Building Sand Castles: Storm-Resistant Designs for Far Rockaway Revealed

Seeding Office's design includes a wavy boardwalk and windmills.

Seeding Office’s design includes a wavy boardwalk and windmills.

Now that question raised repeatedly in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—should we be re-building or developing New York’s storm-ravaged waterfront at all—has largely been answered in the affirmative (with the notable exception of several neighborhoods in Staten Island where the city bought out many residents), the city now faces the question of how.

While Mayor Bloomberg’s idea-packed, 432-page A Stronger, More Resilient New York plan covers all the bases and then some (ahem, SeaPort City), the unveiling of the four finalists for the FAR ROC Design Competition adds some new ideas to the mix. The competition, which the city launched in April, resulted in 117 proposals for Arverne East, a massive oceanfront parcel in Far Rockaway that is slated for a future affordable housing development. And while the city is unlikely to adopt any of the proposals whole hog (though it would be fascinating if they did), a number of elements may well be incorporated into the 80-acre development, as well as many others around the city.

The finalists represent an international crew, unsurprising, perhaps, given how New York has been looking to the superior storm-resistant design of low-lying countries like the Netherlands in the aftermath of Sandy. New York’s Ennead Architects was the only local entry; the other finalists were Lateral Office of Toronto, Seeding Office of London and White Arkitekter of Goteborg, Sweden.

Ideas for managing the sea’s storm surges invovle a blend of natural barriers and porous, raised boardwalks as well as holding basins, inlets and waterways to divert floodwaters. Ennead’s plan calls for a scrub shrub forests and wet meadows to hold surges; Lateral’s suggests water corridors, inlets and basins where residents can forage for native edible species and raise bees (though we believe it’s called harvesting when you pick a crop that has been intentionally planted, hip as urban foraging sounds).

The designs abound with nature preserves and pedestrian paths, including those with an eye to emergency escape—Seeding’s proposal includes a network of raised public and private pathways for fleeing the housing development in a hurricane. Other components seem nice but not necessary—it’s unclear why, precisely, a waterfront development that would presumably be hooked into city utilities would need a biogas plant to convert sewage to energy, cutting-edge though that might be. (Indeed, while many designs make much of living in harmony with nature, a society actually in tune with nature would not go to such great trouble and expense to build an urban village in a place that will almost certainly be inundated with seawater in the not-too-distant future, but rather, settle a little further back from the ocean’s edge.)

The plans are fascinating where they focus on physical engineering, less so the social engineering that the task of envisioning an 80-acre development inevitably invites (not that anyone is looking for anything groundbreaking on that front). For example, White Arkitekter suggests small shops to draw Williamsburg-style entrepreneurs, writing that “the presence of creative people can, as proven in the East Village and Williamsburg, trigger interest and future urban development and the design process proposes to build on an existing interest in the Rockaways by inhabitants from Williamsburg.” Apparently, Sweden is unaware that the monolithic Williamsburg culture has spread more rapidly than the common cold across New York and that if anything, we should be working to contain infection in other areas of the city.

Perhaps the most meaningful questions raised by the designs are what such storm-resistant plans will cost as opposed to traditional ones. It’s worth noting that the Rockaways is already the most expensive beach in America. While no one would dispute the wisdom and financial savvy of building such a design in a place like Arverne East, there is much to dispute in the wisdom of building in Arverne East at all. Might it not make more sense to build away from the coast altogether, particularly when it is the city who be financing the development?

PDFs of the four finalist designs below: