Flexible Flood Zones

Should flood-prone areas along the city’s coastline be turned back to nature? Or should some of the properties be redeveloped creatively, using modern construction methods that take into account the inevitability of extreme weather?

That’s what city officials are pondering as federal money begins to flow into New York for post-Sandy reconstruction. It would seem clear that a flexible approach is preferable to simply turning over valuable acreage to the vicissitudes of nature.

Several weeks ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a $400 million buyout program designed to purchase flood-prone homes, demolish them, and create open space and wetlands in some flood zones. For some areas, particularly in parts of Staten Island, the idea makes sense. Portions of the devastated Oakwood Beach neighborhood, for example, were built between a surging sea and inland wetlands. Not a good combination.

But not all coastline properties are the same. Some are more vulnerable than others, and some might be more hospitable to smarter development. City Hall is considering its own more expansive (and expensive) buyout program that would allow for the redevelopment of aging, antiquated homes in select areas. The program would be funded with federal money.

At a recent City Council hearing, the director of the city’s housing recovery office, Brad Gair, said that discussions are under way in City Hall to determine “whether properties acquired [in buyout programs] should be made permanently open space or whether some of those would be suitable for redevelopment, preferably for the homeowners in the area.”

The latter approach makes the most sense. The city’s coastline remains a valuable asset, even in the new age of extreme storms. People still want to live by the water-—there’s something about us humans that attracts us to the sea. Why not take this opportunity to redevelop coastal communities in a sensible way, with all proper protections, including elevation of homes in floodplains?

Not every community can be, or should be, redeveloped. And there surely is something to be said about creating more open space along the city’s waterfront.

Still, the siren song will continue to lure New Yorkers to the coast. It would be short-sighted and unrealistic to ignore the possibilities for smart, durable redevelopment.