Gentrified Aquarium: De Blasio's Streetcar and the Tale of Two Waterfronts

Gentrified Aquarium: De Blasio's Streetcar and the Tale of Two WaterfrontsEXPAND
Illustration by Josh Keyes

Twice a month, when the moon is new or full, Marlen Waaijer watches water from Jamaica Bay rush by her hundred-year-old home at the end of Beach 37th Street in Edgemere, Queens, a few stops from the end of the A train at Far Rockaway. "The tides get very high, and the water has to go somewhere," she says. "If it's really, really bad, cars can't drive, and you're locked in your house for the duration of the high tide. The fish start to swim up the street."

The seventy-year-old retired computer scientist moved to Edgemere in 2002, after being pushed out of the East Village and then Park Slope by rising rents. "I was always on the wrong end of gentrification," she explains. "Everything else in New York City is so expensive it makes me cry." When Waaijer purchased her house from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it had been abandoned for some time, and she was surrounded by bare land. The seaside hotels and summer bungalows that dotted the neighborhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were long gone. "It felt like it was the last piece of nature that surrounded the city," she says.

In just a few years, Waaijer had a lot of company. Single-family houses began to sprout up around her, spurred by city and state-sponsored incentives for first-time homebuyers and renters looking for affordable housing. According to a report prepared by the city after Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, many of those homes were left "virtually unprotected from the storm's waters," which surged over six feet in the neighborhood and dislodged more than 1.5 million cubic yards of beach sand. Waaijer says only her basement flooded, but her neighbors were not so fortunate: "The street looked like a war zone for three or four months."

Waaijer insists that she was well aware of the risks of moving into the area at the lowest elevation in New York City. "My dream was to live right next to the water, in the wetlands. And if you're in the wetlands, you can expect to be wet. I was hoping it'd last my lifetime, and now I'm not so sure."

The city's climate projections show that by the 2050s, the sea will have risen enough that Waaijer's home and others in a large swath of Edgemere will be underwater during every high tide, and not just the stronger ones. That is why over the last few months the city has approached Waaijer and her neighbors to buy up their property or trade it in, in exchange for city-owned lots farther inland, a move called managed, or strategic, retreat. Similar initiatives have been successful along Staten Island's east shore, the part of the city hit hardest by Sandy, where hundreds of homes have been bought by the state, the city, and the federal government. That land then becomes a natural storm barrier.

But where some see a progressive, if controversial, solution to the intractable problem that impacts the city's 520 miles of coastline, others see more waterfront real estate opportunities. Just four miles from Waaijer's home, developers are planning over 260,000 square feet of residential and retail space on Beach 115th Street called "Seaport Landing," a name that will become especially appropriate in less than forty years, when its already-substantial risk of flooding markedly increases. In Red Hook, buyers are snatching up $3 million townhomes near a planned 1.1 million square–foot "innovation" campus that boasts a "marine education school," in a neighborhood that sits entirely in the floodplain. Columbia University's new $6.8 billion Manhattanville campus in Upper Manhattan won't survive a tropical storm at the end of the century unless it's surrounded by berms or sea walls.

Some of these multibillion-dollar projects that the real estate industry is erecting along the water, daring future generations to deal with, were plotted years ago, before Sandy made the city's vulnerabilities to climate change undeniable. Yet Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed $2.5 billion streetcar, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, is a creature of 2016, and while it offers a new way to fund public transportation in the face of Albany's intransigence, the method the city will use to pay for it — tax revenues from increasing market-rate waterfront development — is pure global warming regression.

According to city documents obtained by the Voice, more than half of the BQX's sixteen-mile route is in the floodplain, and nearly a quarter of it is in an area susceptible to more severe flooding due to storm surges. The BQX isn't just a clichéd amenity for developers and a waste of the administration's political capital; it also threatens to undermine the city's efforts to plan for the devastating and imminent effects of climate change.

