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“Is Landmarking Out of Control?” That was the question posed by Crain’s New York at a forum it hosted in mid-May. To answer that noticeably leading question, Crain’s invited some of the biggest names in the city’s preservation and development worlds to hash it over coffee and pastries at the New York Athletic Club in Midtown.
The debate played out along familiar lines: The pro-development side—Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) President Steven Spinola, Columbia University professor Kenneth Jackson, and Nikolai Fedak of the blog NY YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard)—said that landmarking has its place, but New York should focus more on its potential for growth than its picturesque past. Jackson made that case in more explicit terms, saying that “history is for losers,” “no one comes to New York to look at buildings,” and “if you’re more comfortable with fish, trees, and aging houses, move to Vermont.”
On the other side of the debate were Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and Ronda Wist, the vice president of preservation at the Municipal Art Society (MAS), who explained how historic districts create a vibrant, livable city that creates jobs, attracts tourists, and increases property values.
This type of preservationist versus developer back-and-forth is not new—these battles have been waged over the streets of New York for years. But, now, as Mayor de Blasio sets out to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, the issue of landmarking—specifically, the designation of historic districts—has become a flashpoint in the debate over the city’s affordability crisis.
So, when exactly, did the landmarking process supposedly get “out of control?” A quick look at the numbers shows it happened under Mayor Bloomberg. Yes, as glass towers were rising and megaprojects were being approved, “pro-development” Bloomberg was designating more historic districts than any mayor since the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was founded in 1965. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg added or extended 41 historic districts—topping Giuliani’s designations by 23 and Koch’s by 14. More than half of those designations were in outer boroughs.
AN / NYC.GOV
Near the end of Bloomberg’s three terms, REBNY started issuing studies on the impact of all this landmarking. In July, the Board found that nearly 28 percent of Manhattan properties were landmarked; a subsequent press release declared: “Excessive Landmarking of Manhattan Properties Stifling Economic Growth.” To arrive at that figure, REBNY counted both historic districts and specific landmarked buildings in its calculation. Four months earlier, the Journal reported that historic districts, by themselves, only encompassed 10 percent of the island and two percent of the city overall. REBNY now puts that latter figure closer to four percent.
In September, REBNY was out with another study; this time it claimed that no affordable units had been created on landmarked properties in the borough since 2008. “Landmarking Curtails Affordable Housing Development in Manhattan,” read the press release.
And then in June—with a new mayor in town—the same argument. The latest study, which encompassed the entire city, found that only 0.29 percent of new affordable units built from 2003 to 2012 were on landmarked properties.
This finding was immediately dismissed—and mocked—by the Historic Districts Council. “[REBNY] is at it again,” said the Council in a statement. “The crisis in affordable housing… is not a landmarking issue; this is a deeper indictment of the real estate market to provide for the needs of New Yorkers and the subtle failure of government to guide market forces to help meet that need.”
A spokesperson for the LPC told AN, “the Commission is currently reviewing the findings in the REBNY Report.”
When asked about landmarking’s impact on affordability, preservationists tend to reject the notion outright. Since landmarked properties represent such a small percentage of the city overall, they say historic designation has little—if anything—to do with the city’s housing crisis, and question REBNY’s seriousness about wanting to create affordable housing. Laurie Beckelman, the chair of the LPC under Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani, said REBNY’s claims on this issue are a “cheap shot” and “total rubbish.”
Fifteen of the city’s top developers did not respond to AN’s request for comment for this story, but REBNY spokesperson Jamie McShane, said, “we are working with the de Blasio administration and other stakeholders on how to address the need for more housing, particularly affordable units. Responsible landmarking is one issue of many in addressing that need.”
As this debate plays-out, the Board is quick to tout its support for Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. “Mayor de Blasio deserves a lot of credit for putting forward an honest plan that attemptsto deal with the housing needs for all New Yorkers. [The plan] identifies the problems and provides a realistic roadmap for solutions,” said REBNY president Steven Spinola. “[The Board] thanks the mayor for his commitment to this issue and we will continue our work with the administration to implement these critical objectives.”
