Re-thinking New York City: The Potential in de Blasio’s Housing Plan

Earlier this week Mayor de Blasio released his eagerly awaited plan to create and/or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in New York City.

Environmentalists were particularly interested in what the plan had to say about incorporating more energy efficiency and climate resiliency measures into the city’s affordable housing stock. [See pages 55 through 59 of the Mayor’s plan for details.]

As Gotham Gazette noted, “the rise in energy costs could continue to push rents higher and thus turn more currently affordable units unaffordable, particularly for low-income residents.”

In response, de Blasio’s housing plan calls for a pilot outreach program aimed to slow rising utility costs.

Making Climate Resiliency Affordable

The de Blasio administration is also tackling a major challenge faced by New York and presumably other coastal cities: incentives for resiliency upgrades in federal flood zones tend to be focused on single-family, free-standing homes, not the multi-family, higher density building stock found in the five boroughs.

FEMA has added 29,000 residential properties to the city’s flood maps. Elevating a single-family home is a major endeavor; elevating a high-rise development in Far Rockaway is simply not possible, says the de Blasio administration.

And the administration has made it clear that it will not evacuate coastal neighborhoods.

The de Blasio team says that it will “advocate for the creation of flood protection standards that reflect the unique characteristics of New York City’s dense built environment…[such as] recognition of other forms of risk reduction other than elevating structures.”

And the administration plans to directly assist affordable housing owners with preparing their buildings for climate change.

The plan states: “We will explore the creation of a loan program to assist low-, moderate-, and middle-income owners in newly designated flood zones to perform resiliency upgrades. In some cases, these loans could be combined with other forms of incentives in exchange for an affordability agreement.”

Re-thinking Development in New York City: the connection between equity and sustainability

One of the most intriguing sustainability components of the de Blasio plan is its interest in re-thinking where and how new development happens in New York City.

The plan “takes a comprehensive approach that will create new housing near transit hubs and encourage infrastructure upgrades and new parks,” said Marcia Bystryn, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, in an email. This will alleviate “many hidden environmental costs that burden low-income New Yorkers,” she added.

“Our planning will be based upon a transit-oriented development approach,” stated the mayor’s report. Renewing the city’s commitment to transit-oriented housing development makes sense for sustainability and social equity says the de Blasio administration.

“Economic opportunity depends not only on affordable housing, but also access to schools, employment, shopping, and other services, both within the neighborhood and beyond,” the plan argued.

Resiliency Planning Post-Sandy: An Interview with Daniel Zarrilli, Part 2

Last week, Gotham Gazette sat down with Daniel Zarrilli, recently appointed director of the city’s newly created Office of Recovery and Resiliency, to get a sense of the City’s approach to resiliency and climate change.

Zarrilli is now one of the three top officials in city government responsible for crafting and overseeing the de Blasio administration’s Sandy recovery and climate resiliency planning efforts (along with Bill Goldstein, Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure; and Amy Peterson, director of the Housing Recovery Office).

Zarrilli, a licensed engineer, is no stranger to the daunting challenge of preparing New York City for climate change: he was interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability at the end of the Bloomberg administration.

Gotham Gazette sought to understand, first, how the new administration plans to utilize the extensive resiliency planning already put in motion by de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and, second, how the de Blasio administration views the future of the city’s coastal communities as sea levels rise.

A third focus of the conversation is how the administration plans to work with local communities on the front line of climate change. Only time will tell, but the de Blasio team’s purported commitment to community engagement might be what ultimately sets apart its approach to climate change.

In part one of the interview, Zarrilli discusses the City’s general approach and where plans stand in terms of those inherited from the previous administration, the logistics of his office and the administration’s other offices doing similar work, and the challenges involved in forecasting out 30, 50, and more years into the future.

In part two, read Zarrilli’s thoughts on buy-out programs, flood zones, community engagement in resiliency efforts, and more.


Buy-outs and Flood Zones

Gotham Gazette: The City’s just-released “One City, Rebuilding Together” report briefly mentions homeowners on Staten Island who may participate in a State buy-out program.

Daniel Zarrilli: We’ve been cooperating with the State’s buy-out program. The City doesn’t have a buy-out program where we return land to nature. What we do have is an acquisition program where we can help people, through the Build it Back housing program, acquire their homes, and then ultimately we can rebuild, whether it’s an elevated or otherwise more resilient home on that piece of property. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
The state’s been advancing three different buy-out areas in Staten Island, and we’ve been cooperating with them on how that’s going to work.

GG: Would you consider expanding buy-out or acquisition as time goes on?

DZ: That question remains to be answered in the future. You could look at this across the city – there’s 160,000 or so people who live in the Rockaways. We’re not going to buy out the Rockaways. Our analysis shows that with coastal protection investments, with building investments, and with infrastructure investments, we can actually reduce that risk to what we think is a manageable level into the time horizon that we’ve laid out as our planning horizon.