Those efforts are already a bewildering and at times contradictory patchwork of city, state, and federal actors. While the state and city buy some imperiled homes and return them to nature, they auction off others to homeowners willing to put them on stilts and roll the dice. The flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that are baked into the city's building code are designed to sell insurance, not protect us from climate change. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building a seawall on Staten Island's east shore, where other similar measures have failed, while some of the poorest and most vulnerable areas in the city watch their protections stall or languish.

Mayor de Blasio, who won his office decrying New York's tale of two cities, is now overseeing the creation of two different waterfronts: one in which we soberly address the very real prospect of living with an extra six feet of water by century's end, and another that cheers the rapacious, anthropogenic boneheadedness that got us into this mess in the first place.

If there is a player in the city's global warming response that is largely shielded from political and economic exigencies, it is the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), a group of independent experts formed in 2008 under the Bloomberg administration that meets twice a year.

"The science is telling us, and the NPCC that advises us, is giving us clear guidance that the risk of flooding is becoming more frequent and more intense," says Dan Zarrilli, the city's chief resilience officer and head of the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

The NPCC believes it's wise to assume that the ocean levels here will rise six feet by the end of this century. Technically this "90th Percentile" projection represents the models that are the most severe.

"People say, 'but 90th percentile, that's so high,' " Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist and climate disaster expert at Columbia University who serves on the NPCC, says. "But we don't know what our future emissions scenarios are, we don't know what our future economic developments in China and India are, we don't know what our energy policies in the U.S. and Europe will be." And since sea levels are unquestionably "unidirectional" for at least the next few hundred years, the extreme looks pretty likely. "Would you get on an airplane that has a 10 percent chance of falling out of the sky?" he asks.

Jacob's position on the panel gives him the unique ability to work for the government while harshly critiquing its tendency to live in the present. He is credited with warning the MTA about how a severe weather event like Sandy could cripple its infrastructure, which helped to mitigate the damages. He also shamed Con Ed in 2013 for failing to take into account climate change risks in the company's own $1 billion "storm-hardening" proposals.

Surveying the bigger developments along the city's waterfront, Jacob says, "Some will last longer than others." He believes Two Trees' Domino Sugar Factory development in Williamsburg — which will have a total of 2,800 apartments, the first of which will be finished by next summer — is "high enough that it almost certainly will make it nicely through the reasonable storms we can expect by the year 2100 with the 90th percentile sea level rise.

"But it's not clear to me that the neighborhood surrounding it — the access to those higher-lying new developments, and the infrastructure, will function."

In other words, even if these new luxury waterfront developments survive the steady pummeling from the storms that are poised to strike with increasing frequency, Williamsburg residents in the late twenty-first century might need Citi Bike, but for jet skis.

Two Trees is elevating its entire eleven-acre Domino Sugar site by three feet, one foot above the city's requirements, and claims that the site would handle a storm better with the development on it than without. "All mechanicals will be located above the ground floor so we can protect against outages. There will be a six-acre public park built on the waterfront with sustainable and resilient materials that will create an additional buffer," says David Lombino, a Two Trees spokesperson.

Jacob says, "You can't blame the developer, who does his schtick, for the failure of others." However, he does blame developers for the BQX.

"My sense is that this was very much a developer-driven idea which correctly states that there's a lack of a north-south transportation system," he says. "Developers, which are of course large taxpayers, are much closer to where decisions are being made in the city than those folks that live in those neighborhoods that want to get from the Bronx to downtown Brooklyn."

Mayor de Blasio's pitch for the BQX is that it will help transit-starved neighborhoods like Red Hook and Astoria, while also connecting and spurring development in the "innovation clusters" along the waterfront, like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park.

"A lot of people are just going to take this from one point to another without transferring," the mayor said in February. "This is progress unto itself."

If there's no transferring, it may be because the BQX will be run by the city, and the MTA hasn't agreed to honor transfers. It's also not clear that the demand for a streetcar along this route exists: By the city's own count, only 21 people would use it to commute from Astoria to DUMBO today. And even if the city's rosy ridership predictions for growth come true, in twenty years the BQX would have the same number of passengers as just two of the city's busier bus routes. Adding a handful of buses to Brooklyn's waterfront wouldn't take eight years and billions of dollars to implement.

