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.

De Blasio Administration: “Major Progress” in Preparing the Big Apple for an Uncertain Future

According to the de Blasio administration, “major progress” has been made on the city’s “first comprehensive coastal protection plan” for 520 miles of coastline. The announcement comes on Earth Day, and shortly after the U.N.’s release of new data on the mounting impacts of climate change.

The city said that 1.2 million cubic yards of sand have been deposited as beach replenishment on the Rockaway peninsula, Coney Island, and Staten Island, “with another 2.9 million cubic yards on track to be placed this year.”

Today’s announcement is part of a progress report on the city’s efforts to prepare New York City for the impacts of climate change, and to generally make the Big Apple more environmentally sustainable.

The de Blasio administration says it is “continuing and expanding on the work of the Bloomberg administration.”

According to the city, other signs of progress on climate resiliency include:

  • “Securing reforms to the national flood insurance program to keep insurance available and affordable for New Yorkers.
  • Upgrading city building code and operations to protect buildings in the floodplain against floods, wind, and prolonged power outages through 17 local laws that have passed the City Council.
  • Settling a multi-year rate case for electricity, steam, and natural gas to hold ConEd delivery costs flat for the coming years, while requiring the utility to make resilient investments in its facilities to protect against future extreme weather.
  • Expanding efforts to ensure that post-Sandy rebuilding and hazard mitigation efforts lead to economic opportunities for all New Yorkers.”

A More Sustainable City?

The city’s report also includes updates on long-term efforts to shrink New York City’s carbon footprint, prepare for a million new residents, and generally reduce the waste produced and the energy resources consumed by the five boroughs.

These objectives are part of the city’s long-term sustainability “blueprint,” PlaNYC, created by the Bloomberg administration.

The de Blasio administration says that progress over the last year includes:

  • “Accelerating energy efficiency improvements by expanding the NYC Carbon Challenge to include multifamily buildings.
  • The cleanest New York City air in 50 years thanks to air quality programs like NYC Clean Heat, which supports building owners converting to cleaner sources of energy.
  • A reduction in citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent since 2005, two-thirds of the way to the goal of a 30 percent reduction by 2030.
  • Moving forward a solar energy system that will increase the city’s renewable energy capacity by 50 percent, on the former Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island.
  • 500 brownfield sites cleaned up, 70 percent of which are in underserved communities, which will also enable new affordable housing and create thousands of new jobs in the process. The city launched the Affordable Housing Cleanup Fund to specifically promote affordable and supportive housing projects as part of the brownfield cleanup program.
  • Launched the Food Waste Challenge to divert organic waste from landills, reducing waste by 2,500 tons in the last six months.”

City Releases Sandy Recovery & Climate Resiliency Agenda

The Mayor’s office has just released One City, Rebuilding Together, its strategy for ongoing Sandy recovery efforts, and initial thoughts about preparing for the impacts of climate change.

The report notes that the city will be initiating a “public engagement process” to “share information, hear local concerns, and incorporate local planning efforts in advance of a revision to the city’s resiliency plan in 2015.”

From today’s statement to the press:

“The report represents a major overhaul of currently active recovery programs—including expediting the process for families and businesses currently rebuilding and expanding eligibility for immediate relief; using the rebuilding and recovery process to expand economic opportunity and create job pathways for more New Yorkers; and improving coordination within the city and across levels of government.

The report also provides details on the city’s infrastructure-related efforts to rebuild a stronger, more resilient New York to protect against future extreme weather and climate change.”

The city says that more than 40 resiliency project submissions to Federal grant programs are “currently stalled, waiting for New York State to review, approve, and send applications on to FEMA for final consideration.”

Projects that the city says it is trying to move forward include:

  • NYCHA Resiliency – More than $175 million in resiliency upgrades for New York City public housing, including waterproof boilers, the installation of emergency generators in public housing complexes in the 100-year floodplain, and new heat and power systems in flood-prone complexes.
  • Hospital and Health Care Systems Resiliency – More than $100 million in hardening and flood barriers for hospital facilities in flood zones across the city.
  • Flood Protection – More than $100 million in flood barriers, tide gates, and sustainable shoreline improvements, and flood protection improvements at critical city facilities including the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and the Vernon Bain prison facility.
  • Emergency Planning and Resiliency Capacity for Neighborhoods and Emergency Operations – More than $20 million in emergency planning and the protection of critical services and resiliency improvements to police precincts.
  • Storm Water Management – More than $30 million in storm water management improvements like bioswales and permeable pavement in flood-prone areas.

 

Neighborhoods Burdened by Processing City’s Trash Look to New Sanitation Commissioner

Last month, Mayor de Blasio named Kathryn Garcia as the new commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation. While the Department is mainly known for picking up trash and plowing snow, it is and will continue to be a critical part of building a more sustainable New York.

