“Five-tenths of an inch,” the deputy mayor with the city’s grandiose sustainability plan in his portfolio said, brushing aside a reporter’s question as if it were a speck on his dark designer suit. Then he repeated it two or three more times over the course of 15 cocktail-party minutes. It was Dan Doctoroff’s personal measure of the climate-change threat to the city, a calculation of the expected sea-level rise over the next 25 years. At 49 brisk and still budding years, the Harvard and University of Chicago Law School grad might have asked himself why he was insisting on such a peculiar number, never transposing it to the more familiar half an inch. Instead, he confidently attributed it to the Columbia climatologists advising the city on its agenda for 2030, the much ballyhooed PlaNYC that Doctoroff is steering for the mayor. The dollar-a-year deputy, whose stadium and Olympics follies bizarrely catapulted him to even greater second-term Bloomberg glory, made this sea-level forecast in the middle of equity king Steven Rattner’s huge Fifth Avenue living room at the end of January. He and a couple hundred of Chuck Schumer’s invited guests were there, celebrating the publication of the senator’s book, Positively American. With Schumer’s wife a Bloomberg commissioner, Doctoroff and other administration brass were unsurprisingly among the book boosters.
In fact, just a few minutes before Doctoroff’s sea-level proclamation, Schumer briefly addressed the crowd, explaining that he was stretching his remarks out because the mayor himself was on the way. Doctoroff and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were together at the front of the room as Schumer spoke, and the senator looked straight into the taller Doctoroff’s eyes and thanked the better-known Kelly, and only Kelly, for standing in for his boss. The public smile that never leaves Doctoroff’s lips did not desert him then either, though he and Kelly are widely regarded as the two Bloomberg appointees most likely to try to succeed him in 2009.
Bloomberg has done his best to position Doctoroff for such a run, adding the departments of environmental protection, transportation, buildings, telecommunications, finance, taxis, and operations to his first-term command of economic development, housing, and city planning. Bloomberg did finally arrive and salute Schumer, but it is Doctoroff who appears more engaged now in shaping PlaNYC, the administration’s agenda for the future, than the once hands-on but currently been-there-done-that mayor.
This signature sustainability initiative debuted in one splashy Queens Museum of Art show in December, as well as at an earlier Silicon Valley press conference with Bloomberg’s “soul mate” Arnold Schwarzenegger. Doctoroff is orchestrating another grandstand presentation of PlaNYC’s “10 Goals for 2030” in April. The details, however, are so guarded that Voice interviews with city officials and a citizen advisory panel produced only vague whispers of what’s coming, as if the city’s next two and a half decades are before a sequestered grand jury.
In theory, the plan is Bloomberg’s response to climate change’s mounting challenges—sea level and others—to an especially vulnerable New York, but with Doctoroff in charge, it is predictably more about growth than threat, more upbeat than upsetting. It promises every New Yorker a park within 10 minutes of their homes, recreational uses on 90 percent of our waterways, a million affordable apartments, “the cleanest air of any big city in America,” and the reclamation of every contaminated acre. Revealed at the end of the hottest year in American history, it has yet to suggest how we will adapt to extreme and deadly heat, or to the specter of storm surges and hurricanes, or to the siege on our compromised infrastructure that has alarmed climatologists for years.
Illustration by Steve Brodner
The line between optimism and ignorance, or blind trust and a stiff upper lip, is always shifting when weather predictions extend past weeks to decades.
But the recent proclamations of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leave no doubt that warming “is unequivocal” and will “continue even if greenhouse concentrations were to be stabilized,” making it both a current reality and a future certitude—even if Al Gore suddenly occupied the White House. Bloomberg acknowledged that reality in his Queens speech, observing that the city’s summers “seem to be getting hotter and longer,” joking, however, that he wouldn’t complain about “50 degree weather in December,” the temperature that day. Warming, he added briefly, “may be contributing to rising sea levels,” which could lead to flooding “worse than anything we’ve seen.” But he saved that warning for the end of his otherwise rosy speech and, like PlaNYC, offered no specifics about how the city was moving to protect itself from climate change.
Then again, why should the mayor have a solution for a problem his sustainability deputy can’t accurately describe?
When the Voice contacted the city’s top Columbia consultant, Cynthia Rosenzweig, she said her Goddard Institute’s current sea-level-rise estimate, already supplied to the city, was actually five inches, suggesting that multimillionaire Doctoroff confuses his fives, at least when dollar signs aren’t involved, and has a penchant for downsizing difficulties. In fact, Rosenzweig’s five inches is a minimal projection, since it does not take into account the possible demise of the Greenland and Antarctica glaciers, which many scientists now anticipate. It is also roughly half of what she and other scientists projected in a comprehensive 2001 study.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“Building and floodplain zoning is something we’re all going to have to do,” says Foy, who charges some clients up to $10,000 a day. “Insurance companies are going to make us do it.” Foy says the reinsurance firms are “increasingly engaged about sea-level rises” that affect risk. He and Doctoroff were unaware that New York’s state insurance department held hearings a year ago about the retreat by Allstate and other home insurers from the Long Island and Brooklyn markets.