The BQX was met with skepticism among City Hall's professional staff almost from the start, according to an employee who has worked on the project since its February announcement. The administration never did a thorough and costly feasibility study, instead relying on a study of another study, one conducted by Friends of the BQX, an advocacy group made up of the major developers along the waterfront — chief among them Two Trees, which also has many properties in DUMBO. City staff began calling it the "GX," the Gentrification Express.

"The notion that lower-income areas of the city should be left without adequate transportation only serves to further entrench inequality," says Anthony Hogrebe, a spokesperson for the city's Economic Development Corporation, which is leading the project. As for the BQX being in the floodplain, Hogrebe promises that the city is "taking future storms and climate change into account in every aspect of our planning."

Jacob suggests moving the BQX to "higher land," where there are more people who also lack access to transit and ferries.

Zarrilli, the city's chief resilience officer, insists that with proper planning, "There is a climate-smart way to develop that project." He points to Red Hook as an example. "If you look at some of the potential alignments of the streetcar, it matches some of the alignments of the flood protection."

According to documents reviewed by the Voice, the path Zarrilli is referring to heads down Columbia Street and then east on Mill Street, mostly skirting the floodplain as best it can in a neighborhood that is almost entirely within it. Other proposed routes head down either Van Brunt or Richards Street before heading east on Beard Street.

And Red Hook is hardly the only problem. While the BQX's potential routes through Williamsburg down either Kent, Wythe, or Berry streets stay dry in the current floodplain, it is impossible to avoid it crossing Newtown Creek, a Superfund site. One projection has the BQX entering Brooklyn from Queens at the Pulaski Bridge, where it stays in the floodplain down McGuinness Boulevard until it hits Greenpoint Avenue.

"The streetcar is just bizarre," says Eddie Bautista, the executive director for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. "It's not to say there isn't a need for better transportation options for people living in Brooklyn and Queens; no one would question that. But why would you build a trolley in a storm surge zone as opposed to looking to extend bus rapid transit or Select Bus Service, or something that you can move when there's a flood?"

Bautista's group has focused on the city's six Significant Maritime Industrial Areas — including Red Hook, the Navy Yard, and Newtown Creek — neighborhoods where predominantly low-income communities of color live alongside heavy industrial sites.

"In 2010, we started mapping the SMIAs with storm surge zone overlays from the state Office of Emergency Management, and we were beyond alarmed," Bautista says. "Every single one the of the SMIA were vulnerable, not just to hurricanes or nor'easters, but heavy rainfalls."

Bautista credits Mayor Bloomberg, whom he worked for as director of legislative affairs, for making climate change a priority in the city's comprehensive coastal protection plan released in 2013. He also praises de Blasio for taking his predecessor's "data-driven approach and really inserting the much-needed lenses of disparities and inequality."

But Bautista says that there are some pressures that no mayor can resist.  

"There's a certain sense of schizophrenia that sets in in the mayor's offices in the city. You have this free-market love of development in this town and the race for housing development, and the inconsistency that the city has to be made more sustainable," he says. "No mayor has really grappled with that well."

Bautista also questions the proposed mechanism for paying for the BQX through tax revenues from a metastasizing waterfront already rife with glass towers.

"They're essentially taking the gentrification that's sweeping across the Brooklyn waterfront, capturing the projected revenues, and using that to finance the streetcar," Bautista says. "They're using the very same displacement pressures that are forcing low-income people out of those neighborhoods and doubling down on something that's only going to exacerbate displacement."

Gentrified Aquarium: De Blasio's Streetcar and the Tale of Two Waterfronts
Illustration by Nathan Fox

After Superstorm Sandy hit Red Hook with eleven-foot storm tides, causing five feet of inundation, the neighborhood's united response became a hopeful symbol. Local businesses shared generators and hosted barbeques, and residents worked with groups like Occupy Sandy to provide the basic necessities that FEMA and other government agencies were slow in supplying.

