As the Sea Rises, Will Resiliency—Rather Than Retreat—Be Enough to Save Waterfront NYC?
The water first rose up out of the streets in Coney Island, recalls Ida Sanoff, sometime last summer.
“I was standing last summer on the corner of Mermaid Avenue and I think West 19th Street, and it hadn’t rained in several days, and the entire intersection was a lake,” she recalls. “And all of a sudden as I watched, the water started going down.” The next day at the same time, the same thing happened. “Sure enough, I pulled out my phone — the tide was going out.”
The phenomenon is known as “blue-sky flooding,” and occurs when rising tides reach the level of sewer outflows, sending seawater (and sewer water) backing up through storm drains. It’s become increasingly common along the Florida shore and other coastal cities, but until now hadn’t been a part of Coney Island life.
Meanwhile, a little less then a mile west down the peninsula, developer John Catsimatidis’ soon-to-open 21-story luxury rental project Ocean Dreams towers over the neighboring public housing blocks. And Sanoff’s puddled intersection itself is in the process of being torn up — ironically — for a sewer project to prepare the way for a massive 1,000-unit residential complex that is about to rise across the street from the Brooklyn Cyclones’ ballpark.
That juxtaposition — of a city with more residents at risk from sea level rise than any other in the U.S., yet still building new waterfront construction at a breakneck pace — has some New Yorkers wondering if two of the de Blasio administration’s signature issues, housing construction and green planning, are on a collision course along the city’s 520 miles of shoreline. The mayor’s office says it can do both, pointing to billions of dollars being spent to mitigate the impact of rising sea levels.
But as climate experts warn with increasing stridency, coastal cities are running out of time to prepare for threats from the ocean — and seawater is an implacable adversary.
“I have to give the city props” for swiftly shoring up its existing infrastructure, says City Tech architecture professor Illya Azaroff, an expert in climate-change preparations, which should “buy us 10 or 15 or 20 years.” But coming up on seven years after Sandy, he says, “we really need to learn to work with water — we need major surgery, versus just Band-Aids.”
“Even the Dutch are retreating from the shoreline, but here we’re building out 30- and 40-story buildings in a flood zone,” marvels Sanoff. “It’s all about money. And the developers don’t give a damn because they’re not going to be here.”
***The reality of climate change and its inevitable impact on New York City came crashing down in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy made landfall, bringing with it a 13-foot wall of water that flooded subway tunnels and neighborhoods, cut off power to lower Manhattan, washed away century-old structures, and left the city forever changed.
Sandy “was a turning point in our climate resiliency work,” says Jainey Bavishi, a former White House climate official who since 2017 has served as director of de Blasio’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. That’s true not just for anticipating future Sandy-like storms, but also for predicting overall sea-level rise and such climate-change impacts as more frequent heat waves, which the New York City Panel on Climate Change projects will triple by the 2050s. (By the 2080s, the panel predicts, New York City could experience 75 days per year where the temperature breaks 90 degrees.)
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