The plan, however, does not touch the issue of landmarking. In 115 pages, the word “landmark” only tangentially comes up in a footnote and in the glossary. And that is partially because the mayor is not targeting the West Village’s brownstones or Soho’s cobblestones to build his 80,000 new units of affordable housing. And the industrial and under-used areas he is eyeing to rezone for residential use are not being considered for historic designation.
To achieve his ambitious goal within 10 years, de Blasio is launching a multipronged approach that also includes mandatory inclusionary zoning, raising taxes on vacant lots to encourage development, and reevaluating Bloomberg’s land lease plan to build on New York City Housing Authority property. The mayor has also been packing more affordable units into Bloomberg-era developments like the Domino Sugar Factory and Atlantic Yards.
But even with these new, permanently affordable units—and the many more market-rate apartments slated to rise alongside them—New York City will still be a very expensive place to live in a decade’s time. The city cannot, and will not, stop building; most everyone agrees that freezing construction would only make matters worse. But there is plenty of debate about how much the city should build, where it should do so, and if supply can ever meet demand.
The bigger question, then, is: Can New York City build its way out of the affordability crisis?
“It is impossible,” said Jaron Benjamin, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a housing advocacy group based in New York. “We do not have billions and billions of dollars to throw at this problem. We have to think creatively.” Benjamin supports new development, but wants the city and state to focus on ways to preserve the apartments that are currently affordable.
And that is exactly what the mayor’s plan does. Because while de Blasio’s pledge to build new affordable units, and increase the city’s overall housing stock, has received the most attention, it gets him less than halfway to his goal of 200,000 units. The bigger piece of the plan is focused on preserving affordable units, about 120,000 of them. The details on how, exactly, he plans to do this are less clear, but the mayor’s office has said that city agencies will “use every tool at their disposal” to protect rent-stabilized units from being deregulated.
This is where the LPC believes it can aid in de Blasio’s efforts. “Since historic districts are also home to affordable housing units, the LPC will work with the Department of Housing Preservation & Development to align efforts to preserve both affordability and architectural character in these areas,” said a spokesperson for the Commission. “The LPC also understands that the city must continue to grow while maintaining a judicious approach to designation of historic properties.”
Andrew Berman—the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and one of REBNY’s most vocal critics—readily admits that landmarking is not the way, or even a way, to build new affordable units. But he believes that landmarking can be a tool to preserve rent-stabilized units that still exist in some of the most coveted zip codes in the world. “[Landmarking] can slow down the pushing out of long-term tenants and the disappearance of existing affordable housing because of anti-demolition protections,” said Berman.
He also pushed back on the “strong correlation” that REBNY drew between high incomes, limited racial diversity, and Manhattan’s historic districts in its July study. “We are talking about parts of the city that are, for the most part, some of the most distinctive, historic, and architecturally interesting,” he said. “They are naturally going to be places that are likely to have become more expensive, not because they are landmarked, but because they have these qualities that people find increasingly desirable.”
Unleashing development in, or around, historic districts, he said, would not necessarily lead to more affordable units; it could build a foundation for luxury condos that lift prices higher. He points to the glass towers lining the Hudson River, just outside of the Greenwich Village historic district, as glossy examples.
But in the debate over the future of landmarking, something resembling common ground starts to appear in terms of the process itself. The LPC’s approval procedures for new projects in historic districts—and renovations on landmarked properties—has been criticized by many for being too slow and overly expensive for property owners.
Peg Breen made clear to AN that the landmarking process is not broken, but that it could be improved. And to do that, she said, the LPC’s budget should be increased. “[The Commission] is woefully understaffed and overworked,” she said. “It needs an adequate staff to handle the load, and they do not have that now.”
