New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula is an 11-mile strip of beach, parks and homes in southern Queens that took Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge on the chin. Waves uprooted houses and a boardwalk, flooded neighborhoods and washed 1.5 million cubic yards of sand from beaches. That’s more than enough to fill the Empire State Building.
An undeveloped 81-acre parcel here, named Arverne East, has become a place where the city can test-drive innovations in beachfront residential development. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development recently adopted a vision for the property, which New York City owns.
The city and a team led by L+M Development Partners this spring invited architects from around the world to propose forward-thinking developments for the area. Dubbed FAR ROC (“for a resilient Rockaway”), the sustainable-design competition asked firms for visions that anticipate sea level rise and intense storms, that are affordable for people with varying incomes and -- important for global consideration -- are replicable wherever shoreline resilience is needed. Design teams responded with ways to break up or divert storm waves and measures that aid quick recovery after a future disaster, among other solutions.
Sea level rise and extreme weather have made coastal design a primary concern the world over, one harder to discern than the hottest designs in gadgets, cookware, athletic gear and toys. This bigger, deeper kind of design structures our daily experience and comes under review only after cataclysms, if then: What risks are we willing to tolerate to live in one place or another?
“We learned a lot from Sandy,” said Lisa Gomez, executive vice president at L+M. “Seeing what happened made us realize that we had to rethink the whole development program. With everyone watching us, what better way than to try and elicit some world-class ideas?”
Risk is rising with sea levels, in New York as much as 11 inches by the 2020s and 31 inches by the 2050s, according to projections by the New York City Panel on Climate Change LINK. The Federal Emergency Management Agency this month published preliminary updates to its 1983 Flood Insurance Rate Maps. The amount of city shoreline vulnerable to a 100-year flood -- or to a 1 percent chance of annual flooding -- rose 45 percent, from 33 square miles to 48 square miles, according to a New York City report in June (which was calculated from interim FEMA maps).
The city is unambiguous about threats to these shores: “The greatest risk to coastal areas in New York City is storm surge,” augmented by gradual sea level rise, according to the report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.”
That risk can feel abstract. Already, land values in Sandy's path are rising again, at least in little-damaged communities. And the homes being repaired or built new are rarely the inexpensive beach shacks of yesteryear, which would represent small monetary loss if carried away by a storm. They are often full-featured, year-round, high-end homes, built with faith in insurance and government-sponsored beach protections. But federal flood insurance rates, the only kind available in high-risk locations, are skyrocketing, thanks to changes mandated by Congress to stop the hemorrhaging of billions. And it’s unclear whether the billions needed to protect shorelines will materialize.
Lost in the tragedy and dislocation of Sandy, and the complexity of rebuilding, is evidence that certain protections appear to have lessened Sandy’s worst impacts in some places.
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If built, Arverne East would be a sequel to the neighboring Arverne by the Sea, which opened in 2008. It’s a six-neighborhood community on 117 acres that has 2,300 two-family homes and condos, retail, parks, playgrounds and a YMCA. It fared well during Sandy -- relative to some neighbors, anyway -- earning it a chapter in the June 2013 report, “Sandy Success Stories,” written by Happold Consulting, a unit of London-based Buro Happold Ltd., for a consortium of environmental, city and education organizations.
Averne by the Sea’s performance was no accident. New York City demanded design upgrades based on the site’s environmental review, the Happold report states. The fixes cost developers more and took longer, but resulted in better flood-resistant and storm infrastructure, particularly the million cubic yards of fill brought in to elevate the whole development.
Six inches lower, and the damage would have been enormous, according to the Happold study.
Multiple Lines of Defense
A jury in October picked the winner of the FAR ROC design competition: White Arkitekter, of Stockholm. White, which beat 117 other entrants, is working with Arup, an international engineering firm headquartered in London, and the San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler.
The winning plan, if implemented, may change the way beach communities think about protecting themselves as weather becomes more violent and sea levels rise. The proposal's innovations surpass Arverne’s, with layered protections that enhance livability, such as storm-water management structures in the form of parks.
The first speed bump for storms would lie offshore, underground, where fabric tubes filled with sand would both change the contour of the seafloor and anchor sandbars and islands. “The offshore barriers reduce the wave energy before they hit the beach,” explained Tom Kennedy, principal with Arup. Currents may gradually melt the structures away, but the sand would find its way onto beaches, making them sturdier.
Dunes with wind-break fences, groynes and more sand-filled “geotextile tubes” would be engineered to slow down water washing ashore. Well-picked tree and plant species would help prevent sand erosion.
The White proposal brings back a destroyed wooden boardwalk, familiar to New Yorkers for generations, that would zigzag and include pivoting walkway panels, both to dissipate wave energy in a storm.
The shore defenses would protect a real estate footprint that grows from an existing street layout. White envisions a central boulevard that would run from a nearby elevated rail-transit station to form a town square at the ocean edge. Elsewhere, two structures would also serve as places of refuge should disaster strike.
The team laid out two sunken, diagonal parks that slice through the rectilinear neighborhood streets, drawing water away from the houses and apartment buildings, which are raised 14 feet above new, preliminary FEMA flood levels.
Sander Schuur, the project architect at White Arkitekter, thinks he could affordably build dwellings that cut energy use by 70 percent. Some renewable energy, such as solar and geothermal heating, can minimize the community’s reliance on the grid, which failed catastrophically over wide swaths in several states after Sandy.
Forecast Uncertain for the Coast
The design competition is one of many ways governments, developers and nonprofits are testing storm-resisting innovation. So-called ideas competitions often come to nothing because they dream too expansively.
The jury appears to have selected the White team because its plan is tantalizingly close to being buildable. The hard work now is seeing how much of the plan will survive detailed review. The development team is in the process of developing a cost estimate for the plan and a timeline, according to L+M’s Gomez.
Schuur’s firm called its incremental but comprehensive approach “small means to great ends.”
It’s emblematic of how coastal design is moving away from costly, large-scale walls and sea barriers that only work until overtaken by inexorable sea level rise.
“If you build one big protective element, the entire project relies on that element,” Schuur said. “We wanted backup.”