But Doctoroff insists that the non-renewals in the city are largely limited to one- and two-family homes on the Rockaways, which he contrasts with the large, concrete, and thus insurable coastal projects that the city is encouraging. In fact, a half-dozen insurers are bailing on one- and two-family homes as inland as Midwood, and Foy says that insurance is already “a big concern for all properties” in parts of Florida and elsewhere, whether made of concrete or not.
Allstate, which is the state’s biggest home-owner insurer and was actively chasing new policies until last year, points to climate models as the rationale for its abrupt decision to reject premium income in an effort to reduce its concentrated downstate risk. “It’s absolutely true that part of the reason we’re doing this,” says Allstate’s Krista Conte, “is because of what the modelers and the scientists are saying about potential weather-related catastrophes.” One modeling company servicing Allstate, AIR Worldwide, lists New York as the second- highest hurricane surge-and-flood risk. While the modelers equivocate about what’s causing ocean warming (natural cycles or humans), Allstate actually put New York on its list of states where it has stopped writing new homeowners’ policies, a list that includes Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute called these states “catastrophe-prone segments of the U.S.”
With seven of the 10 worst hurricanes in history occurring in 2004 and 2005, Allstate’s Brian Pozzi says that scientists are telling them that “this is not an anomaly; it’s a harbinger of things to come.” The insurers are not just concerned about hurricanes; they cite the nor’easter
that hit the city in 1992 and, even as a milder winter storm, flooded tunnels and PATH lines. “The Atlantic Ocean is warmer, the winds are stronger, and you have had more and more coastal development,” Pozzi told the state hearing.
Joe Case, spokesman for Nationwide, which does its modeling in-house and is also retreating from the local market, says, “The reality is that forecasters are predicting more catastrophic weather along the East Coast in the near term” so “we’re doing the responsible thing.” Peter McDonough, a spokesman for Protecting America and Protecting New York, an Allstate-inspired civic coalition led by former FEMA director James Lee Witt, says that “the real hot spots” now are the Midatlantic states and the New York area. “This isn’t just about the occasional random mansion on the bluffs in the Hamptons,” McDonough warns. “We are talking about wiping out entire sections of society.”
Strangely, the Bloomberg administration joined the coalition, even though the mayor said last year, while announcing his new evacuation plan, that “NYC is not a high-risk area for hurricanes,” a good-news proclamation contradicted by tens of thousands of homeowner non-renewals and the risk avoidance of a half-dozen major insurers. Homeowners themselves increasingly understand the threat, with almost 10,000 more buying federal flood insurance than two years ago, a 35 percent increase.
The only private-sector advice this CEO-led administration appears to reject is the jittery modeling of the insurance industry. As much time and resources as Doctoroff and team are investing in sustainability, Aggarwala stresses that any climate-tied adaptation strategies “can’t be imposed” and can only emerge after “engaging with New Yorkers on a community level,” ostensibly starting with the real estate community. Asked to identify the single most important adaptation strategy that the city should pursue, top-drawer consultant Foy says: “I don’t know the answer to that. It would be unwise to make dramatic, draconian changes now. What we should do is acknowledge that there could be severe storm and flood impacts.”
And Dan Doctoroff, pressed about adaptation strategies in the cocktail swirl overlooking Central Park, took a pass. Rather than suggest any of his own, he turned the question back on a reporter. “What do you think we should do?”
A fair critique could begin at the start of 2004, however, when Cynthia Rosenzweig persuaded Bloomberg’s then Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, Chris Ward, to launch a climate change initiative. Ward says the “initial concept was to get a mayoral office,” staffed by DEP and cutting across a variety of agencies to focus on the impacts of warming. DEP was a logical choice for the job since its water supply, sewer, and wastewater systems are among the most vulnerable elements of the city’s infrastructure, and since the mayor’s existing Office of Environmental Coordination, headed by biologist Bob Kulikowski, reported to Ward already. DEP wrote memos to First Deputy Mayor Mark Shaw and Peter Madonia, the mayor’s chief of staff, pushing the initiative.
The effort to get the unit going continued at least until Ward’s departure in February 2005, and it was Ward who signed up Rosenzweig’s Columbia groups, including a $300,000 NASA Goddard Institute contract, as his agency’s climate advisers. Predictably, however, the initiative had a hard time competing for air during Bloomberg’s re-election campaign. Then, at the end of the year, Shaw and Madonia followed Ward out the door, and the proposal seemed dead.
By the mayor’s own account in his Queens speech, he asked the newly empowered Doctoroff in January 2006 “to develop a long-term land-use plan for the city,” a project the two thought “would take just a few months.” They soon realized that they had to consider “the full range of challenges to our city’s physical environment,” Bloomberg recalled, and that’s how the sustainability project was born. First announced in September, it took its initial shape at the December presentation, three years after the Ward proposal was launched. Doctoroff’s concept is quite different from Ward’s—DEP is just one of many agencies working with Aggarwala, Kulikowski’s unit has been taken out of the mix, and sustainability is a much broader challenge than climate. While the original idea was focused on adapting the city’s complex infrastructure to the exigencies of our new weatherworld, that has clearly not been Doctoroff’s top agenda so far.