Whether that will happen is entirely unknown—as are most aspects of landmarking under Mayor de Blasio. The big question hanging high above any concerns about process or funding is what’s next? On preservation, will de Blasio be another Bloomberg?
Six months into the mayor’s term, that remains a question neither side can answer. And de Blasio’s selection of Meenakshi Srinivasan to head the LPC provides few clues about the future of landmarks in New York City. The choice of the then-chair of the Board of Standards and Appeals surprised most onlookers when it was announced in May.
While landmarking is not expected to have an extensive impact in the affordable housing plan, in the coming months and years, the LPC could have a direct role in shaping New York City’s skyline. If the controversial Midtown East Rezoning plan is adopted, and taller towers head for the sky, the Commission will help decide the fate of the area’s older stock.
It could also adopt a proposal from a group called “Iconplans,” which would upend the selling of air rights. As the Journal reported, the group’s plan allows non-profits, universities, and religious institutions to sell air rights above their landmarked properties to developers who could use them elsewhere in the city—likely places where they can build taller. Currently, those air rights can only be transferred to adjacent sites. The LPC told AN it would consider this type of proposal. “As the administration continues to develop its housing and economic development policies, the expanded sale of air rights will be a relevant part of the discussion, which will occur across agencies,” said the LPC spokesperson.
Now, with the mayor’s housing plan in effect and the Commissioner in her new role, preservationists and developers are eagerly waiting for the Commission to answer that same question posed by Crain’s back in May: “Is Landmarking Out of Control?”
Its response could transform the city.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade was a cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. From the outset, de Blasio set a specific target – and now the city finally knows how he plans to hit it.
In the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn—where glossy apartment towers are rising at a remarkable clip—the mayor unveiled his $41.1 billion strategy to fight back against New York’s affordability crisis. The city is heralding the plan as “the most expansive and ambitious affordable housing agenda of its kind in the nation’s history.”
The city will provide $8.2 billion for the plan, and hopes to secure $30 billion more from private funds. The rest of the cost will ideally come out of state and federal coffers.
“This plan thinks big--because it has to,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement. “The changes we are setting in motion today will reach a half-million New Yorkers, in every community, and from every walk of life. They will make our families and our city stronger.”
As expected, one of the central pieces of de Blasio’s plan is “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” which will require developers to include below market-rate units at rezoned sites. Under Bloomberg, developers were incentivized—but not required—to make 20 percent of new projects affordable. While inclusionary zoning is a focal point of this plan, it is easy to overstate its impact. According to The New York Times, inclusionary zoning under Bloomberg—albeit voluntary—only created 2,800 affordable units since 2005.
Still, mandatory inclusionary zoning will likely have a significant impact on the size and scale of future development. This part of the plan was foreshadowed in March as the city was hammering out the final details of the Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment. Before granting approval to the project, the mayor demanded that it include more affordable housing. The developer, Two Trees, obliged, and in return taller towers were approved. De Blasio’s New York will likely be a denser New York.
And a denser New York means a happier development community. Not surprisingly, the Real Estate Board of New York is applauding the mayor’s plan. “It identifies the problems and provides a realistic roadmap for solutions,” said Steven Spinola, the board’s president, in a statement.
Along with mandatory inclusionary zoning, the City will also “re-examine parking requirements, zoning envelope constraints, and restrictions on the transferability of development rights.” It is also launching two programs to incentive development on vacant lots. This part of the plan received high praise from the city’s architectural community. “The AIA New York Chapter supports the Mayor’s affordable housing plan and notes, in particular, that the plan calls for ‘unlocking’ potential sites for new housing development by changes in regulatory procedures, including potential changes in zoning,” said Rick Bell, the chapter’s president.
But for all the focus on development, new projects only represent 40 percent of the plan—or 80,000 units. The other, bigger, piece of the pie is directed at preserving the affordable units that currently exist. For starters, the City plans to double the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s capital budget.