[Read more at the Gotham Gazette]


Sarah Crean is a contributor to the Gotham Gazette and an editor/writer at New York Environment Report.

Resiliency Planning Post-Sandy: An Interview with Daniel Zarrilli, Part 1

When Superstorm Sandy arrived in New York City on October 29, 2012, the city was jolted into a renewed conversation about climate change, resiliency, and long-term planning. In an interview with Gotham Gazette last year, Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist advising the City on planning for climate change, said that climate change “truly threatens the livelihood of the city as we have it now — unless [the city] adapts.”

The chief concern is rising sea levels, Jacob said. The five boroughs are ringed by 520 miles of coastline, which are becoming steadily more vulnerable to day-to-day inundation and catastrophic storms.

Planning for the long-term consequences of a looming, but largely abstract threat is an incredible task for any local government. Sandy made climate change more real to New Yorkers, but the de Blasio administration is nonetheless forced to work mostly in hypotheticals. The new administration must make calculations for how far to plan into the future, how to allocate precious funds, and how much risk is “manageable.”

According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an advisory body on which Jacob and other scientists and academics sit, by the 2050s, sea level at the Battery will have risen 11 to 24 inches (middle estimate), or as much as 31 inches (high estimate) relative to 2000-04 levels. Coastal flood heights could increase by almost 3 feet – projected to range from 8 to 17 feet by mid-century, depending on the nature of the flood-inducing storm.

[Read more at the Gotham Gazette]

City Council & Enviro Groups: “Mayor de Blasio, Show Us Your Resiliency Plan”

As Mayor de Blasio prepares to give a major address at Cooper Union tonight about the future of New York City, environmental advocates and City Council members are urging him to speak to the dangers of climate change and present his strategy for developing a more sustainable city.

Last week, the U.N. released a stark new assessment of the growing impacts of climate change that are being felt across the globe.

“As a representative of the Rockaways, I witnessed how unprepared our city was during Hurricane Sandy,” said Donovan Richards, chair of the City Council’s Environmental Protection committee. “I relish the opportunity to work with this administration to ensure we never find ourselves in that position again.”

Photo credit: NYLCV
Photo credit: NYLCV

A number of other Council Members issued similar statements at a press conference this morning on the steps of City Hall. They also argued that New York City needs an updated, far-ranging sustainability plan that looks at issues like housing and renewable energy.

Mayor de Blasio has made the development of thousands of units of affordable housing one of the key objectives of his administration.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso said today that new housing must be “equally environmentally responsible.” And Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has seen a proliferation of large-scale housing development, pointed to the scarcity of “green and open space” in his district.

Council Members, along with advocacy groups like the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives, were joined by some members of the development community.

“Superstorm Sandy exposed troublesome vulnerabilities in the City’s major energy, transportation and infrastructure systems,” stated Building Congress President Richard T. Anderson.

Those vulnerabilities can only be addressed, said Anderson, “by incorporating far greater standards for redundancy and sustainability in our capital programs.”

The coalition is calling on Mayor de Blasio to meet three “milestones” in the next one-hundred days, and to “put a healthy environment and climate resiliency…at the center of [his] vision” for New York City.

# 1: By May 1st, 2014, commit to building “affordably and sustainably.” 

On May 1st, the de Blasio administration will announce its strategy to add and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years. “Every effort should be made to make that housing environmentally sustainable and climate resilient,” says the coalition.

# 2: By June 1st, 2014, “show us your resiliency plan.”

The groups acknowledged that under the de Blasio administration, there has been a “renewed focus on helping New Yorkers recover from the impacts of Superstorm Sandy.”

But, they added, “there is still much work to be done to prepare the city for future extreme weather events. We urge Mayor de Blasio to issue a comprehensive and concrete plan that will make sure New York is prepared for the next big storm and a changing climate.”

#3: By June 30th, 2014, commit to investing in infrastructure, in order to “invest in the future.”

New York City spent an average of $9.5 billion on infrastructure in each of the last five years, the coalition stated.

As the Mayor and the Council finalize the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, which will begin on July 1st,  advocates and Council Members stated that Mayor de Blasio should “integrate sustainability and resiliency planning into the capital program.”

It was critical, they said, that the city “ensure roads, bridges, schools, parks and environmental facilities are in a good state of repair.”

Time is of the essence, the coalition added. Hurricane season starts on June 1st.

News Analysis: More Urgency Needed on Mayor’s Rebuilding & Climate Resilience Plan

Tuesday, we ran a piece describing Mayor de Blasio’s visit to Staten Island, the New York City borough which suffered the most devastating loss of life during Superstorm Sandy.

It’s worth reiterating that Staten Island’s new borough president, James Oddo, is deeply concerned about future storms and the island’s vulnerability to them,  especially along the south and eastern shores. And the borough president is anxious to proceed with re-thinking the design of some of the island’s coastal communities while there is still time.

