Portions of this story have already run on Observer.com in different posts. This story appears in the October 31 print edition of The Observer. You can find links to the original posts at the end of this story.
“I love the water,” Blis Laurel said Sunday afternoon, having ventured down from her apartment on Bedford Avenue to stand beside the choppy waters of the East River.
“Mother Earth is so powerful,” she continued. “I love to connect with her; I wanted to come down before the storm and feel the energy.”
Ms. Laurel was wearing a white- and rainbow-colored knit cap and a green down vest. She had a chain around her neck with a crystal hanging from it. She is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and thus well accustomed to hurricanes.
“Andrew was my first, when I was 3,” Ms. Laurel explained. “Hopefully I won’t be spending any time hiding in the closet again.”
Ms. Laurel said she was not afraid of the potential Frankenstorm that was then being predicted. “It’s exciting because two celestial events are happening at once,” Ms. Laurel explained. “It’s a harvest moon and a hurricane, which I hear can mean a big storm surge. I don’t know what that would mean energetically, but I think it’s important to be in a place of love and not a place of fear.”
She was not the only one feeling the pull of Mother Earth—or of Mayor Bloomberg—to this spot on the Williamsburg waterfront.
Behind us soared The Edge and North Side Piers, 30 stories of luxury condo glory, offering some of the best views in the city. The condo towers are some of the biggest pillars of the Bloomberg administration’s physical legacy, the result of a 2005 rezoning of the waterfront to replace old factories and warehouses with gleaming piles of apartments. Standing tall on the east side of Kent Avenue, these high-end high-rises are squarely in Zone A, the first of the flood zones to be hit in the event of a severe weather event.
Not only has this corner of the city begun to resemble Miami, but it is also starting to feel like it. Memories of Hurricane Irene and the evacuation that preceded it still linger in the minds of those who call this place home. Many, drawing on the anticlimactic experience of last year, saw little reason to leave.
As the same loudspeaker recording blared over and over again, it seemed like the vast majority of residents were indifferent to the pleas of Mayor Bloomberg.
This is the NYPD. You are located in Zone A. There is a mandatory evacuation in effect, and the mayor has required everyone to evacuate by 7 p.m. Anyone found to be knowingly violating this evacuation order will be charged with a class B misdemeanor.
“We’re staying,” Javier Andrede said, wearing a windbreaker as he made his way into the lobby of Northside Piers 1, his English bulldog waddling beside him. “I’m not worried. After the previous hurricane, I think we’ll be okay.”
Mr. Andrede said hello to Zigi Liebold before making his way inside, as Ms. Liebold tried to corral her young daughter, who was dancing around, wired from all the excitement. “We’re on a high floor, so we’re not very worried,” Ms. Liebold said.
“I just got these kick-ass new stereo speakers, and I am going to listen to those until the power runs out,” Jim Butler, a resident in the neighboring The Edge said, tugging on the doors of the CVS that is part of the complex—it had just closed, a few minutes before 5 p.m. “Then I’m going to read and look at my art books. I’ll live by candlelight, get in touch with my 19th-century self.”
He wouldn’t have any choice, either. The management company planned to bar the doors within an hour, complying with the mayor’s mandatory 7 p.m. evacuation. Sandbags already surrounded many entrances. Still, judging by the lights on in windows—we saw one guy painting at an easel—and by the comments of residents, more than half were staying put.
Mayor Bloomberg did not approve, as he made clear during his press briefing Monday morning. “You’re sort of caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “You should have left, but it’s also getting to be too late to leave. If you really experience an emergency, [call] 911. We will send our first responders in, although we’d love very much not to have to put their lives at risk, and you can control that by getting out now.”
If only the mayor had not encouraged all these people to move in in the first place. When asked about it by The Observer during the same press conference, he even said he would do it again. “People like to live in low-lying areas, on the beach; it’s attractive,” Mr. Bloomberg, who has a home in Bermuda, said.
“People pay more, generally, to be closer to the water, even though you could argue they should pay less because it’s more dangerous. But people are willing to run the risk.”
In an email, Dan Doctoroff, the mayor’s former deputy mayor for economic development who helped dream up many of the waterfront rezonings, shared this view.
“As for people who refuse to leave when warned, they are just fools,” he added.
But what if this becomes an annual pilgrimage? During his Tuesday morning briefing after the storm had passed over the city, leaving destruction in its wake, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that he had joked with President Obama the night before that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now.”
The infrastructure needed to protect waterfront developments can be considerable, drawing important resources away from other areas.
Mayor Bloomberg did not appear prepared to undertake such investment. “We cannot build a big barrier reef off the shore to stop the waves from coming in; we can’t build big bulkheads that cut people off from the water,” the mayor said. “Robert Moses actually did that with the roads, and we’ve been ever since spending a fortune trying to get around it.”
The consensus among planners The Observer spoke with on Monday and Tuesday is that more needs to be done.
