Gerritsen Beach

New housing eyed for Brooklyn lots ravaged by Sandy

September 11, 2019 Clifford Michel, THE CITY

This story was originally published on Sept. 11 by THE CITY.

While Staten Island awaits a 4.5-mile seawall and lower Manhattan plans for a $1.3 billion berm, rebuilding is on tap for parts of Brooklyn still vulnerable to rising waters.

The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development is stepping in to spend $1.67 million in federal grant funds to buy 13 properties inundated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The plan: to build one- or two-family homes, elevated by at least six feet to avoid future flood waters.

The three lots in Gerritsen Beach and one in Manhattan Beach are as envisioned as affordable housing sites, while others in Sheepshead Bay and Sea Gate would support market-rate homes. The purchases and proposed sales to developers are under review by the City Planning Commission.

HPD’s buyout effort is part of the federally funded Build It Back program, which ultimately will turn 141 lots into open space or flood-resistant homes, the agency says. It has also purchased eight homes in Queens and 26 in Staten Island.

But while experts and local leaders are supportive of the buyouts, many also expressed concern that neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn along Jamaica Bay remain exposed to hurricanes, rising sea waters and intensifying rainstorms.

“The street is caved in and the waterways are all undermined,” said Joseph Raphael, a 41-year-old Gerritsen Beach resident who lives across the street from one of the homes being acquired by HPD, on Beacon Court.

He considered replacing storm-damaged homes to be a low priority in this waterside bungalow community of 5,000 residents. “It is a blight,” he said, speaking of the boarded-up house, “but there are so many homes like that.”

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Councilmember Alan Maisel (D-Brooklyn) said he’d like to see city agencies do more in his district — which includes Gerritsen Beach and Canarsie — to prepare for future storms. But he’s at a loss about how to prepare beyond strengthening local sewer systems and raising homes.

“I don’t know what else they can do except lower the sea level,” said Maisel.

‘We’re surrounded by water’

The U.S. Army Corps has proposed a 5-mile storm barrier stretching from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Breezy Point, and a levee system between Floyd Bennett Field and Jamaica Bay. Yet the earliest the Corps — which put out a preliminary report on the project in February — will present a funding request to Congress is 2022.

An Army Corps of Engineers map of potential sea walls around the city. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via THE CITY

In 2013, the New York City Economic Development Corporation projected such barriers would cost upwards of $20 billion to build — and warned that gates could simply push flood waters to neighboring parts of the city and region.

Thaddeus Pawloski, director of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, said even a seawall wouldn’t be effective at protecting several southern Brooklyn peninsula neighborhoods.

“These small steps create new pathways for policies to evolve in the future, but it’s still just a step,” he said of the idea of raising the new homes several feet off the ground. “Coastal neighborhoods are going to have to radically change over the next 100 years.

“In order to make these neighborhoods resilient, it isn’t just a seawall that’ll go in front of the bay,” Pawloski said. “That’ll protect against very high storm surge events, for instance, but it won’t protect against the increase in precipitation that we’re likely to see in the future.”

Maisel agreed. “We’re surrounded by water, and flood walls are not necessarily a panacea,” he said.

Working house by house

Along Jamaica Bay, fortification against the elements proceeds house by house, block by block.

Build It Back has rebuilt and elevated some 1,300 homes since the program began in 2013, and while assisting another 6,600 homeowners with repairs and reimbursements, according to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Meanwhile, the EDC is preparing to raise and fortify the shores of Coney Island Creek, with construction expected to start next year.

The Department of City Planning also is looking to designate Gerritsen Beach as a Special Coastal Risk District, which would limit residential development along the waterfront and allow only maritime businesses to open along commercial strips.

Going forward, less politically popular actions may become necessary, experts on the front lines of climate change warn.

Amy Chester, managing director at Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that focuses on large-scale efforts to make cities more resilient, said sparsely populated areas vulnerable to storms need to get on course toward retrenching, not rebuilding.

“Over the long term in lower-density neighborhoods there should be a plan for retreat,” said Chester. “Because nothing’s going to be able to protect those areas that are in lower-density neighborhoods.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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