The Department is a key player in one the city’s long-standing environmental equity issues. Since the closure of Fresh Kills in 2001, the city has been forced to truck its waste to out-of-state landfills, and areas like the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens have become “saturated” with waste transfer infrastructure.

“A Tested Manager”

Garcia, who the city describes as “a tested manager with extensive operations experience,” is leaving her post as the Chief Operating Officer of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, where she oversaw the Bureaus of Water Supply, Water and Sewer Operations, and Wastewater, with a combined staff of 4,000 employees.

“We’ll do it consistently, effectively and equitably, and we will seek out every opportunity to do it better and more sustainably.”

“I am committed to strengthening and expanding DSNY’s programs to deliver…critical services to every resident and business, in every neighborhood,” said Garcia at the press conference announcing her appointment. “We’ll do it consistently, effectively and equitably, and we will seek out every opportunity to do it better and more sustainably.”

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, is watching carefully. “The jury’s still out on Kathryn- we don’t know exactly what her priorities are going to be,” he told NYER.

An Inefficient and Costly System

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Garbage transfer station. Photo credit: sangudo via Creative Commons

Communities like the South Bronx are looking to Garcia to finish the massive job started by the Bloomberg administration: the steady reduction of the city’s waste stream; and the re-configuration of waste transfer operations- away from trucks, and toward a marine and rail-based system.

Trucks carrying trash from residences and businesses currently go to one of 58 waste transfer stations throughout New York City, according to an analysis by Habitatmap. There, the trash is “transferred” on to tractor-trailer trucks, rail cars or marine barges for export out of New York.

“Currently, the South Bronx and the neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek host a combined 32 waste transfer stations,” says Habitatmap. “Collectively, these WTS handle over 60% of the 12 million plus tons of waste moving through WTS in NYC annually”.

The concentration of waste transfer stations in a handful of areas means intensified impact for a sliver of New York City’s population. Most of the city’s trash exporting is done by truck, which also adds to the local environmental impact of the stations.

And because the transfer stations are not evenly distributed throughout the city, trucks are forced to travel long distances, further compounding the pollution impact.

Addressing the lack of efficiency and equity in the system, and figuring out how to shrink the amount of trash produced in New York, are key objectives in the city’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. The plan was developed by a coalition of environmental justice and community organizations in concert with the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council.

The Bloomberg administration had very practical reasons for adopting the SWMP. As out-of-state landfills ran out of space, trucking waste out of the city became prohibitively expensive. A truck-based system also adds to the city’s overall carbon emissions; reducing the city’s carbon footprint became a major focus for the Bloomberg administration.

The Toll of Trash

NYC garbage truck and street sweeper. Photo credit: islamoyankee via Creative Commons
NYC garbage truck and street sweeper. Photo credit: islamoyankee via Creative Commons

Arguably the greatest price of the city’s current system is the toll it has taken on public health. Advocates have maintained for years that the stream of diesel trucks in and out of neighborhoods where waste transfer stations are concentrated leads to heightened local air pollution levels.

An analysis this month by the state Comptroller’s office found that Medicaid recipients in the Bronx have the second-highest asthma rate- 130.2 people per thousand- of any county in the state. And the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate “by far” (43.5 deaths per million residents), of any New York county.

Statewide, the disease is most prevalent among children under the age of 17, and it is concentrated in poor communities.

Several factors are believed to impact the risk of developing asthma. According to the state, one of these is “being exposed to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution.”

“Where’s the Equity in That?”

Groups like the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the New York League of Conservation Voters are urging the de Blasio administration to “fully implement” the 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan, which “relied for the first time on principles of environmental justice and borough equity.”

But Kathryn Garcia and the city face potential opposition no matter how waste transfer is re-configured.

A case in point is the city’s effort to implement one part of the 2006 Plan, the retrofitting and re-opening of four marine transfer stations: two in Brooklyn (Hamilton Avenue and Gravesend); one in Flushing, Queens; and one in Manhattan at 91st Street.

Both the Manhattan and Gravesend/South Brooklyn marine transfer stations are being fought by local residents, who say that the transfer stations will still generate some truck traffic and cause other quality of life issues.

“When this thing [the Gravesend marine transfer station] was first pitched, it was an environmental justice issue,” Ludger Balan of the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy stated to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle last year.

“The idea was equity, where everyone would share the garbage. That idea seems long gone now, and instead of everyone dealing with part of the burden, we’re left to deal with it. Where’s the equity in that?”

Shrinking the Waste Stream

Advocates and policy makers are hopeful that once enclosed marine transfer stations- which can process residential and commercial waste- are operational, the city will start to reduce the volume of waste accepted at land-based waste transfer stations.

That capacity reduction will require an ongoing drop in both residential and commercial waste. At the end of the Bloomberg administration, the city launched several initiatives to double New York City’s residential recycling rate from fifteen to thirty percent by 2017.

