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Hurricane Sandy
Grimsby Street on Staten Island’s eastern shore after Superstorm Sandy, Oct. 31, 2012.
Ben Fractenberg/DNAinfo

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Can the Mayoral Candidates Bring a Sea Change to NYC’s Climate Resilience Fight?

The next mayor will inherit the city with the pandemic rebound and the battle to protect New York from the next Superstorm Sandy inextricably tied. Here are some of the City Hall hopefuls’ ideas to safeguard the city.

Don Riepe, who has lived in Broad Channel for nearly 40 years, tracks the phase of the moon and the movement of the tides, cross checking them with forecasts for storms.

If he expects flooding, he rolls up the downstairs rugs and takes his valuables upstairs.

“That’s just life in Broad Channel,” he said. “If you want to live close to water, you just pay attention.”

The extra attention is worth it to Riepe, who serves as the Jamaica Bay guardian for the American Littoral Society, a marine conservation group. He loves to take his boat out on the water, surrounded by the marsh with the city skyline visible on clear days.

When he rebuilt his house after Superstorm Sandy, he put the electrical outlets four feet off the floor. If another storm hits and destroys his home, he’s resigned to go somewhere else — a thought that lingers in the back of his mind.

A marking near Don Riepe’s backdoor marking how high the water got during Superstorm Sandy.
A marking near Don Riepe’s backdoor marking how high the water got during Superstorm Sandy.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The thought will have to be near the top of mind for the city’s next mayor. The effects of climate change put New York City’s 520 miles of coastline and the approximately 1.4 million people who live near it at risk.

The next mayor will shoulder the responsibility of planning for the present and future of waterfront communities, ensuring they can withstand frequent flooding and rising sea levels. Meanwhile, most properties in coastal areas the federal government deems extremely vulnerable to the next disaster are without flood insurance, as THE CITY previously reported.

The eight leading Democratic mayoral candidates seem to understand the high stakes, especially with major resilience projects lagging, the results of a survey administered by the Waterfront Alliance show.

The City Hall hopefuls offer wide-ranging, multifaceted — and at times, vague — approaches to tackling the interconnected problems climate change poses. Top of the priority list: making sure solutions are equitable and accessible — and figuring out how to pay for them.

Everyone’s Got a Plan

Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia wants to move on stalled existing plans to protect neighborhoods from flooding. City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Andrew Yang plan to explore buyouts of flood-prone homes. Dianne Morales has ideas for new sources of revenue for green projects, like community decarbonization efforts.

Resiliency advocates say the next mayor should be a champion for the cause, secure federal and state dollars for the city and prioritize climate change in all budget decisions and infrastructure plans.

The task represents a huge challenge, requiring deft navigation of multiple agencies and the need to engage vastly different communities around the city. But the advocates see an opportunity to strengthen the city’s landscape and economy as it emerges from the pandemic.

“Resilience is a housing issue, resilience is an equity issue, it’s a social justice issue, it’s a health issue,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design, a federal effort launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after Sandy.

“In every facet of our lives, climate change can make quite a big impact, from flooding critical train lines or streets that won’t let us get to work, to having hotter and hotter days that make more people have more dramatic health effects.”

De Blasio’s Mixed Legacy Cited

Mayor Bill de Blasio took office nearly 15 months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged multiple waterfront communities, flooded the transit system, knocked out power for almost two million people and led to the deaths of 44 New Yorkers. The storm left $19 billion worth of damage in New York City in its wake.

While de Blasio helped rebuild the hardest-hit neighborhoods, some have found his efforts to advance forward-looking protection projects lackluster.

“One would think de Blasio would be the resilience mayor, helping the city build back from the most severe weather event we have ever experienced,” Chester said. “De Blasio has made a lot of inroads into sustainability … but we have not seen that same passion for resilience.”

The de Blasio administration’s resilience strategy, documented in the 2019 report OneNYC 2050, warned of the serious consequences climate change would have on neighborhoods like Coney Island, Rockaway and East Harlem. The city finished a series of coastal resilience projects, including beach replenishment, the installation of flood protection barriers and wetland restorations around the five boroughs. Several others are in the works.

As part of the city’s economic recovery, the de Blasio administration also plans to develop a climate change research complex on Governors Island.