To slow the tide of deregulation, the City is proposing a host of incentives for property owners to keep units from leaving rent-regulation. It will also focus on keeping currently affordable, and non-regulated units, from dramatic rent increases in the future.
According to the plan, “such investments will allow current tenants to beneﬁt from improved units, and permit future tenants to be assured that the unit remains affordable, even as the neighborhood’s housing values and rents increase.”
The City also plans to engage in a “respectful conversation” about the potential of development on NYCHA’s underused land. This proposal, which sounds an awful lot like Bloomberg’s “land lease plan,” was heavily criticized by de Blasio back when he was a candidate.
Another key focus of the mayor’s plan is reducing homelessness—ccording to the city, 50,000 New Yorkers currently sleep in shelters every night. To lower those ranks, the city will reallocate some funding from shelters to lower-cost permanent housing for the homeless.
While both housing activists and the development community have lauded the mayor’s strategy, his 115-page plan leaves many questions unanswered. But what is exceptionally clear is the daunting challenge before the mayor. His predecessor claims to have built or preserved 165,000 units of affordable housing in 12 years and now Mayor de Blasio says there is no choice, but to achieve more in less time.
“We didn’t want to take the easy way out,” said the mayor. “We didn’t want to take the slower path. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something that had never been done before because our people need it.”
The difference between Michael Bloomberg’s final State of the City address and Bill de Blasio’s first was so vast it seems impossible the two were speaking about the same city. In the newly opened Barclays Center, then-mayor Bloomberg touted the booming development across New York—from the Atlantic Yards to the Hudson Yards. He referenced job opportunities, sustainability, and, of course, the bike-share program.
One year later, at the LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Bill de Blasio spoke of “The Tale of Two Cities”—a town racked by inequality. He didn’t talk about any big, splashy developments, but pledged to help “New Yorkers crushed by skyrocketing rents.” There was no mention of transportation, climate change, or infrastructure—all considered bright spots in Bloomberg’s complicated legacy.
But while Mayor de Blasio makes national headlines for his laser-like focus on tackling inequality, he has been appointing highly competent individuals to lead the city’s housing, transportation, environmental, and planning teams. All of these appointments, explained de Blasio, are not separate from the fight against inequality. They are central in waging it.
In early February, de Blasio appointed Carl Weisbrod—a real estate industry veteran with experience in the private and public sector—to chair the city’s planning commission. Weisbrod is perhaps best known for his integral role in cleaning up Times Square in the 1980s and later helping to transform Downtown Manhattan into a mixed-use neighborhood.
Rick Bell, the executive director of New York’s AIA chapter, said Weisbrod is “an excellent choice” for planning commissioner because he “brings to the table the skillset, the mindset, and the attitude of someone who is going to take the promises made, the expectations of the de Blasio campaign, and realize them.”
As planning commissioner, Weisbrod will be instrumental in accomplishing one of de Blasio’s key legislative goals: to “preserve or construct” 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. He will be joined in that fight by the mayor’s new housing team.
The mayor recently appointed Shola Olatoye—a former executive at an affordable housing non-profit—as chair of the New York City Housing Authority. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s new commissioner is Vicki Been, who was the former director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. And Gary D. Rodney, from the affordable housing developer Omni New York, is the new president to the Housing Development Corporation.
Alicia Glen—the former head of the Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group—is the city’s new deputy mayor of housing and economic development.
Even with a strong team beside him, de Blasio’s affordable housing goal will be exceptionally difficult to achieve. One tool de Blasio will likely use to hit his 200,000 figure will be “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” or requiring developers to include affordable housing units in new buildings. Under Bloomberg, developers were only incentivized to do so.
And since it will not be enough to just “preserve” existing affordable units, the de Blasio years might see significant zoning changes to offer new development opportunities. The benefit of this could be twofold: more development would boost the number of new affordable housing units, and the housing stock overall.
