug Foy, the former development and climate advisor to Mitt Romney now on Doctoroff's consulting tab at $200,000 a year, doesn't disagree. He says sea-level rise is "much higher than five inches farther out" and that it "all hinges on glacier melting," adding that Columbia's estimate is "the hardest" available but still "pretty speculative." Columbia mid-century and end-of-century projections are from two to three feet, even without a Greenland meltdown.

The significance of sea-level projections to a city at the exposed end of a right-angle wind-and-water funnel where New Jersey and Long Island look across New York Harbor at each other has been apparent forever. But with warming waters and more frequent intense storms and hurricanes, the Army Corps of Engineers now ranks New York, Miami, and New Orleans at the top of the potential surge heap. So do the big property insurers. Higher seas add to the surge threat, especially with our underground city of subways, sewers, utilities, and tunnels uniquely exposed to saltwater flooding and shorting, and especially with the billions we've invested in floodplain development.

Doctoroff offered his minuscule version of anticipated rise at Schumer's shindig in response to a question about whether the city should be considering storm barriers or seawalls as part of its long-term sustainability plan, like London did decades ago. It was his way of explaining why it wasn't. He agreed to discuss the city's response to climate change in a subsequent Voice interview, but then refused repeated requests to do so.

Illustration by Jonathan Barkat


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The only goal in Doctoroff's 23-year plan that deals directly with warming is the salutary promise to cut the city's carbon emissions by 30 percent—a drop in the global bucket that's useful as a municipal lesson plan but will do nothing to lift the climate foot off our collective throats. The only speaker on the Queens Museum stage in December to actually raise this issue was Rosenzweig, a participant in a six-person panel moderated by Tom Brokaw that followed Bloomberg's speech and a series of videos. During an hour-and-a-half exposition about the city's grandest days to come, Rosenzweig offered a momen tary warning: that the city also had to work on "adapting to climate extremes."

Adapting was a carefully chosen word that has great meaning in the climate-change world. Even the Bush administration signed on to a United Nations compact worked out in Montreal in 2005 that committed nearly every country in the world to getting serious about adapting to new global weather patterns. In a recent Nature magazine piece called "Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation," four top climate experts argued that adapting to the changing climate by building resilient societies would go further in securing the future than only cutting gas emissions. Apparently oblivious to event etiquette, Rosenzweig insisted on at least raising this grim news. Brokaw acted as if he hadn't heard it, and Rosenzweig's bow to reality lasted about as long as Lower Manhattan does in Gore's Academy Award–winning flood, with the only scientist on the panel discounted for uttering her own inconvenient truth.

There are many reasons why the city is adaptation-averse, and, of course, they start with real estate interests. If Doctoroff were to take adaptation seriously, he'd have to rethink his growth agenda, much of which is centered on the city's shoreline. His greatest development initiatives are coastal rezonings, from the West Side to Greenpoint/Williamsburg; at the same time that he can't get even "moderate" estimates of sea-level rise right, he's spurring development by the sea at an unprecedented pace.

Dan Doctoroff
photo: Richard B. Levine

The Voice has overlaid Doctoroff's biggest projects onto maps of both FEMA-defined floodplains and Office of Emergency Management's storm evacuation zones, and it's as good a fit as the deputy mayor's suits. Informed of this awkward coincidence at the Schumer party, Doctoroff said he would have to "look into that." Aggarwala later confirmed that the projects indeed were in the zones. But Doctoroff's 35-year-old, $159,720-a-year sustainability master planner would only say that "we are thinking about the impact of climate change on some of the new development," refusing to specify any changes in city waterfront planning that are being contemplated.

Aggarwala did raise the example of Coney Island, suggesting that the City Planning Commission was considering the application of some climate criteria there, where a developer has proposed condo towers, hotels, and an amusement park, all pressed up against a vulnerable coastline. But he refused to be specific about what these first-time standards might be, and all the CPC has disclosed is its displeasure with the idea of building 50 stories of time-shares next to a new Cyclone. Rosenzweig's most comprehensive study advocated that the city buy up coastal properties to restrain development. In Coney Island, however, it has instead given away city-owned property, plus subsidies, to encourage it. In fact, the city's Economic Development Corporation has, according to City Law, sold $1.1 billion in city property to private developers in the last seven years, with Doctoroff running it all but one of those years. Since EDC projects are concentrated on the waterfront, so were many of these 129 parcels.

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