Continuing to expand projects that reduce solid waste, such as curbside organic materials recycling, will fall under Kathryn Garcia’s purview.

Commercial Waste Collection: The Final Piece of the Sustainability Puzzle

But reducing and more effectively managing the city’s commercial waste stream is the tougher challenge awaiting the de Blasio administration.

According to the city, about 50,000 tons of trash and recyclables are generated in the five boroughs every day. One-quarter of this waste comes from homes and institutions. The remaining 38,000 tons come from the commercial sector.

According to the city, about 50,000 tons of trash and recyclables are generated in the five boroughs every day.

Commercial waste is not picked up by the Department of Sanitation. Rather, it is taken by private carters to waste transfer stations, which are monitored by the city.

Businesses are required to separate paper, metal and some types of construction waste from their trash, and food service companies are also supposed to separate glass and plastic.

But because the city does not directly oversee private sector waste collection, it has less day-to-day information about the degree of commercial recycling taking place.

The Alliance for a Greater New York –a coalition of environmental and community-based organizations, and labor unions- has proposed a franchise system for commercial waste collection, which they say, would rationalize a system that currently operates like the “Wild West.”

Franchise awardees would be required to meet environmental standards that “increase recycling rates, reduce truck emissions, and more equitably distribute waste handling across the city.” Awardees would also need to follow standards maintaining the safety of waste sector workers.

“If we’re going to landfill, let’s find a way where we’re not killing communities with thousands of trucks—and include commercial waste.”

By operating within designated zones, advocates say, the franchisees would benefit from a steady, efficiently located base of customers.

Eddie Bautista believes that if de Blasio and his team can successfully pioneer a more “forward thinking” commercial waste collection system, it will become a “legacy” of his administration.

For now, advocates are pushing the city and Kathryn Garcia to fulfill the mission of the Solid Waste Management Plan: to aggressively promote residential and institutional recycling; and minimize the impact of waste transfer by establishing marine and rail transfer stations in more areas of the city.

“Waste exporting is a horrible solution anyway,” said Bautista. “If we’re going to landfill, let’s find a way where we’re not killing communities with thousands of trucks—and include commercial waste,” he added.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Bautista concluded, “not simply from the perspective of low-income communities, but for the air quality of the region.”

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.

A Tale of Two Cities and 1,900 Parks: NYC Has a New Parks Commissioner

Eighty days into his first term as mayor, Bill de Blasio has finally named a parks commissioner for New York City—and he went out of state to find him.

Mitchell Silver, Chief Planning and Development Officer of Raleigh, North Carolina, is no stranger to New York City, though: a Brooklyn native, Silver earned degrees at both Pratt Institute and Hunter College, and worked in the city’s planning department in the late 1980s.

De Blasio appointed Silver to oversee the city’s 1,900 parks and 29,000 acres of green space, with a focus that falls squarely in line with de Blasio’s now familiar “Tale of Two Cities” narrative. Silver is specifically tasked with addressing inequality in the city’s park system.

“No one is more qualified to usher in a new era of expanded access and sustainability than Mitchell Silver,” the mayor said in a press release.

Equity Mantle No Walk in the Park

The issue of “park equity” gained momentum in 2013, after State Senator Daniel L. Squadron introduced legislation that would force New York City’s thriving private parks conservancies to send 20 percent of their operating budgets to a fund for needier parks.

The era of privately funded park conservancies began after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which left many New York City parks in a state of deep disrepair.

When the city emerged from the worst of it in the early 80s, so also emerged privately funded parks conservancies, like the Central Park Conservancy, established to advocate and raise funds for individual New York City parks.

As the 1980s gentrification boom took hold, wealthy New Yorkers enjoyed being able to contribute directly to the park of their choosing, often located in their own neighborhoods and backyards.

While this is of tremendous benefit to the parks with wealthy patrons, what of the hundreds of other parks located in less-well-to-do neighborhoods?

City spending on parks maintenance is allocated by borough, but the majority of parks projects and improvements are funded through capital allocations from Council Members and Borough Presidents, rather than with Mayoral funding. This means that these projects are at the mercy of local city council members who control discretionary budgets—and who don’t always share park-based priorities. (New Yorkers for Parks has a great primer on this issue here.)

MacNeil Park on the northern tip of Queens received the lowest score in NY4P’s 2012 Report Card on Large Parks. Photo credit: Lizabeth Nieves
MacNeil Park on the northern tip of Queens received the lowest score in NY4P’s 2012 Report Card on Large Parks. Photo credit: Lizabeth Nieves

It’s not surprising that the leaders of these well-funded conservancies consider Squadron’s method to “level the playing field” a terrible idea—but so do many other parks advocates as well. Instead, they are encouraging a deeper discussion of how conservancies might help their poorer neighbors without siphoning off their own funding.

