Since the June approval of the controversial Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment, which opened up 110,000 square feet of underused, privately owned public space (POPS) for commercial use in exchange for community benefits, a snag has emerged: This same area is now included in the 2016 New York City Flood Insurance RateMaps (FIRMs) and developers will be held responsible for making sure new structures comply with the updated building requirements.
The Water Street Upgrades Text amendment applied to 17 buildings in the area enclosed by Pearl, South William, Fulton, South, and Whitehall streets. While opponents to the amendment believed it favored developers overmuch—it turns these POPS into more than 2.5 million square feet of potentially rentable space—it’s now looking less that way. In early October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released new requirements for areas affected by flooding, expanding the number of areas needing flood insurance and requiring additional building specifications.
It is important to note that there are many areas in New York City, and in numerous other cities, that will be affected by the updated FIRMs—which have been in the works since 2008. The previous FIRMs were issued in 1983, and, over the past 36 years, the elevations identified as being in flood hazard zones have shifted across the UnitedStates. After receiving the new FIRMs, Mayor Bill de Blasio looked to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which develops the standards for many of New York City’s building and construction rules. The society recommended that New York City adopt the flood regulations issued by FEMA.
“The need for flood-proofing has been long understood,” said Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. “What people are waiting on is clarity as to what the approved standards might be. Property owners along Water Street will make their own decisions about whether to take advantage of the changes once the impact of the regulations is clear. We do not think the costs of even the most demanding resiliency standards will deter anyone who believes the fundamentals of the plan make sense for them in the long term.”
Currently, the most obvious issue is how property owners will reconcile the new building requirement that storefronts must withstand floods as high as 12 feet with a previous law that specifies storefronts must also be made largely of glass. An easy solution would be to use aquarium glass—but the material’s high cost may deter developers from building. Might we suggest a new downtown aquarium?