The Ward proposal flowed from a prime finding of the 2001 Rosenzweig study, which pointed out that $100 billion per decade would be spent in the metropolitan area improving the infrastructure. “The most cost-effective way to protect the infrastructure against future coastal storm surge losses,” the study found, “would be to build into the capital projects protection against the increased flood potentials. A coherent policy is needed that should be based on technical input.” The official assessment of the consequences of climate change locally, Rosenzweig’s report said the first step was “an agency-by-agency, systematic inventory of infrastructure assets, potential hazards, and loss potential that reflects climate change impact scenarios,” a simple enough idea whose time, Aggarwala concedes, has yet to come.
Emily Lloyd, who succeeded Ward at DEP, says that her task force, working with Rosen-zweig, is “due to complete” an inventory of the agency’s assets this summer, and that those recommendations “will be fed into our plans.” But
DEP, like every other city agency, has been spending billions since 2001 on capital projects without any climate criteria, and, in all likelihood, this spending will continue without Rosenzweig’s guideposts well into the future. This is not just a wasted opportunity; it prolongs the city’s exposure, though Rosenzweig’s study warned that “under climate-related sea-level rise projections,” the city’s waste treatment plants, pumping stations, and storm sewers “could become permanently submerged and cause backups.”
Lloyd concedes that half the city’s 14 treatment plants are close to sea level, and that her agency is only now thinking “in the near-term about what kinds of adaptive strategies we can put in place” to protect them and the rest of the vulnerable sewer system. She rejects the suggestion that a big storm could result in untreated sewage in our streets, backed up by an overwhelmed and low-lying system, which several experts contacted by the Voice said was a plausible scenario. “I can’t quantify it for you,” said Lloyd, “but I think it would be really extraordinary if that would happen.” DEP is also developing a response to the other weather extremes that accompany warming—droughts that may dry up our water supply, with one major tunnel from the reservoirs already badly leaking.
The subways, roadways like the FDR, and tunnels from the Holland to the Battery are also exposed nerves, with Rosenzweig’s study listing the elevations of the most vulnerable transportation facilities page by page. “Entrances to subway, road or rail tunnels or ventilation shafts will be at or below flood levels,” warned the report about severe storms, even in Category 1 hurricanes. Jerry Hauer, the head of the Office of Emergency Management under Mayor Giuliani, recalls that he was summoned to northern Manhattan during a 1999 storm surge and watched top MTA brass and workers “throw sandbags at the entrance to a big subway tunnel.”
That’s why the Rosenzweig report urged “incorporating climate change requirements” into the major, federally aided subway improvements, but Aggarwala told a City Council committee recently that his office had just begun talking to the MTA or the Port Authority about climate issues. Just as Aggarwala found “strange” any suggestion that the city ought to restrain future coastal development before figuring out ways of protecting existing structures, he called a review of the 7 extension’s vulnerability “odd” because “lots of parts of the subway system are closer to areas prone to flooding.” This pick-your-own-poison approach, of course, allows Doctoroff, whose EDC now has an astounding $1.4 billion grab bag of development contracts, to continue right on down the path to Moses eminence.
Some who have watched Doctoroff and Bloomberg together say they speak to each other in tongues, a language of the marketplace that most others in the government don’t even understand. DEP’s Lloyd says she’s only discussed climate adaptation with the mayor “in group settings.” Her predecessor, Ward, never discussed it with Bloomberg at all. Asked if the mayor has made his commitment to adopting adaptation strategies clear, Lloyd couldn’t cite an instance. “I take it as a given,” she says, “but I can’t tell you what I’ve heard from whom,” expressing confidence that City Hall supports her climate work. Talk to Joel Klein about Bloomberg’s direct engagement with the schools and the contrast is clear. The mayor is letting Doctoroff lead this charge, even though safeguarding the city against climate change would become a more memorable Bloomberg legacy than schools or anything else.
Doctoroff deserves some of the plaudits the city gets on emissions reduction (see sidebar), but he’s approaching the question of changing the way we do business, and safeguarding us from Katrina and less, as if he’s more concerned about rocking the boat than winding up in one.
Last November, the History Channel gave a $10,000 prize to a local firm for designing a vision of New York a century from now. The firm, Architecture Research Office, depicted a
Venice-like city, with rivers running through parts of the street grid. Adam Yarinsky, who led the design, says they relied on sea-level rise projections and an 1865 map of lowlands onto contemporary Manhattan.
At the ceremony, Dan Doctoroff handed Yarinsky the check and said his own office was preoccupied with many of the same concerns as the contestants.
Research assistance: Adam Fleming, Matt Friedman, Dan House, Luke Jerod Kummer, Anna Lenzer, Mordechai Shinefield, Clare Trapasso, Hannah Vahl, Damien Weaver