City floats post-Sandy zoning changes

BY GABE HERMAN | The Department of City Planning director has released zoning recommendations to help floodproof buildings in vulnerable neighborhoods, including all of Lower Manhattan’s coastline.

Planning Director Marisa Lago announced the scheme, called Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, last month.

“Through the devastating damage of Hurricane Sandy and the ensuing recovery process, we learned that our zoning laws inadvertently keep New Yorkers from building more resiliently,” Lago said. “Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency will help us withstand the next major storm or flooding event, creating a better, stronger, more sustainable shoreline for decades to come.”

(Courtesy Department of City Planning)

During the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, many home and business owners ran into building-envelope constraints when they tried to elevate or retrofit buildings. Many had to choose between losing a full floor of space or staying vulnerable to floods, according to City Planning.

In 2013, City Planning applied temporary emergency zoning measures to address these issues while complying with Federal Emergency Management Agency construction requirements for areas covered by FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps. City Planning said its new zoning proposals would make those rules permanent while also improving upon them.

The new zoning plan would expand the area where flood-resilient zoning provisions apply, and more than double the number of buildings that could use the provisions.

“Flooding is a serious and growing concern for New York City’s coastal neighborhoods,” said Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. “We must give coastal residents and businesses the flexibility they need to prepare for the next storm —which is exactly what these changes will do.”

The zoning proposals would include allowing building owners “to proactively locate all living spaces and important equipment to higher elevations of protection,” according to an outline by City Planning.

(Courtesy Department of City Planning)

The plan would create floor-area exemptions to encourage more floodproofing of ground floors, and give more flexibility to elevate mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment — along with backup systems, such as generators — to heights above flood-risk areas, including on roofs or in separate structures.

Mixed-use buildings would be able to recover commercial cellar space lost to floodproofing, by relocating this commercial space to the second floor, which is currently not allowed in some areas.

The resiliency improvements would not only let coastal communities withstand storms and recover faster, according to City Planning, but could also let building owners save on flood-insurance charges.

City Planning said its public engagement process with vulnerable neighborhoods, to develop the zoning proposals, has been ongoing since August 2016. An environmental review and a formal public review process are expected to begin before the end of this year.

One Response to City floats post-Sandy zoning changes

  1. Malcolm J. Bowman

    Improved zoning to address the enormous threats and challenges of climate change, Sandy-scale extreme storm surges and slowly rising sea levels is of course urgent and necessary. However, behind these proposed changes to existing building codes and regulations is a slight of hand approach – where the City is slowly but surely shifting the burden of economic responsibility for resilience from the public to the private sector – whether it be for commerce, industry, hospitals, public housing or private dwellings. The Mayor’s plan is not a solution to existential flooding neither in New York City nor indeed for all of Metropolitan New York and coastal New Jersey.

    Seven years following Superstorm Sandy, the region is almost as vulnerable as it ever was. What the City needs to embrace going forward is a layered hybrid approach to coastal resilience. We need large storm surge barriers, built as far away from densely developed infrastructure as possible, built strong enough to hold back the worst storm surges nature can hurl at us, plus modest 3’-6’ perimeter walls built where necessary to protect local communities against the slow but ominous rise in sea level over the decades ahead.

    Only in this way can we save the City in its present form for at least the next 100 years. A one-size-fits-all solution of building high coastal seawalls along the 1,000 mile perimeter of New York Harbor, the lower Hudson and East Rivers in order to protect the coastal zone, while expecting most infrastructure at risk to be suitably elevated is simply unattainable, unaffordable and in a practical sense, won’t work.

    Malcolm Bowman, PhD
    Chairperson,
    NY-NJ-LI Storm Surge Working Group

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