"We have a strong community in terms of working together and banding around together whenever everybody needs it," says Gita Nandan, an architect and Red Hook resident.

Yet stupefying bureaucracy, welching politicians, and the continued segregation of public housing residents from the communities they live in are preventing Red Hook from tackling the challenges of climate change with a united front.

In April of 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo set aside funding so more than a hundred communities across the state (fifteen of them in New York City) could organize and begin planning for the next big storm. Nandan was named co-chair of her committee. The experts released their findings a year later: Red Hook needed an integrated flood protection system (IFPS) that would cost roughly $200 million and take two years to construct.

Nandan describes the IFPS as a "holistic" blend of physical measures — berms, walls, elevated sites, drainage pumps — and policy decisions, like incentivizing businesses and developers to build more sustainably.

In January of 2014, Cuomo's office announced that in order "to protect the low-lying neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, the state is developing a $200 million partnership with New York City to construct a comprehensive flood management system, the first of its kind in the nation, in the community."

But nearly three years later, the IFPS plan is still in its infancy, and earlier this year the state and federal governments quietly indicated that the budget would be cut in half, to $100 million. The state and city would split the costs. "Nobody's really sure what can be built for $100 million," Nandan says. Jacob, the geophysicist who sits on the NPCC, calls Red Hook's situation "hopeless."

"We recognize there's flood risk in Red Hook and we've been taking very aggressive actions to try to fill that pot," says Zarrilli, the city's chief resilience officer.

A spokesperson for the governor's office had a novel interpretation for the shrinking amount of funding: "This is not a project reduced in scope by half, this is a case of the project now being better defined."

So why did Governor Cuomo tell the public that Red Hook's flood protection system was going to get $200 million in the first place?

"That is such an uninteresting question," another spokesperson for the governor says dismissively. "It's just a weird question."

Though the IFPS is supposed to protect all of Red Hook's 13,000 residents, the funding formula counts fewer than half of them. Most Red Hook residents live in public housing, but they are not included in the city's cost-benefit analysis for securing federal funding for Red Hook's flood protection system. That is because the perpetually beleaguered New York City Housing Authority, which has a $17 billion gap in repairs and capital spending and already had myriad headaches long before Sandy hit, received its own $3 billion pot from FEMA to repair the extensive damages caused by the storm and make 33 different housing campuses across the city more resilient.

The Red Hook Houses were hit harder than most by Sandy. For weeks after the storm, they were without heat, power, or hot water. Four years later, those residents are still using temporary boilers, as are at least fourteen other NYCHA sites, according to a spokesperson for the agency, and they will be through the winter of 2018. NYCHA's $3 billion wasn't made available until December of 2015, more than three years after Sandy hit.

"What I find to be the most disheartening is that these processes are not in sync with each other," Nandan says. "So if NYCHA goes ahead and does all this spending of dollars to raise their mechanicals and create a sort of waterproof entrance system, great, that's awesome. But then we'll have redundancy, because their system will be behind another [neighborhood-wide] system. I believe in redundancy, but we have limited dollars and therefore we're not being conscious about where to spend those dollars wisely, because we are potentially duplicating efforts."

A NYCHA spokesperson pledged that the agency's resiliency efforts and the neighborhood-wide IFPS will be "complementary."

"In a way, in the future, the projects will be better off than the rest of the neighborhood, which is ironic and interesting. I think that's a great twist, you know?" Nandan says. "But at the same time the rest of the neighborhood still needs this flood wall, we still need protection over the course of the next fifty years. It's very seriously coming fast."

Gentrified Aquarium: De Blasio's Streetcar and the Tale of Two WaterfrontsEXPAND
Source: maps.nyc.gov/resiliency / Map by Joe Lertola/Bryan Christie Design

Staten Island saw 24 people killed during the storm, more than any other borough. Peak tides reached sixteen feet, and Oakwood Beach on the east shore was inundated with around eight feet of water.