A rendering shows how Governors Island could look after rezoning for a new climate hub proposal.
A rendering of how Governors Island could look after rezoning for a new climate hub proposal.
WXY architecture + urban design/bloomimages

In a statement, Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, said de Blasio’s “commitment to tackling the climate crisis has created a safer, more resilient New York City.”

But there’s a disconnect between the progress the city touts and whether locals believe those efforts so far are enough. Many plans lack teeth or funding.

“You have lots of city agencies and educators, colleges, etc., coming in to do a ton of studies and plans, and it really leads to this planning fatigue where a lot of the residents we work with in the Rockaways feel like they’ve participated in a million studies but there’s nothing changed,” said Judah Asimov, senior manager of planning and outreach at the Rockaway Initiative for Sustainability and Equity, a environmental and civic engagement group. “So much could be changed if we had a candidate with real vision.”

‘An Unavoidable Issue’

The city’s next mayor has a shot to strategize and make progress on resilience, pending an immediate crisis.

In their responses, all of the candidates recognized the need to advance resiliency projects through a comprehensive, five-borough plan that recognizes that some communities face more severe risks and bigger challenges responding to them than others. But in her proposal, Garcia acknowledged that some neighborhoods do not need more planning, just funding and execution.

The city broke ground on its East Side Coastal Resiliency Project with a new, costlier design, abandoning the original plan it had developed with the local Lower East Side community. That move drew criticism from many local community members — and from mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan, who ran HUD from 2009 to 2014.

East Side Coastal Resiliency
A rendering of the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan to protect against future flooding in Lower Manhattan.
New York City Planning Commission

The administration additionally proposed a $10 billion plan to extend Lower Manhattan’s shoreline into the East River and initially invested $500 million to fund interim capital projects and deploy adaptation measures like dams and barriers in the short term. But the full project remains unfunded. Other complex projects, including a seawall in Staten Island, have been mired in delays.

“With multiple major projects completed and many more on their way, the biggest challenges ahead remain securing new federal and state sources of funding and careful planning for daily tidal flooding, which will start to become an unavoidable issue for many communities in the coming decades,” Bavishi said in a statement.

The Department of City Planning this year is expected to release a 10-year comprehensive waterfront plan that the next administration will ultimately inherit. The next mayor will need to determine whether they’d permanently fund the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, which is backed through a dwindling federal block grant the city received after Sandy.

‘Living With Water’

The candidates’ resilience plans suggest what kind of city New York could be as it emerges from the pandemic.

In areas expected to be permanently inundated in the future, the next mayor will have to ask hard questions, potentially limiting where New Yorkers are able to live and build — or rebuild — and determining how to support those who must relocate.

The city has so far offered some buyouts to homeowners in flood-prone areas, but the next mayor can set the tone around politically thorny issues like managed retreat — moving residents and development away from areas at risk of flooding and other hazards — and rezoning neighborhoods to account for climate risks.

That process may entail limiting new development in flood-prone areas, or encouraging resilient construction — like in Brooklyn’s Gowanus, which is undergoing a controversial rezoning push to build more housing, but still faces risk of flooding.

“There’s some level of living with water, and some places that will not be able to function eventually,” said Rob Freudenberg, vice president of the energy and environment program at the Regional Plan Association. “We’re not having those conversations, let alone planning and strategizing.”

Two mayoral candidates proposed ideas in that vein.

Stringer offered a voluntary buyout program so that the city could turn developed land into “resilient shorefront areas” and condemned the plan to redevelop Staten Island’s Graniteville wetlands, citing the loss of a natural and protective area.

But he also wants to elevate and reinforce homes, especially in low-income areas, before the next storm hits — in contrast to the post-Sandy Build it Back program. He noted that would “reduce the burden of flood insurance,” which is expensive and isn’t required for all flood-prone properties because of a disagreement between local and federal officials, as THE CITY reported in 2019.

Yang also floated buyouts for homeowners and financial incentives for low-income renters living in areas likely to flood.

Seeking an Equitable Transformation

Riepe owns his home in Broad Channel and acknowledges he’s got flood insurance and savings, so he can afford to pay for damages to his house or find a new place to live. Others don’t have that certainty. And broadly, the communities that suffer the most from pollution are also most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Disaster situations, like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina in New Orleans, can exacerbate inequality, said John Mutter, a Columbia University professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who studies the unequal socio-economic impacts of natural disasters.

“The wealthier people don’t suffer proportionally and at least have the opportunity to prosper,” he said. “In a sense, rich people will always be able to take care of themselves, and the poorer people can’t.”

