All Wet

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

Asked if the city was concerned about the siting of these new projects, Aggarwala described the question—twice—as "strange." Why would it be more of a concern, he responded, "that an apartment which is yet to be constructed would be more exposed than someone already exposed in an existing apartment," equating the challenge of retrofitting the city's already overpopulated shorefront properties with the retooling of the ones still on paper. "The question is, Can we think about the risk exposure in a way that we can have the development we want and improve overall the level of protection New Yorkers have against climate change?" asked Aggarwala, who formerly worked for the consulting company McKinsey, which is now advising the sustainability project at an eight-month cost of $850,000. Acknowledging that the city has not even included, as Rosenzweig has long recommended, climate change as part of its environmental impact review of proposed projects, Aggarwala says only: "It's one possible approach we are considering."

In the sixth year of Bloomberg, it may seem a little late to begin to examine these questions. But if Doctoroff is the one answering the questions, the best bet is that "we can have the development we want" and probably with very little change in the "level of protection" required. After all, Bloomberg has already advertised his protégé's manifest destiny. "Doctoroff, by the time he gets done," the mayor told The New York Times last year, "will have a greater impact on this city, I think, than Robert Moses." That certainly opens the door very wide for Doctoroff development—Olympian venues all over New York minus the Olympics. Unlike the half- century-old monuments to superbuilder Moses, however, warming may endanger Doctoroff's legacy comparatively quickly.

Illustration by Jonathan Barkat


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Last summer, 10 top climate scientists posted a joint statement contending that "the main hurricane problem facing the U.S." was an ongoing "lemming-like march to the sea" in the form of unabated coastal development and the lack of changes in government policies driving that trend. A 2000 FEMA study predicted that one in four buildings within 500 feet of the coast will be lost to sea-level rise, without factoring in any storm surge. Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow with the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, likened "unfettered urban and coastal development" to "madness" in his just-published The Edge of Disaster, adding that it "makes no sense to encourage construction along vulnerable coastlines and within floodplains."

These voices echo what Rosenzweig found in her seminal, federally funded 2001 study of the city and climate change, which called for "changing zoning and land-use policies to provide for systematic and equitable retreat from vulnerable areas."

Where retreat wasn't practical, the 210-page Rosenzweig report urged "new engineering codes that place all critical components" of coastal public and private development "at sufficiently high elevations," as well as other design requirements "imposing better flood protection."

Yet the Javits Center expansion, some of the already planned residential West Side towers, the Freedom Tower, the bathtub east foundation, and the rest of the ground zero projects are Manhattan examples of unadapted floodplain or evacuation-zone development. The city-funded $2 billion expansion of the No. 7 subway line brings it a block from the river, and the MTA says it's planning to elevate the entrances because the site is in the evacuation zone, but it's unclear if the MTA adjustment is enough.

A similar rush to the sea in Brooklyn is so unrestrained that the city, preoccupied with promoting a string of high-priced high-rises along the Williamsburg waterfront, neglected incentives for inland low-income units, prompting local councilman David Yassky to call the inland plans "a failure." Red Hook district manager Craig Hammerman cites the same floodplain pattern, with developers "rushing to convert former manufacturing sites to residential uses on the banks of the Gowanus Canal even though you have raw sewage emptying into that canal every week," and no one building on higher ground nearby. DUMBO and other borough projects are also on the water.

More than 4,000 Arverne by the Sea and other residential units are under way on the barrier peninsula of the Rockaways, as are similar Staten Island mixed-use developments at the former Stapleton Homeport and adjacent to the ferry terminal, where 200 new apartments and an underground restaurant are planned. Paul Mankiewicz, the executive director of a leading local environmental group, the Gaia Institute, says that "when you build on the low- lying sand pits of the Rockaways, it's going to be a very serious problem, even in the short term."

Many climate experts reconciled to the inevitability of coastal development are frustrated by the city's failure to set any of the tougher standards called for in the Rosenzweig study. "I hope they're elevating it," said Rae Zimmerman, an NYU planning professor and director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems. "You're going to have to build in flood barriers, flood walls." Columbia's Klaus Jacob, who, like Zimmerman, worked on the Rosenzweig report, continues to recommend "elevation laterally combined with retreat from the shoreline," as well as relocating heating, cooling, and electrical systems. Even one of the members of the Doctoroff advisory board, Elizabeth Yeampierre, chair of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, expresses this concern. "If you're going to do something on the waterfront," says the Sunset Park–based Yeampierre, "you should have an understanding of what the climate-change implications are for that development."

Doug Foy, who is advising Doctoroff from Massachusetts, points to one factor that may make the city change its business-as-usual development strategies: the insurance industry.
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