In terms of transportation and the city’s streetscape, the de Blasio administration is poised to build on Janette Sadik-Khan’s impressive legacy of transforming New York City streets. The mayor’s selection of Polly Trottenberg—the former under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation—to lead the city’s DOT has been lauded by those championing safer streets and improved transportation. “The personnel positions, and particularly hiring Polly Trottenberg, look really good from street safety and livable streets perspective,” said Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of Streetsblog.
Trottenberg will be responsible for more than bike lanes and pedestrian plazas; she will work alongside the new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to implement the mayor’s “Vision Zero Action Plan” to reduce pedestrian fatalities.
It has become clear with these appointments that the mayor plans to use every department, and every new official, to address the city’s inequality. Combatting inequality is a daunting, if not impossible, fight to wage from City Hall, but the mayor and his team seem ready to at least throw some punches.
Only a few weeks before administrations changed hands at the mayor’s office, New York City released a comprehensive inter-agency report seeking to overhaul the Sheridan Expressway, the short but divisive freeway that cuts through the southern Bronx. This new study, which solidifies a number of recommendations introduced last spring, is part of a larger effort to reinvigorate a part of the borough that has been split apart by the unsightly expressway, creating perilous pedestrian crossings and exposing residents to hazardous air pollution.
The scope of this report is more far-reaching than simply the revamping of the Sheridan. It also calls for rezoning to allow for mixed-use development, which the agency says will lead to an increase in jobs.
City Planning (DCP) worked collaboratively with the New York City Department of Transportation, the Economic Development Corporation, and Housing Preservation and Development to put this study together, officially titled, "The Sheridan Expressway Study: Reconnecting the Neighborhoods Around the Sheridan Expressway and Improving Access to Hunts Point."
“We always knew this was a long-term plan and would span many administrations,” said Carol Samol, City Planning Bronx Director at DCP. “There are some things we can get quickly, and others that will take more time and require more major steps such as an environmental review and a public review process.”
The proposal not only requires inter-agency teamwork, but also necessitates extensive coordination between city and state. Since the highways are operated by the state, these recommendations must be vetted and ultimately carried out by the New York State Department of Transportation.
The 1.5-mile Sheridan Expressway—a remnant of Robert Moses’ failed plan to create a link between the Triborough Bridge and the New England Thruway—generally operates substantially below capacity but is often used by trucks. To relieve congestion and enhance the connection to the Greenway and Starlight and Concrete Plant parks for pedestrians, the city recommends rehabilitating the northern half of the expressway and turning it into a boulevard. The plan entails three new crossings to establish a direct path to the waterfront and also adding ramps to enable trucks to reach the industrial corridor at Hunts Point more easily.
The city hopes that these improvements will set the ground work for the rezoning of the waterfront and attract new development, drawing more people back to the Bronx and righting a wrong from one of Moses’ most fractious urban renewal plans.
“This study gave us a chance to be visionary about the neighborhood, but to also look at small changes that when all combined will have a powerful effect,” said Samol. “The South Bronx will be a better place.”
In his inaugural speech Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly used the phrase “tale of two cities.” It remains to be seen how the new Mayor will reshape New York City as one, but his recent appointments suggest how his administration will steer the city forward.
Prior to the New Year snowstorm, de Blasio had named several appointees to agencies that oversee the city’s built environment: Alicia Glen as Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development; Polly Trottenberg as Commissioner of the Department of Transportation; and Kyle Kimball to continue as President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
“I'm very excited about these three appointments—their sophistication, and balanced perspectives... they each know how to get things done—and are each progressive and realize the city needs innovative approaches to ensure and enhance livability and resilience going forward,” wrote Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Art Society, in an email.
“Alicia Glen’s job title—housing and economic development—sends the signal that the creation of affordable housing comes first,” said Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter. Glen is tasked with carrying out the new mayor’s goal of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing. “Alicia understands how money works and how things get financed,” continued Bell. “This is music to the ears of architects who are building housing and to those of us who have long been concerned about community development.”
