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Sandy Forces Questions About Waterfront Rebuilding


New York City has rediscovered its waterfront over the past decade. It's been building parks and apartment complexes on land where once ships unloaded cargo and heavy manufacturing took place. Matthew Schueman of member station WNYC reports that Hurricane Sandy's wrath is making some planners question whether that makes sense.

MATTHEW SCHUEMAN, BYLINE: About a month after the storm, construction is underway at yet another luxury high-rise along the Brooklyn waterfront.


SCHUEMAN: Bobby Kim lives in a tower nearby that opened about two years ago. It's called The Edge, and it's so close to the East River - about 100 feet away - that the city ordered the complex evacuated before Sandy because of fears of flooding. But, Kim said, he stayed put in his sixth floor condo.

BOBBY KIM: We were fine. The water literally went up to right the top stair. After that, it was just smooth sailing for us. We didn't even lose power.

SCHUEMAN: In fact, the Web designer, and some neighbors who also refused to evacuate, watched the storm through their floor-to-ceiling windows.

KIM: It was nice. It was nice. It was very dramatic watching the clouds roll in. And we also the moment when all the transformers blew up in Manhattan. So that was, you know, it's exciting - I mean, it was awful, obviously.

SCHUEMAN: This part of Brooklyn is one of five waterfront areas that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rezoned since coming into office 11 years ago. High-rise, and generally high-priced, apartment towers are turning these former industrial areas into some of the city's most desirable neighborhoods. And city officials say in general these new developments fared well on the storm, especially contrasted with older buildings in other coastal areas.

JEFF LEVINE: The water rose probably to within a foot of our building grade, but was never at that point where water penetrated the building.

SCHUEMAN: That's Jeff Levine, the developer of the 30-story Edge complex, as well as the new tower going up next door. He says smart design choices, such as adding landfill to bring the grade level up several feet higher than it would otherwise be, helped the building withstand flooding. With a few precautions like those, he says there's no reason not to build along the water.

LEVINE: We have very little land left upon which to build new buildings. We have limited areas that have very good public transportation in the form of subways, buses, ferries, etc. And I think we need to take advantage of that.

SCHUEMAN: Any new construction in a 100-year flood zone, whether part of these new areas or not, has to conform to special provisions in New York City's building code. In general that means keeping electrical equipment out of harm's way and raising the first floor slightly above what the federal government calls the base flood elevation. Experts say these features add relatively little to construction costs for large apartment buildings when built from scratch, but that retrofitting, even in an existing single-family house, could cost $90,000 or more. But some architects and scientists caution that these preventive measures soon won't be enough to overcome the effects of climate change. Lance Jay Brown is an architecture professor at the City College of New York.

LANCE JAY BROWN: I think we're involved with a moving target.

SCHUEMAN: The sea level surrounding New York City is expected to rise by two to four feet in the next 70 years. That means that The Edge and other new buildings, instead of surviving a foot above Sandy's surge, could end up a few feet underwater next time. Klaus Jacob is a Columbia University professor. He says with the new zoning the city is putting people in harm's way when it should be doing the opposite.

KLAUS JACOB: We are still sort of in the old mode that living near the waterfront is the smart thing and the fashionable thing to do. I mean we have to get away from that.

SCHUEMAN: Though Mayor Bloomberg himself is a big believer in climate change, he says the city will not retreat from its waterfront. Instead, in a speech last week he promised to change building and zoning laws so that new and existing buildings will withstand higher flood levels in the future. For NPR News, I'm Matthew Schueman in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.