All the candidates framed their waterfront resilience plans with an eye to equity.

Stringer said the city should prioritize capital investments in neighborhoods with the highest need. Donovan, Ray McGuire and Maya Wiley called out protecting Hunts Point, the hub of the region’s fresh food supply, from flooding and storms. Wiley also proposed that the city team with neighborhood mutual aid organizations to leverage on-the-ground relationships in relief efforts after disasters.

Morales pledged to establish a committee to review city policy and legislation from a racial and social justice lens, as well as an environmental health committee to offer recommendations on waste and pollution in marginalized communities.

She proposed investing in a way that not only seeks to make profits for the private sector, but to “rise to the challenges of climate change and hundreds of years of environmental injustices” through “the principles of qualitative growth, cooperation, adaptability and community well-being.”

Accessing the Waterfront

While Riepe sees the expanse of Jamaica Bay from his windows, not all New Yorkers have water access at their doorsteps.

Don Riepe looks out his back door for a seasonal egret appearance.
Don Riepe looks out his backdoor.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The candidates zeroed in on transportation as a key aspect of their resilience plans, highlighting public transit and alternatives to driving as essential to granting access to the waterfronts and more sustainable forms of getting around.

Garcia, Donovan and Yang proposed enhanced bus, bike and pedestrian paths to the city’s waterfronts and green spaces. Eric Adams suggested expanding Citi Bike services and filling other gaps in last-mile transportation options so that people could link up with the waterfronts and ferry services.

McGuire promised to “overhaul” the ferry system, which trails the subway and bus systems in ridership so requires a hefty per-customer subsidy. But he did not specify what his plan would entail.

Wiley, meanwhile, proposed expanding ferry service, as well as making sure each borough has its own pier for last-mile package delivery to cut down on emissions-spewing trucks in residential areas.

Stringer, Garcia and Adams promised to “scale back” or reimagine highways that act as barriers to the waterfront, but did not get into details. The latter two specifically cited the transformation of the Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx to a pedestrian-friendly, waterfront boulevard as the kind of project the city should encourage.

Adams described his idea to reimagine the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway as more than a bike path, but “a tool for flood prevention and resiliency.”

Access to the waterfront and its ports is essential if the candidates’ economic plans come to fruition: All candidates emphasized the jobs that would come from the city’s role in building the East Coast’s nascent offshore wind industry — proliferating a form of renewable energy that will replace burning fossil fuels, which exacerbates the climate crisis.

Finding the Money

Finding a way to pay for the job-creating natural and structural interventions may very well be what closes the gap between vision and reality. New York City stands to benefit from President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and from a possible $3 billion state bond for environmental projects that New York voters could approve in November 2022.

“We’re optimistic about the infrastructure plan and having a climate-friendly administration, but it doesn’t guarantee dollars will flow. We still need to make the case for the kind of infrastructure that’s needed, the kind of resilience risks we face,” said Karen Imas, the Waterfront Alliance’s senior director of programs. “City municipal dollars alone aren’t going to solve these problems, so we absolutely need a mayor who will champion the city’s infrastructure needs and make the case that this isn’t just about the city’s economy, but it’s about the regional economy and national economy.”

Yang and Donovan touted their ties to the Biden administration as proof of their abilities to secure funding for New York City — Yang through his failed presidential run. Donovan noted his “experience managing the federal budget” while at HUD and leading the Office of Management and Budget would help him “introduce responsible, long-term funding strategies for resilience.”

Wiley’s New Deal New York plan would include $3 billion to invest in resilience infrastructure and other such initiatives, plus $2 billion to make NYCHA more environmentally secure. She was the only candidate to include a specific dollar figure.

Wiley, Stringer, Adams and Yang would invest in parks and resilience infrastructure through the city’s capital budget.

Morales would set up a public bank that would offer loans to small businesses and communities to develop decarbonization and resilience projects. She also proposed creating a new bonds program to finance renewable energy projects and waterfront infrastructure, which is part of her Green Jobs, Green Food, Green Justice policy. Stringer proposed a similar bonds program in his climate agenda.

“This is the climate change mayor who’s going to come through,” said Cortney Koenig Worrall, president of the Waterfront Alliance. “We know there’s a basic level of understanding that we’re in a time right now unlike any other in the past, that will be time moving forward in the future.”

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