For the past twelve years Glen headed the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs, which committed over $2.8 billion in low-income development projects in cities throughout the country. She was also instrumental in raising over $40 million to help finance New York’s Citi Bike bicycle share program. From 1998 to 2002 Glen was the assistant commissioner for housing finance at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Polly Trottenberg replaces Janette Sadik-Khan as Commissioner of the Department of Transportation. Since January 2014 Trottenberg served as the Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where she worked on TIGER, the grant program that helped fund many multi-modal projects. “She brings a keen understanding of how mass transit works,” said Bell. In a statement the de Blasio transition emphasized that Trottenberg will advance the “ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.”
A veteran of the Bloomberg administration, Kyle Kimball will continue as President of NYCEDC, a position he has held since August 2013. He has been with the organization since 2008 and has worked on the Applied Sciences NYC initiative, creating four new graduate science and engineering campuses. He has also been involved with outer-borough economic development projects, including the transformation of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
De Blasio has yet to fill a host of positions including commissioners of City Planning, Building, Design and Construction, Parks and Recreation, Landmarks Preservation, Cultural Affairs, Public Design, and Long-term Planning and Sustainability.
In related news, Holly Leicht has been appointed to serve as Regional Administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Region II, which comprises New York and New Jersey. Leicht, who was Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, will oversee ongoing Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.
New York was still pumping Sandy’s surge-water out of its subway system when news headlines began to trumpet how best to ride out the next big storm—“NYC Sea Barrier: Its Time Has Come” or “Saving New York by Going Green”—leaving the impression that infrastructure could be neatly categorized into opposite kinds: grey vs. green or hard vs. soft. The thread that bound everything together was the promise of a more “resilient” New York. But the menacing irony here is that these kinds of easy dualisms have a lot to do with getting us to our present state of vulnerability in the first place. When the U.S. looks like a schoolroom map—blue for water, green for land, Mississippi River as a winding line, and barrier islands stretching out along the coast—it seems perfectly reasonable to build public housing on the Rockaways, industrial parks along the Gulf Coast, and cities in the Mississippi delta. In reality, though, coastlines are not lines at all, but zones of negotiation between land and sea, barrier islands are on the move (briskly so, on geological terms), and the delta is an impossible-to-distinguish mixture of water and land and everything in between. The climate-related risks we now face don’t hew to any dualisms. Floodwaters overwhelm dykes and dunes alike. Tornados and wildfires are blindly indiscriminate. And heat waves are just that: waves that lack clear boundary in space and time. It follows, then, that the strategies used to render our communities resilient from these risks must also emerge from this kind of nuance.
Bill Tatham; Tom Fox
There are compelling guides in place. In On The Water: Palisade Bay, for example, pioneering research by structural engineer Guy Nordenson, with Catherine Seavitt, a landscape architect, and Adam Yarinsky, an architect, allowed the team to propose coastal planning strategies in the New York/New Jersey harbor that hybridized land and sea, hard and soft.
Leaving aside the question about whether it is caused by humans, there can be no doubt that sea levels are rising and that extreme climate events are happening more intensively and more regularly, so cities around the U.S. are planning for these events. For Houston, which trails only New Orleans as the city with the most repetitive flood claims in the U.S., developing a resilient urban design is of paramount concern. There, the SWA Group designed a 23-acre park along what had been the neglected banks of Buffalo Bayou, and, in the process, created a zone where green and grey become indistinguishable. Built to withstand flooding and engineered to mitigate the collateral damage incurred by those natural events, its planted slopes weave the waterway back into the urban experience as a strip of recreational space at the center of Houston.