Residents there decided they had had enough, and asked the state to buy their homes out for what they were worth before the storm. The state eventually agreed, and bought more than 450 homes in three neighborhoods at the cost of around $200 million, and will return that area to nature. The USDA has also spent around $23 million buying homes in New Dorp Beach and Midland Beach, and the city now has similar programs in several east shore neighborhoods.

Liz Koslov is an ethnographer finishing her PhD at NYU. Her dissertation is titled Retreat: Moving to Higher Ground in a Climate-Changed City.

Koslov began attending meetings of buyout groups shortly after Sandy hit. "I came into this studying anti-displacement activism, so that's what I expected to find on Staten Island, that's what I was looking for, people that were fighting this idea of retreat. Why would a community organize to disperse itself? It seems very counterintuitive."

Instead, Koslov found that the lingering damage of the 2008 financial crisis, the regular flooding many residents were already experiencing, and the willingness of a population heavily made up of police officers, firefighters, and other municipal employees to challenge a bureaucracy they knew well, made for a climate in which retreat was less about "abandon[ing] our waterfront," as Mayor Bloomberg once put it, and more about approaching the challenge rationally. Another factor was that the state-sponsored program ensured that the land wouldn't be redeveloped.

"Maybe the upfront costs of retreat seem high, but then follow people over time, they're not having all the other costs of forced displacement," Koslov says. "If we can quantify those other enormous long-term social costs of these other forms of displacement, then it won't seem as expensive to give someone the money they actually need to live somewhere safe that they have some autonomy over."

But even as Staten Islanders were deciding whether to move away from danger, another branch of government was undertaking a massive construction effort to protect them if they stayed.

In 2015, a little more than twenty years after they officially began planning it, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would build a 5.3-mile seawall along the east shore of Staten Island. By the Corps' count, this is the fifth project put in place to protect the east shore from flooding and storm surges in eighty years.

"If they build it, and it's finished before any subsequent storms or hurricanes will do havoc to the east coast of Staten island, it will protect the area and therefore it will reduce the flood [insurance] premiums," Jacob says. "But it also has the consequence that people will feel safer behind this structure, which ultimately will be overcome by the combination of sea-level rise and storm surges. It has a short-term benefit, but a long-term negative impact because people will stay longer than they probably should." Asked to comment on these critiques by telephone and email, a spokesperson for the Corps did not respond.

The city is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars reconstructing and elevating thousands of homes, many of them behind the seawall, as part of its Build It Back program, and a program sponsored by the state has bought more than 100 homes and then auctioned them off to different homeowners, who must make the necessary construction improvements within three years. Build It Back alone has burned through $720 million just on repairing single-family homes, with close to another billion budgeted for the work. A spokesperson for the city said that the program has a total of 8,640 applicants, and the mayor has said he wants all of them to be served before the end of 2016.

These projects — part of around $20 billion being spent on rebuilding and resiliency efforts in the city — send mixed messages: Homes on Staten Island are imperiled enough to justify giving the land back to nature, but natural disasters can be staved off with levees and elevation. If it's not safe for you to live somewhere, why should it be safe for anyone? And if you choose to leave, who will move in after you??"There is a real sense that there is coastal gentrification happening, and that Sandy is in many ways speeding up that process," Koslov says.

Instead of spending nearly $600 million to keep the east shore of Staten Island safe for a few decades, Jacob says, "We could spend that money resettling the communities behind that wall, but that requires the cooperation of those communities."

Zarrilli, the city's chief resilience officer, counters, "What that translates into, unfortunately, is punishing the people who live there now, who through no fault of their own are facing a changing climate, and what we're doing is investing to make that safer now because that's where the threat is now."

The decision to leave your home to nature and settle down elsewhere or Build It Back behind a $579 million seawall is a difficult one. But residents of other communities who aren't receiving that kind of resiliency funding don't have that luxury of choice.

