On the Waterfront
Issue #
181

Sandy has triggered a public debate about how to protect the city in the future given the growing consensus that powerful storms and sea level rise are inevitable. But who will be protected? And who will pay?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo thinks New York City needs floodgates. Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks other drastic measures have to be taken. Both of them have joined the chorus linking Sandy’s devastation with global climate change. But neither of them has suggested he would stray from government’s long tradition of protecting big real estate interests and abandoning those living at the margins, such as the tenants in the public housing projects of the Rockaways, Coney Island and Red Hook.

There needs to be a more equitable strategy going forward that forces the powerful real estate giants in Manhattan to pay the steep price of fortifying their luxury enclaves and puts public funds into protecting the most vulnerable working people.

The Cuomo and Bloomberg proposals are examples of short-term thinking dressed up in green rhetoric. They fail to look deeply at the long-term sustainability of the city. They obscure the basic questions of who benefits and who pays. If the chief beneficiaries of expensive dikes and other greening measures are downtown and waterfront property owners, why shouldn’t they foot their fair share of the bill? If the captains of the growth machine took the risk with their capital, why should government have to bail them out?

On the other hand, if the city and state administrations seriously want to address climate change, they might begin to limit development in flood-prone areas instead of promoting it. They could also put more money into preserving and retrofitting the city’s housing stock, especially public housing and homes in vulnerable areas, instead of wasting money to protect lavish
new developments.

PROTECTING INVESTORS

The corporate press has been quick to hail the declarations of the mayor and governor as evidence of necessary change in a world where climate change deniers, heavily funded by the fossil fuel lobby, have managed to prevent serious action. But on closer look, the Cuomo-Bloomberg discussion is mostly about protecting existing and future investments in New York City’s most valuable real estate, including Mayor Bloomberg’s signature development projects located along the most vulnerable upscale waterfronts. For them, the underlying issue isn’t really climate change but how to get government to put up the massive expenditures needed to protect “the real estate capital of the world.” By wrapping themselves in a green mantle of climate change adaptation, they can convince others that they’re saving the world.

Up till now Bloomberg has been skeptical of proposals to build hugely expensive barriers in the harbor. Many high-end real estate interests, after all, are on high ground, and the newer projects are likely to be built to withstand the worst. Bloomberg has also been a forceful advocate for building more, not less, on the city’s waterfront, leaving it to engineers and architects to deal with protections against storm surges. Ambitious measures to protect the less fortunate living in low-lying Zone A, however, were never contemplated. City Hall’s policy has been to make these areas more attractive for private developers on the assumption they will do the job themselves. Budget cuts in Washington are bleeding public housing to death all over the country, so the long-term trend is for the privatization or demolition of the giant public housing projects in these areas. (an attempt was already made in the Rockaways under the federal government’s HOPE VI program but failed in part due to tenant resistance.)

As an alternative to building barriers, the city administration has favored more modest long-term measures such as rebuilding wetlands or creating new ones, and improving the ability to divert and absorb storm water overflows. After Sandy, however, this option appears to be quite limited.

LEGACY PROJECTS

Bloomberg’s “legacy” development projects are mostly on the waterfront, and they have received millions of dollars in subsidies from the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The mayor has publicly touted the planned multi-billion-dollar Hudson Yards redevelopment on Manhattan’s west side as his trophy project. He is using his last year in office to try to set in stone the more controversial developments, such as Willets Point and Hunters Point in Queens. Other projects, including cruise terminals in Manhattan and Brooklyn and commercial recreation areas such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, are in place or under development.

The Bloomberg strategy goes beyond direct city subsidies for waterfront projects. In the last decade the administration passed more than 110 rezoning proposals around the city, including many in formerly industrial waterfront areas, that created windfall profits for private landowners and ushered in massive new construction.

Bloomberg’s rezoning of Coney Island included new opportunities for condos near the waterfront. He has been outspoken in his support for new condos in Gowanus and Newtown Creek, areas located in the flood plains of Brooklyn and saturated with toxic waste. Ignoring calls from community activists to clean up the area before promoting new residential development, the administration opposed a federally funded Superfund cleanup and refuses to question an ambitious new condo project in Gowanus. The mayor argues that the best hope for cleaning up the toxic land and water lies in private real estate development, which would improve each site as it develops. However, this would only shift the problem from one property to another and would still expose new residents and workers to toxic waste.

In perhaps the most dramatic rezoning, the city overcame substantial opposition by neighborhood groups and in 2005 rezoned the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. This unleashed a frenzy of luxury condo development on the waterfront, resulted in the displacement of thousands of industrial jobs and virtually wiped out one of the last remaining city neighborhoods to combine industry and housing. A similar process evolved in Long Island City, Queens, over the last two decades. In the thrall of big real estate money and waterfront views, City Hall never questioned the wisdom of lining the waterfront with more towers.

GROWTH MACHINE

Let’s not blame it all on Bloomberg. The frenzy to build in the flood zones began in earnest in the 1980s. The aging port facilities had closed and moved to New Jersey by the early 1970s but the city’s fiscal crisis froze any efforts to redevelop the waterfront. By the 1980s the real estate market began to boom again. In 1993, the city completed a comprehensive waterfront plan and new waterfront zoning regulations. Now the big investment trusts, equity funds and banks that put up the money for the new waterfront properties in Brooklyn and Queens, along with towers in lower Manhattan that got submerged by Sandy, are facing threats to their lower floors and bottom lines. They will certainly not pay for the repairs to the city’s streets, sewers and subway systems. But if the flooding continues they will have to pay to fix their buildings.

Could the selfish interests of the real estate growth machine actually benefit all the rest of us, following traditional trickle-down economics? After all, some argue, it was real estate interests that made possible construction of the nation’s largest subway system, and even though it was an unintended consequence, the subway has drastically reduced the need for burning carbon. Perhaps so, but imagine if the subway had been a truly public transit system from the start, as it is in many other big cities of the world. Then there may not have been a need for a public buyout of the first two private companies in the 1930s after they were milked dry by their investors. Imagine if instead of having three separate systems that all converge in Manhattan’s overblown real estate market, and several separate suburban rail systems, there had been a region-wide system that served the vast majority of the population in the tri-state area, which live, after all, in the suburbs and not in New York City.

It’s this kind of holistic, long-term thinking that is urgently needed as New Yorkers look to a future of rising sea waters and more storms like Sandy.

Tom Angotti is Director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development and author of New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate (MIT Press, 2008).