“Obviously, I favor prudence,” said planner Alex Garvin, who has influenced both Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Doctoroff. “However, in the Netherlands they have been reclaiming land from the sea for more than 1,000 years. Perhaps because of our Dutch heritage, more than 10 percent of Manhattan is land reclaimed from the Hudson or East Rivers.” Much of that land has been under water and without power at some point during the last 24 hours.
“What we need is serious, careful, ongoing waterfront planning, rather than the combination of opportunistic development and pandering to interest groups that characterizes New York City’s waterfront activities,” Mr. Garvin concluded.
Vishaan Chakrabarti happened to be in Rotterdam with some students when we reached him. The director of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate, he is also a partner at SHoP Architects and former director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning. Mr. Chakrabarti was impressed by a massive multibillion-euro floodgate that had been built at the mouth of the Rhone to protect the city from tidal surges.
“I think we need to seriously think about doing this in three places—the Verrazano Narrows, Hell’s Gate and Perth Amboy,” Mr. Chakrabarti said. This would essentially wall off the harbor, and while it would not protect places like the Rockaways and Coney Island, it would help prevent flooding of not only condos on the waterfront but also hospitals, roads, bridges, tunnels and the subway.
In addition, Mr. Chakrabarti thinks building new barrier islands could play an important role, and could even be profitable. Last year he proposed LoLo, a series of landfills covering some 20 acres that would connect Lower Manhattan to Governors Island (LoLo stands for Lower Lower Manhattan). This could create an entirely new neighborhood, and a new tax base, that could also help absorb any storm surge that might be headed northward.
“Too many people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake not to make this a major priority,” Mr. Chakrabarti said.
Ron Schiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a former City Planning commissioner, questioned whether waterfront development should be allowed to continue without serious investment first. Many of these projects are being built on former industrial sites, he pointed out, meaning that a storm surge can flood the ground plane, stirring up dangerous toxins. He believes that projects should be referred to the city and state offices of emergency management for approval before they can proceed. Currently that is not done.
“There has been a disconnect for some time between the actions of the City Planning Department and PlaNYC 2030,” Mr. Schiffman said, referring to the mayor’s sustainability plan.
The real estate industry is more circumspect about changes. “The city can’t control Mother Nature,” Real Estate Board President Steven Spinola said. “Storms will happen regardless of what anyone does. If we followed that line of thinking, we would have to abandon homes and towns adjacent to rivers across the country.”
A new building on the waterfront might actually be better off than an old one inland, he said.
“People want to live by The Edge and similar wonderful buildings,” Mr. Spinola said. “If they are built correctly, which they are, and the residents follow the recommended actions when a still-rare storm such as Sandy occurs, we have done everything possible. These developments incorporated elements such as the waterfront esplanade and open space, which mitigate the impact of the storm surge.”
“Some people may not evacuate. Some cross against a red light,” he added. “Government can only do so much.”
Post-Sandy, government may be preparing to do more. “It doesn’t matter why it happened at this point,” Mr. Bloomberg said Tuesday of the various infrastructure failures, from hospital generators to flooded tunnels. “The only reason we care about why it happened is so it doesn’t happen the next time. We’ve got to fix it right now.” Especially if the city wants to add tens of thousands of more condos to the waterfront. Those towers in Williamsburg are perhaps one-20th of what is ultimately planned for north Brooklyn alone.
Gov. Cuomo was more emphatic. “I do think we have to anticipate these kinds of extreme weather patterns, and we have to start to think about how do we redesign the system so this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can sit back and say, well, I’m shocked at that weather pattern. There is no weather pattern that can shock me at this point, and I think that has to be our attitude about our regional systems and our infrastructure.”
On Sunday night, The Observer encountered Justin Broomfield unpacking his BMW SUV in the driveway of Northside Piers, setting a suitcase, two golf bags, a case of wine and three cases of beer onto a dolly. He said he had just returned from a business trip—otherwise his family would have been out at their place in the country instead of making do at home. “I think our Toll Brothers construction can hold up,” Mr. Broomfield said, referring to the building’s developer. “Besides, we’re on the 26th floor, so we’ll have a good view of the storm.”
If anything, that was the most remarkable thing to hear, and we heard it over and over again. There was frustration, fear, indifference and excitement swirling around the storm, but almost no one would trade his or her life on the waterfront for something a little safer and less dramatic. “I guess if this became an annual thing, I might start to think about moving, but it’s pretty nice otherwise,” Mr. Broomfield said.
“This is not a hole in the ground,” Jim Butler, the stereo enthusiast, said. “The waters will come in, and then they will recede. It’s not New Orleans. It’ll be a big deal for a day or two, and then we get to go back to living our life on the waterfront, which is just the greatest place to be.”
- 10/28: Luxury Living in Zone A: Williamsburg High Rises Ignore Evacuation Even as Landlords Lock Down Towers
- 10/29: Even in a Hurricane, Mayor Bloomberg Bullish on Waterfront Development
- 10/30: Dan Doctoroff Still Wants Waterfront Development—So Long As ‘Fools’ Evacuate Next Time
- 10:31: New New Amsterdam: Should New York Do Like the Dutch and Building Some Skyscraper-Sized Sea Gates?