Why is New York still building on the waterfront?
By Gina Bellafante
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York 10 years ago — flooding 17% of the city’s total landmass and resulting in 43 deaths, thousands of evacuations and power outages that affected 2 million people — Northeners who had paid only passing attention to Gulf Coast weather events instantly saw how rising sea levels could really mess with them. About 70% of the buildings tagged by the city as severely impaired or outright destroyed were on or very near the coastline. It seemed, in those hellish, chaotic days following the storm, as people mucked out the lobbies of expensive condominiums in Dumbo and walked through the destruction in the Rockaways, that New Yorkers would finally retreat from the harbor.
But that is not what happened. Over the past decade, we have gone in a very different direction, populating the waterfront even more enthusiastically, especially along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens. According to the city’s Department of Buildings, 225 permits have been issued for new apartment buildings in flood zones since Jan. 1, 2013. The effect of that has been to etch a kind of climate denialism into the skyline of one of the country’s most liberal places, punctuating how resistant we are to truly meaningful change, even as the city has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and has committed to the principles of the Paris Agreement.
The most significant shift in how we have built after Sandy has been the implementation of more stringent rules for flood-resistant construction. New buildings now routinely place mechanicals higher up, often on the roof rather than in basements, where they might be gutted in the next ruinous storm. Sometimes lobbies and residential floors are raised above ground level, a standard practice in Miami. But older buildings are under no mandate to put these measures in place, which leaves 96.5% of them in the current floodplain unfortified. “At the moment, we don’t have a good framework for planning for the future,” said Brad Lander, the city comptroller.
In the short term, at least, it is in the city’s economic interest to indulge the fetish for the waterfront and allow continued development. As more and more buildings have appeared, the value of real estate in these threatened areas has climbed to around $176 billion, bringing in $2 billion in property taxes each year, during a period when the city’s finances have been destabilized by the pandemic. All of this comes from a new report out of Lander’s office, which also makes clear that the expansion of the floodplain will put additional land in jeopardy. Without expensive “protective infrastructure,” that property’s value would go down or it would leave the tax rolls entirely, either because it could be abandoned or left to managed retreat programs of the kind that took shape after Sandy in Staten Island, where 473 homes in imperiled neighborhoods were torn down.
Whatever self-righteous disapproval New Yorkers may have directed at Texans and Floridians, year after year, hurricane after hurricane, as they rebuilt their houses on ever-higher stilts rather than abandon beach living, the devastation here did little to infringe on our own shoreline romance. Several years ago at a conference on the future of cities, sponsored by The New York Times, former hedge fund investor and environmentalist Tom Steyer spoke about the dangers of climate change. Steyer, who has been a major donor to Democratic candidates who have pledged to avoid the worst scenarios, took questions from the audience, addressing them with deep knowledge and passion. But when someone asked about our compulsion to continue building and living on the water, he essentially responded with a shrug. The love of water was primal; what, really, could be done?
Four years before Sandy, in 2008, an old printing warehouse on the water in the newly developing Brooklyn Bridge Park arrived on the market as a luxury condominium building. After the storm, many residents were without heat and hot water for several weeks. None of this had much effect on demand to live there. Within the coming years, three new apartment buildings went up along the park — one of them with rental units and the other two with condominiums that sold for many millions of dollars.
This disconnect isn’t limited to luxury development. During Sandy, more than 100 homes in Breezy Point, on the far western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula, were lost to a raging electrical fire caused by the storm. By 2014, dozens of houses in the community had been rebuilt. By 2017, most of the neighborhood had been restored. Today, a modest beach cottage in Breezy Point will run you about $1.5 million.
For much of the 20th century, the urban waterfront was not considered a luxury asset. As the wealthy escaped the summer heat in Newport, Rhode Island, or up on the cliffs of the Hudson, the poor swam — and frequently died — in the East River. So many buildings belonging to the New York City Housing Authority wound up on the water precisely because the land was flood-prone and thus of low value. At some point — presumably when “coastal” became the default adjective preceding “elite,” when factories converted to creative space, when the industrial waterfront began to seem ripe for high-end domestication — what was once regarded as disadvantage bore a new cachet.
The economy avidly supported these new tastes. In a book released earlier this year, “Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change from 1979 to the Present,” author Eugene Linden, who has warned about global warming for 30 years, points to the failures of an insurance industry that overlooked the threat of climate crisis in the name of writing lucrative homeowner policies. As a result, millions around the country moved not away from but into wildfire zones and areas at risk of hurricanes while, at the same time, reinsurers came up with complex financial instruments that could contain and spread risk.
Although an $8 million apartment in a flood zone might seem like a terrible long-term investment, the very wealthy have come up with workarounds to mitigate their vulnerability. Linden has witnessed rich New Yorkers buy luxury condominiums in waterfront developments simply to keep a foothold in the city as they relocate to Florida to lower their tax burdens. In a few years, as he explained, the apartments pay for themselves in tax savings.
“They are fully aware of climate change,” he said of the buyers, “but they’re saving $3 million a year in taxes.” In this equation, whatever depreciation might attach later on hardly matters.
What of the rest of us? The tens of thousands of people who live along the city’s 520 miles of coastline will be left to depend on municipal government’s ability to extract federal funds and complete a full range of projects meant to minimize the damage of storm surge with a sense of urgency that has so far not materialized. Thirty-five NYCHA developments containing more than 60,000 people endured major damage during Sandy. At the Red Hook Houses, which suffered some of the most brutal assault, residents had to wait nearly five years for repairs to boilers and roofs to even begin. The comptroller’s report, which calls the progress on Sandy “plodding,” is not optimistic. The city has been slow to the spend the money it has already been given: A decade later, it has gone through only 73% of the $15 billion in federal money earmarked for recovery and resilience. The next time, Washington might not be so generous.