Holly Leicht, former executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, summed up her thoughts in an editorial last year: “Redirecting a percentage of their operating budgets toward a citywide fund would result in debilitating cuts to these parks’ maintenance staffs and programming. What’s more, the sum total of funds from such a tithe would not actually generate enough money to make meaningful improvements in other parks.”

De Blasio endorsed the bill during his campaign, but stopped short of reiterating his support during Silver’s appointment, instead referring to the idea as “creative.”

Silver declined to give a definitive answer on the proposal, stating instead that “the first step you want to find out is that you have legal authority to actually make a proposal like that happen. I’m going to start with a conversation, bring the conservancies to the table.”

Silver Up to the Task

While Silver has much on his plate, it appears that he has the chops needed to do the job. During his last stint in New York in the 1980s, he played a central role in formulating the ‘Harlem-on-the-River‘ plan, where he helped redesign a site originally pegged for a hotel development and turn it into a $20 million park.

“He is perfectly suited to look at the bigger picture and address park issues,” said Adrian Benepe, a senior official at the Trust for Public Land and a parks commissioner under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Silver said when appointed, “This city’s parks, athletic fields and beaches all provide a unique, public space for education, physical exercise and recreation — and I look forward to expanding these opportunities to even more of New York’s residents. From Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island Beach, every green space in this city deserves constant care and innovation—and I’m honored to lead the department as we pursue the Mayor’s vision for equal and expanded quality access to parkland in every neighborhood.”

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.”

Mayor de Blasio, We’ve Got Some Questions for You!

Monday afternoon, from the stage of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Mayor Bill de Blasio gave his first official State of the City address. The 43-minute-speech contained an ambitious agenda covering some of his most core objectives: income inequality, universal pre-K, a living wage, and affordable housing.

It’s worth noting, though, that aside from reaffirming support for ongoing Superstorm Sandy recovery, de Blasio’s speech was absent of any details around climate change, conservation, or sustainable development.

As we await more information from de Blasio’s about his sustainability agenda, NYER will be posing some questions of our own to the administration focused on what it will take to develop a truly sustainable* New York City.

Tell us what your questions for the Mayor are! Hopefully we’ll be hearing from him soon.

*Just a note to our readers: we’re defining “sustainable” quite broadly in this instance—anything from a long-term vision for energy and water use to pollution control, climate resilience, food supply, waste management, or other issues.

Part One

  1. What do you believe is the greatest environmental challenge facing New York City?
  2. What is your vision for a truly sustainable New York City?
  3. Do you plan to maintain the sustainability planning infrastructure put in place by Mayor Bloomberg, such as the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability? Will PlaNYC remain the sustainability blueprint for New York City? Will you continue to update PlaNYC?
  4. How do you view the potential impact of climate change on New York City? Do you think that climate change poses one overarching threat to the city, or are there a number of issues/challenges that climate change will create?
  5. What is your position on “Zone A” areas throughout New York? Will these areas eventually need to be evacuated full-scale as sea levels rise? How can residents—especially those living in public housing developments—and businesses in these areas be adequately protected?
  6. Every year, NYC agencies spend more than $250 million on food—for meals served in schools, hospitals, prisons, eldercare facilities, and more. Focusing this spending on fresh food grown by NYS farms could support job growth, public health, and our environment. Would you support this effort, and if so, what strategies might you employ to make it happen?
  7. What do you think about establishing an “NYC Department of Food” to continue the Bloomberg administration’s work on food access issues, coordinate food policy citywide, and engage with State and Federal officials around food and farm policy at a state level?
  8. More than three million New Yorkers live in low-income communities that lack access to affordable, wholesome food — how might your Tale of Two Cities narrative expand to include the issue of food justice?

Mayor de Blasio Comes Out Against Fracking Across New York State

During a q & a session with reporters after giving remarks today at a plenary session of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made the following statement:

“My purview is the five boroughs of New York City and I try to work closely with the state government but I also appreciate that they have to make decisions on behalf of the whole state. The one thing I am firm about is that I don’t see any place for fracking. The science simply isn’t reliable enough. The technology isn’t reliable enough. And, there’s too much danger to our water supply, to our environment in general.

So my view is that there should be a moratorium on fracking in New York State until the day comes that we can actually prove it’s safe and I don’t think that day is coming any time soon.”

Update:

Bill de Blasio made similar statements while Public Advocate. In an August 27th, 2013 interview with blogger Eric Walton, de Blasio said the following:

“I believe strongly in the moratorium on fracking. I think it is abundantly clear that the technology is far from perfected. There are incredible dangers associated with fracking that could have a lasting impact on our water supply in particular, beyond just the city water shed, but anywhere it’s being done. And so I think the moratorium is necessary and I don’t think the moratorium should be lifted until these issues are resolved, if they are ever resolved.”