According to figures compiled by the Environmental Justice Alliance, Manhattan gets the lion's share of funding for coastal resiliency projects, with $825 million, most of that flowing to the East Side Coastal Resiliency and the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency initiatives (a pair of projects together known as the "Big U," which will shield the borough's housing projects and upper-crust alike from East 23rd Street around to Battery Park City).

Staten Island, the city's least populous borough, is getting $708 million. Brooklyn, the most populous, is getting $184 million, Queens $178 million, while the Bronx is receiving $143 million.

The Big U was one of the winning plans for a federally sponsored Rebuild by Design contest, which distributed around $1 billion in federal funding to six resiliency projects in the region that was affected by Sandy. Another winning project focused on the industrial waterfront of Hunts Point in the Bronx, where roughly half of the region's produce is shipped before being distributed to retailers.

A post-Sandy assessment by the city said Hunts Point is "not just critically important, it is also vulnerable." Roughly a third of the site is in danger of flooding, and it was largely spared during Sandy only because the Long Island Sound was at low tide when the storm hit.

The winning team whittled down the cost of a comprehensive, holistic protection plan for Hunts Point to $480 million.

Instead, Hunts Point, which includes the poorest zip code in the city, is getting $45 million.

"New York City's five boroughs have 520 miles of coastline," says Nandan, the architect. "In Red Hook our coastline is say 10 miles, and Lower Manhattan, say, that's another 15 miles. Say we're protecting 100 miles of coastline — well, that's Balkanizing the entire five boroughs. So then what happens to DUMBO? What happens to Columbia Heights? What happens to Sunset Park? All of our communities next door to us also need flood walls. Where do you stop it? You can't, realistically. Then we have to have very serious conversations about retreat, which no one wants to talk about."

Individual neighborhoods, Jacob says, are rarely equipped to look at the problem strategically: "There's no incentive to say, 'Hey look we should actually diminish our assets in Hunts Point and create new ones somewhere else.'"

Marlen Waaijer says she has had some conversations with the city about moving her off her perch next to Jamaica Bay in Edgemere. "In principle I wouldn't be against it, but I feel that they won't give it back to Mother Nature."

Waaijer, who runs a modest environmental stewardship organization and is part of the Edgemere Community Group, sees the new real estate money flooding all over the Rockaway peninsula. "It's basically the next Hamptons," she says, and points to the New York Times' designation of the Rockaways earlier this year as one of the city's "next hot neighborhoods." She is deeply conflicted, wanting to improve and build up the neighborhood she has lived in for fourteen years while recognizing that climate change makes this difficult.

"We would actually like to have transportation, to have stores where we can actually buy food and not walk seventy blocks to the supermarket, we would like to have a real community," she says. "My house is a really beautiful house, and I'd hate to see it go. But eventually Mother Nature will take this, too."

The city says that while some residents in Edgemere are still trying to decide whether to participate in the Build It Back program or take buyouts, if a resident's land is particularly vulnerable a restrictive covenant is placed on it, prohibiting development in perpetuity.

Other parcels that are less vulnerable may be developed, but the whole process is still in its planning stages. There are sites near the A train, some of them already owned by the city, that are being considered for residential and mixed-use development.

Zarrilli says returning land to nature is an important tool in the city's resiliency efforts, but so is smart development.

"We're gonna continue to invest. It's really important to invest in a project like what is on the east shore of Staten Island," he says.

And developers are going to continue to invest on the waterfront.

"There is great interest in waterfront living. With a finite amount of available land, New York is not going to run away from developing waterfront areas," says David Lombino, the Two Trees spokesman, pointing out that the development is also key to Mayor de Blasio reaching his goal of creating 80,000 new units of affordable housing by 2024.

Will the residents of the luxury developments along the East River ever have to start talking about retreat? Or the people living and working on Hudson Yards? Or the families living in the "thoughtfully designed" townhomes in Red Hook?

"Not yet, but wait a couple of decades and a few Sandys down the line and you will hear just that," Jacob says. "The question is, do we anticipate that? Are we prepared for it, financially and city planning- and zoning-wise? I would say no, we are not."

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