Post-Sandy: Innovative Berms to Keep Sea Out

Image via Bjarke Ingels Group

Post-Sandy, NYC was forced to face the reality of natural threats from the sea. Two years later, a design and architecture firm called BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), proposed “Big U;” a plan to safeguard areas greatly affected by such storms, like East Village and the Lower East Side. However, where funding for programs for other sections of Lower Manhattan will come is unclear.

In June 2013, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rebuild by Design contest. According to their website, RBD is a “multistage design competition to develop innovative, implementable proposals that promote resilience in the Sandy-affected region.” Big U, an attempt to address these needs, is a series of protective measures (such as berms), which will stretch from W. 57th St. south down to the battery, and then around and up to E. 42nd St., literally creating a “U” around Manhattan’s southern half.

The BIG team divided Lower Manhattan into three sections, dubbed “compartments:”

-C1, from E. 23rd St. to Montgomery St.

-C2, from Montgomery St. to Brooklyn Bridge.

-C3, from Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery.

HUD awarded $335 million for the project’s C1, out of $930 million total for winning proposals. Some of the analytics employed for choosing projects involve how tidal surges would affect the area; its vulnerability, that it’s home to affordable housing; a low-income neighborhood with public housing, etc.

HUD is split into teams, so that each stage of the project can adequately address its own issues with full autonomy, acutely. Holly M. Leicht, HUD’s administrator for New York and New Jersey, said the Big U’s next two compartments will not be funded by HUD. But there exist other options, like the more generalized funding available through the National Disaster Resilience Competition (similar to Rebuild by Design, but assigned for all areas affected by events like Sandy, and not just Lower Manhattan).

The focus for the first compartment is to secure “a deep floodplain next to the F.D.R. drive, which separates it from East River Park. The park, now badly connected to the community, has room for a protective berm,” according to a BIG spokesperson. Since this section of C1 is home to about 130,000 people, 86,000 of whom are low-income, disabled or elderly, it makes a lot of sense to begin their work and risk assessments there.

According to BIG, each compartment could cost between $300 million and $500 million, totaling at $1.2 billion for all three compartments. This would protect four and a half miles of coastline along Lower Manhattan, but it would leave out other areas significantly damaged by Sandy in 2012.

Nancy Ortiz, president of the Vladeck’s resident association, is upset that public housing at places like LaGuardia, Knickerbocker, Rutgers and Smith houses are not slated for Big-U coverage. Aixa Torres, tenant president of Alfred E. Smith houses, is not happy. “The hardest-hit are the ones that will be the least protected. What happens to the rest of us?” During Sandy, the Smith houses lost power and saw serious flooding.

The city has assembled a large team to manage, discuss and allocate money to places in need: the Department of Design and Construction, the Parks Department and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. Together, they will do their best to guide the project through an official “Public Notice” program, which unfortunately involves a bureaucratic knot: First, the city must write an action plan that details how available money is to be spent, a discussion which will be made available for public comment and review. Then will come public hearings, during which the city will solicit public comment via its website, 311 number or snail mail. When the plan is finally complete, it will be submitted to HUD, and the federal agency will have sixty days to approve it.