Important though these measures are, rivers can’t be understood as isolated strips of water. As SWA Group CEO Kevin Shanley put it, “you don’t solve flooding issues by fixing the river.” Floods, after all, are the result of actions across entire watersheds. With this in mind, Shanley and SWA are working with regional agencies and municipalities to advocate for low-impact development as a way to increase permeability across the entire watershed. Since climate events don’t follow jurisdictional boundaries, resilience measures need to transcend those borders, too, knowing that cities in a region are linked to a similar set of risks. Urban design policies by each municipality in a watershed—even those that are politically and materially distinct—effect the others. “If a watershed is not yet urbanized, it could take days or weeks for water to reach the river,” explained Shanley. “But if you have a situation like Houston, where a lot of it is urbanized, that process takes hours or minutes.”
Courtesy Sasaki Associates
This was a lesson learned the hard way by Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when, in 2008, the Cedar River flooded, causing extensive damage across the city from floodwaters that crested over 30 feet. The Boston-based planning and design firm Sasaki developed a multi-phase redevelopment plan aimed not only at recovery, but also at preventing the kind of devastation seen in 2008. “Our focus was on understanding the relationship of the community with the natural environment,” explained Sasaki principal Jason Hellendrung, which meant treating the site not as a defined, physical entity, but rather as a diverse community of people within a watershed region. “By now, it’s pretty clearly understood that hard systems can fail,” said Hellendrung, so by calling for a 220-acre greenway along the river that incorporates infrastructure ranging from hard to soft, Sasaki designed the kind of overlapping systems that resilience demands. The project also highlights the need to consider interventions beyond the material. For months, Sasaki worked closely with community members and organizations to tailor its response to Cedar Rapids. And part of the redevelopment plan that ensued includes communication networks for flood warnings and plans to cooperate more closely with municipalities across the watershed region.
“Resiliency needs to be nuanced,” said Lisa Switkin, Managing Director of James Corner Field Operations. “On one hand, it is robust and persistent, and on the other, it’s yielding and adaptive. It’s all about finding the right balance for this mix.”
She is setting out to strike this balance in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, where the firm is currently at work on a 22-acre waterfront site. Though the park will serve as a front-line defense against storm surges, it is a task it will carry out covertly, as it functions primarily as a place for Greenpoint residents to do the things people do in a park. “After Sandy, ‘resilience’ has become a buzzword,” she warned. “But it’s completely embedded into the concept of landscape architecture, since we look at both soft systems and hard systems, and since we always take a long view in considering time.”
Courtesy De Urbanisten
The design includes plenty of grey. On the edge closest to the river, a concrete armor wall provides a hard barrier against pre-Sandy 100-year flood projections, while ribbons of precast concrete retaining walls offer second-, third-, and fourth-line defenses within the park itself, and concrete-paved walkways are fastened to the site. But the park’s section could double as a diagram for the so-called grey- and green-infrastructure integration. The broad promenade is divided into linear bands, a marbling of concrete walkways and planted strips. The retaining walls double as seating and also act to hem in raised planters. Not only do these bands allow the designers to hybridize green and grey into a cohesive system, they also make it possible to terrace the waterfront, leaving the edge along the adjacent community—and the vaults for the park’s electrical systems—well above the new 100-year flood levels.
“Rather than thinking of this as a singular bulkhead—as a strict edge where water and land meet—we are proposing a series of terraces that can be inundated and flooded,” said Switkin.
For its Crane Cove Park design in San Francisco, AECOM faced a similar challenge, complicated by the fact that the site included historic buildings protected by preservation registers. This delicate arrangement highlights the fact that resiliency measures can’t be considered singularly and need to become integrated into the full range of design considerations—historic preservations, yes, but also livability, real estate, and environment. In this case, to raise the site would be to compromise the historicity of these structures, but to leave the grading in place would leave the entire site vulnerable to high waters. AECOM found a third way by modifying the topography through a series of cuts-and-fills. This way, the designers opened up areas in the site for floodwaters to fill. “We are embracing the fact that the park will flood during certain events,” said AECOM principal Alma du Solier. This will largely happen along the former ship-building slipways, where historic keel blocks will be repurposed as park amenities, but designed to be easily forklifted to higher ground as sea levels rise. “In essence,” said du Solier, “the project itself becomes a kind of levee for these historic buildings.”