The concern expressed by the Mayor about communities recovering from Sandy is no doubt real. But he is beginning to show what seems like a surprising lack of urgency, especially given what New York City is facing.

Almost two months into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, the team that will coordinate both the city’s rebuilding and climate change planning efforts has not been finalized.

A Looming Threat

As far as we know, there is still no leadership structure in place for tackling what some of the city’s own scientists have said is the biggest threat to New York City’s existence.

…there is still no leadership structure in place for tackling what some of the city’s own scientists have said is the biggest threat to New York City’s existence

Consider this: projections released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change in 2013 stated that by the 2050’s, sea level in the area is projected to rise 11 to 24 inches (middle range) and 31 inches (high estimate). Sections of Staten Island are already below sea-level now.

Every inch of sea level rise means a greater possibility of devastating storm surges striking New Dorp Beach, the Rockaways or Red Hook.

The Mayor has indicated that he agrees with much of what was proposed by former Mayor Bloomberg’s post-Sandy resiliency plan. But we don’t know what of the over 250 possible measures he supports and what he does not.

For instance, the plan proposes the construction of an enormous residential and commercial development on the East Side of Lower Manhattan -Seaport City- that would also serve as a “protective barrier” to sea level rise.

The local community board that represents the area has raised numerous questions about the project and says the city should focus first on protecting the community’s most vulnerable residents, especially those living in public housing.

What does the Mayor think about Seaport City? We know that he met with the Real Estate Board of New York on February 19th, but, as Capital New York reporter Dana Rubinstein noted, that meeting was closed to the media. REBNY’s members would almost certainly have opinions about the project.

What’s the Plan?

We also know that the Mayor wants to build on PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s multi-pronged sustainability plan, which was created to help the city plan for a million new residents by 2030. Like the SIRR plan, PlaNYC is a gargantuan document. It advocates, for instance, the city’s increased use of natural gas as a power source.

De Blasio has expressed major reservations about the extraction process for natural gas. And the New York Times reported recently on a new study showing methane leakage is a larger problem than originally thought.

It may very well be that natural gas’ benefits still outweigh the risks, but methane’s impact on the climate is a relevant question right now for a coastal city facing the dual challenge of locating sustainable energy sources and confronting rising sea levels.

In short, time is of the essence. We need to clarify how exactly we are rebuilding from Sandy, and what our priorities are as we confront climate change.

De Blasio: City Needs Resilience Planning that is Tied to Social Equity

Mayor de Blasio was on Staten Island yesterday, meeting with local elected officials about the island’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and its vulnerability to rising sea levels. “We know that there are tens of thousands of people in this city still feeling the effects of Sandy very sharply,” said the Mayor.

And the Mayor reiterated earlier statements that rebuilding efforts needed to be tied to broader goals, such as expanding access to city services and economic opportunity.

“Some of the communities that were affected [by Sandy] have been…neglected for decades. And never got the infrastructure they should have gotten in the first place. And if this is a moment for us to do something about that…for us to start to right some of those historic wrongs, we have to take it,” De Blasio argued.

The Mayor said that this philosophy applied as much to public housing residents in the Rockaways as it did to residents of Staten Island’s working class bungalow communities.

“It’s about taking a moment of crisis, trying to find the transformative possibilities within it, taking the resources that are coming in, and…saying what is the most we can get out of these resources that will leave people in better shape?” explained the Mayor.

Twenty-two of the twenty-three Sandy-related deaths on Staten Island occurred on its East and South shores. And while the East Shore, for example, is one of the areas in New York City most vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, it has suffered from flooding for decades, because of a lack of proper planning by the city and inattention to the area’s location and natural topography.

Originally a “vast swath” of marshes and swamps, development on the East Shore “far outpaced the construction of critical infrastructure like storm sewers,” said Carter Strickland, the outgoing commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Re-thinking the Bloomberg Administration’s Rebuilding and Resiliency Plan

For the first time yesterday, the Mayor outlined the process that will guide his administration’s development of a rebuilding and resiliency plan for New York City.

“Going forward we have a whole series of very complicated things that we have to address,” the Mayor said. “We’ve got important parts of infrastructure, where we are still as susceptible today as we were two years ago…where generators are still in the basement, where all sorts of fundamental physical realities are just as vulnerable as they were.”

De Blasio said that economic security is part of developing truly sustainable communities. “We have people in areas…that have been in many ways left behind for many, many decades. We have to try to create better and more sustainable housing and economic opportunities for them,” the Mayor declared.

De Blasio said he “commended” the Bloomberg administration’s resiliency plan “because I thought it was realistic. It depended on a number of measures that we can take in the short term”. He added that he also wanted to focus on “smart longer-term solutions like restoring wetlands, for example, which are an organic solution and a proven solution.”

