August 2013

Volume 22, Number 8

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Article Contents

To Become Resilient, NYC Looks to Its Buildings

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Resilient design at the building level figures heavily in Mayor Bloomberg’s $20 billion plan to protect New York from climate change.

By Candace Pearson


Bloomberg plans to provide monetary incentives and reduce flood insurance premiums for building owners who invest in resiliency measures. And not just for elevating whole buildings—for small retrofits too, such as installing wind resilient windows or moving building equipment above the flood line.

Spencer T. Tucker, NYC Mayor's Office

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced a $19.5 billion Climate Resiliency Plan to better prepare New York City for increasingly frequent severe weather events and rising sea levels.

The report calls not only for engineered protections to shield the city from another storm like Sandy but also for building strategies and policy changes that will make the city resilient in anticipation of a range of global-warming-related disasters.

Sea levels rise—so do sea level estimates

The 430-page report communicates a sense of urgency by citing new data from the New York City Panel on Climate Change, which was formed in 2008 as a part of the city’s sustainability plan, PlaNYC. The panel now estimates 2.5 feet of sea-level rise by the 2050s—a much faster rate than it predicted just four years ago, due to polar ice sheets melting more quickly than anticipated.

Requested by the city to update its 100-year flood maps, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also found an increased vulnerability to flooding. Preliminary maps expand the 100-year floodplain by 15 square miles (an increase of 45% from the floodplain drawn thirty years ago). Announcing the plan, Bloomberg said, “We expect that by mid-century, up to one-quarter of all of New York City’s land area, where 800,000 residents live today, will be in the floodplain. If we do nothing, more than 40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis, just during normal high tide.”

The engineering fix

Ideas for a storm-surge barrier spanning the entire entrance of New York Harbor, bandied about following Sandy, are excluded from the plan. The report cites costs, a construction period of decades, and adverse environmental impacts as reasons to reject that strategy.

Bloomberg’s plan instead calls for an integrated system of new infrastructure to defend the city. Raising the coastal edge through bulkheads and beach nourishment, building up sand dunes, and installing levees and armor stone are prescribed for virtually all water-front areas.


Temporary flood protection systems called deployable floodwalls are planned for the edge of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and elsewhere. Movable components would function like building blocks that would quickly be put into place before a storm.

NYC Mayor's Office

“Deployable floodwalls” are also proposed. Permanent anchors would be set into the ground, while other components would be stored off-site to provide normal access to the waterfront. At the sign of an impending storm, walls could be quickly erected in place. These are to be implemented in parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

Encouraging resilient building design

Recognizing that infrastructure alone will never be disaster-proof, and having criticized the idea of retreating from flood-prone areas, Bloomberg says buildings themselves will also have to change.

The plan calls for buildings to better withstand severe conditions, maintain levels of livability for residents, and bounce back quickly after a disaster. Height restrictions are identified as a regulatory barrier to elevated designs, so it is proposed that these be waived for buildings in the 100-year floodplain. It is also recommended that the city increase building code requirements for enduring higher wind loads and create a $1.2 billion incentive program for homeowners who make resilience retrofits (measures must include elevating core building equipment and adding structural reinforcements for one- or two-story buildings). Tailored strategies for each of New York’s boroughs supplement the plan’s 14 building initiatives.

Private-sector partnerships

Bloomberg has made a concerted effort to engage the private sector in the effort to reform building design.

He commissioned Urban Green Council to convene a group of volunteers from the private sector—real estate owners, property managers, architects, engineers, contractors, and utility representatives—to develop specific revisions to the building code that would help achieve the aims of the resiliency plan. The resulting Building Resiliency Task Force Report was released the same week as the mayor’s plan and contains 33 proposed revisions to the building code, including requiring that toxic waste in the floodplain is secured in a flood-proof area, that drinking water can be supplied without power, and that emergency lights be required in stairwells and hallways for extended blackouts—not just for 90-minute evacuation periods. As the New York Times reported, City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn has made these proposals a priority.


Arverne East, an 80-acre undeveloped oceanfront property in Far Rockaway, Queens, may become the next model for resilient shoreline development. The FAR ROC jury will soon announce finalists of the design competition who will advance to Phase II for the chance to work on the development of the site.

New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development

The mayor’s report seeks to partner with the private sector in other ways as well. South Queens Initiative 4 specifically directs the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to complete a design competition for the Arverne East Project with its partner, the Bluestone Organization. The aim is to develop a mixed-income, vibrant community on an 80-acre parcel on the Rockaway Peninsula, which was completely inundated during Sandy. As one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the city, the project is a blank canvas for innovative resilient designs, and the competition has drawn numerous international entries.

Steve Bluestone, partner at the Bluestone Organization, says Sandy “spawned a thousand conferences.” Now, as developers seek to meet the new challenges of resilient design, “each one of them is going to have a different theory on how they are going to do it.” Bluestone sees the drive for innovation and partnerships between sectors as indicative of a “lasting institutional change.”


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July 28, 2013