Courtesy AECOM and Port of San Francisco
Even the Dutch, who are routinely touted as the “grey infrastructuralists” par excellence, are beginning to break down their own status quo. “Pumping out water and building higher dykes just isn’t feasible in the long run,” said Tracy Metz, author of Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch. Citing a regulation that mandates any new housing to set aside 10 percent of the site to water, she said “now, the priority is to incorporate water into already dense urban conditions.”
“People love water, so the challenge is to create these spaces that work as a safety measure, but also as places for people to enjoy,” she said, pointing to the de Urbanisten-designed Watersquare project, in Rotterdam, which creates a sunken urban plaza doubling as a catchment system to manage excess water in the event of flooding.
Courtesy AECOM and Port of San Francisco
Any design for resilience needs to carefully manage public perceptions of safety. Levees are often faulted for creating a false sense of security (and justifying risky real estate development) while the promises made by soft systems in urban contexts needs to be more fully studied. “This is a discussion that needs nuance—and a lot of rigorous scientific research,” said Shanley. “If you’re talking about adding dunes as surge protection, and you’re looking at a surge of 10, 15, 20 feet, plus the wave action on top of that, dunes are like seaweed. All of the energy in this water is in the upper zones, so it’s going to just flow right over,” he said, citing undergoing research at Houston’s Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters. Rather than beating the drums for a seawall or promising to save New York by going green, designers with organizations like these ought to be doubling down, with justified urgency, to understand exactly what those systems mean across given regions.
Courtesy James Corner Field Operations
This kind of research-intensive design work is now being undertaken with Rebuild By Design, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Design (HUD), in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, that aims, first, to undertake analyses of the entire Sandy-affected region, then to propose a range of design concepts on various scales that can be implemented by municipalities as needed. By organizing it in this way, HUD managed to cut across the types of partitions that would otherwise hamper resilience strategies. Teams, for example, include designers, planners, engineers, scientists, geographers, hydrologists, and policy experts. The scale of inquiry ranges from the building detail to entire ecosystems, sites can include dense urban areas and small communities, and, in an important step, it creates a jurisdictional venue that crosses state and city lines to treat the risk of storm surges as the regional issue that it is.
It also brings world-class, site-specific research to vulnerable communities that might otherwise lack the resources to carry out that type of work. “You can never get 100 percent protection from every risk, but we can first understand the risks and tailor solutions to particular risks at specific locations,” said Dan Zarrilli, New York City’s Director of Resiliency. “There is a false dichotomy between hard and soft. Obviously, you wouldn’t build dunes off Lower Manhattan because of the geology and ecology of that place, but in the Rockaways, yes, absolutely.”
The big objective for resilience design, regardless of risk, is to short-circuit the entire list of false dichotomies, beginning with hard and soft, but including river and watershed, shore and sea, urban and rural, and natural and built. This will require a radical reorientation in the way projects are designed and carried out. Disciplines will need to collaborate in unprecedented ways—not by making vapid claims to “interdisciplinarity,” but by assembling committed teams of scientists, engineers, economists, planners and designers. And political borders need to be understood not as boundaries, but as sites of sharing and exchange.
There is a worrisome historical precedent to be found in the sustainability challenge popularized over the last decade. Though significant strides have been taken toward increasing energy efficiency in buildings and cities, many of the real possibilities for fundamental change have been hampered by the lure of a buzzword. Now is the time to imagine just what resilience can be, before it risks devolving into the kind prescribed solutions that can have such a stultifying effect on design. Before someone goes out to coin an acronym for resilience—LEED is taken, SEED, too, so REED seems a likely choice—let’s agree that the scope of resilience transcends any checklist, and it ought to be approached differently, in manner with the projects above.