The administration’s task is two-fold: both to develop a workable plan that addresses the thousands of New Yorkers who remain displaced by Sandy; and prepare for future impacts of climate change.

We know it’s going to take so much work to really get everyone whole and then to really make these neighborhoods strong and resilient going forward.

“Our job is to line them [rebuilding and resiliency needs] up…figure out where the resources are, what red tape we have to cut to get the resources in play, how to maximize the economic benefit it would have to the people who were affected…and just as quickly as possible, move each piece in a logical progression. That’s the way our game plan will look,” said the Mayor.

“We know it’s going to take so much work to really get everyone whole and then to really make these neighborhoods strong and resilient going forward. This is work we’ll be at together for years,” added de Blasio.

De Blasio said that City Hall would release a plan to move forward “in the next few weeks…I don’t think at this moment we have a clear starting point for that public discussion, and that’s our responsibility to put forward”.

Staten Island Pushes for A New Vision of Sustainability

But it was obvious yesterday that local leaders on Staten Island want to move forward immediately. Staten Island’s new borough president, James Oddo, is pushing the Mayor, arguing that the city should buy-out residents in some of Staten Island’s most vulnerable communities.

Oddo said that it was unlikely that the Cuomo administration would be providing more money for buy-outs, or that entire neighborhoods would be “seeded back to mother nature.”

But, he said, the city could confirm which residents remain serious about wishing to be bought-out. Using that information, swaths of contiguous property could eventually be acquired which would provide “a blank slate” for “smart” re-development. “And that means a different type of housing stock. That means putting in real infrastructure,” said Oddo.

Oddo believes the situation in Staten Island’s coastal neighborhoods is challenging but not untenable. “These folks live…on streets that are three or four or five feet below sea level…Any rain, they’re under water. [But] it’s a good place to live with the right infrastructure.”

The strategy proposed by Oddo, “Acquisition for Re-Development”, “gives help,” he said, “in the form of money, to people as quickly as possible, and it gives government a chance to…take a step back and figure out, how do we redevelop this property to create a better housing stock, to create a better community.” The borough president said this was a more forward-thinking and comprehensive solution than “doing one-offs– this bungalow here, that house there.”

De Blasio was enthusiastic but non-committal. “I am not ready to endorse a specific plan”, said the Mayor, “but I think it would be very healthy…to have a debate about where we’re going, and I think that’s one of the ideas that has to be on the table.”

Oddo observed that he was “dealing with some of the sins of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s here on Staten Island…I don’t want to be a part of making the mistakes that will impact the next generation.”

“We Have to Do Better”

The Mayor also acknowledged the mounting criticism of the city’s Build it Back program which channels rehab funding to Sandy victims. “It’s self evident that the pace [of the program] has been a profound problem,” de Blasio said.

Build it Back is managed by a private contractor, which received a reported fifty million dollars to administer the program. “We’re going to do a full review. That’s the whole point here,” the Mayor said.

“We know we have to do better,” de Blasio added. “It’s our obligation to put together a plan to build upon some of the things we think were done right…and address…some of the things that weren’t what they needed to be.”

De Blasio said his administration would also be announcing a new leadership structure for the city’s ongoing response to climate change.

Emily Lloyd, who ran the city’s Department of Environmental Protection from 2005 to 2009, is back at the helm at the DEP. The Mayor, when announcing her appointment last week, said that a major focus for the agency would be “infrastructure upgrades to improve our resiliency”.

It will also be Lloyd’s role, the Mayor said, “to convene public and private sector leaders to build upon the successes of PlaNYC [the Bloomberg administration’s far-reaching sustainability plan].”

“I had a lot of respect for and agreement with their plans of resiliency going forward and we’re using that as our initial blueprint,” said de Blasio. But, he added, “the response to Sandy was very uneven.”

Could de Blasio’s purported commitment to social equity impact other long-term environmental justice issues in New York City, from the siting of waste transfer stations to expanding access to open, green spaces to opening up the discussion about the city’s long-term energy strategy?

The Mayor observed when appointing Lloyd, “we also know, in everything we do, we have the potential to be the progressive leader.”

City Promises ‘Broad-Based Outreach’ To Communities To Prepare For Future Storms

The city has decided to reconvene two community advisory task forces that weighed in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s multi-billion dollar plan to protect the city from future extreme weather and the effects of climate change in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the city’s resiliency director told the Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY in an exclusive interview. The task forces will resume meeting this fall.

Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s director of resiliency, also said yesterday that there would be “broad-based outreach” to some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods as part of a Department of City Planning study that will examine “how we can ultimately build more resilient communities.” The study will examine issues such as the city’s building codes and the new national flood insurance maps.

The announcements come as the city fields criticism about community involvement in its climate change planning process as detailed in an investigative report by Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, a digital news platform.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]