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New York City’s Waterfront: Three Case Studies in Contemporary Resilient Design

At the Center for Architecture by • 04/02

New York has always been a city that celebrates its waterfront. But, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers, particularly those who reside along the city’s 520 miles of coastline, have become acutely aware of the impacts of rising water levels and storm surges. According to the most recent FEMA maps, more than 400,000 New Yorkers currently live within the 100-year floodplain. Furthermore, the Bloomberg Administration’s 2013 Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) projects that by 2050 an additional 400,000 New Yorkers will live within flood-susceptible areas. Sandy’s toll, 43 lives lost and $19.5 billion in damages according to the SIRR, is a morbid reminder of the outcome of such events. In post-Sandy New York, waterfront development presents a distinct opportunity to illustrate effective resilient design techniques that elegantly respond to the challenges the city will face in the future.

On 03.17.14 “Waterfront Housing in a Post Sandy World,” organized by the AIANY Housing Committee, and co-sponsored by the AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee and the AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR), addressed the future of New York’s dynamic waterfront environment. This event was the debut, to a standout crowd, of the new leadership of the AIANY Housing Committee: Peter Bafitis, AIA, and Fernando Villa, AIA, LEED AP BD+C. Moderator Bonnie A. Harken, RA, APA, president of Nautilus International Development Consulting, and co-chair of the Water Front Working Group of the AIANY’s Post-Sandy Initiative, guided the evening’s presentations and discussion. Three waterfront developments in particular were examined: Long Island City’s Hunters Point South, the Rockaway Averne East, and Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Refinery.

The former director of Waterfront and Open Space Planning for the NYC Department of City Planning, Wilbur L. Woods, AIA, began the presentations by providing a pithy yet thorough overview of New York’s waterfront planning and zoning history. As Woods revealed, the 1992 “New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan: Reclaiming the City’s Edge” provided the context for the city’s modern waterfront zoning and development, and focused on revitalizing New York’s waterfront, which had been left dormant after years of declining maritime activity and neglect. Contemporary strategies, such as the “2007 New Waterfront Revitalization Program” and the “Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan,” all build upon its foundations. The 2013 SIRR in particular strives to address New York’s urban waterfront in the context of climate change. The report, released as a direct response to Sandy, focuses on fostering resilient design and introducing adaptive strategies and policies for mitigating and preventing flooding, erosion, and other climactically intensified natural phenomena. Woods set the stage for the rest of the evening’s events while introducing an impressive range of policies and initiatives.

As both the founder and executive director of ODA architecture, Eran Chen, AIA, has played an integral role in the design of Hunter’s Point South, a mixed-use development being built along the Long Island City waterfront. According to Chen, architecture that strives to integrate itself in its natural surroundings offers unique opportunities to address flood risk and water level rise. Venice is a city in which life is lived with, as opposed to against, water. Water not only flows through the city, but it also provides a range of beneficial infrastructural opportunities, most notably the city’s celebrated canal system. Unlike many design strategies that work against nature, such as floodgates or storm surge barriers, Hunter’s Point South is designed to briefly accommodate rising water. The site will feature a variety of dynamic green spaces capable of accepting and retaining storm water during flood events. In addition, the ground floors of each of the development’s buildings are specifically designed to withstand flooding. Through the use of hardy water-resistant materials and the elevation of crucial building systems, ground-level flooding is only a temporary nuisance, unlikely to interference with overall building operations. Developments such as Hunter’s Point South are the physical manifestations of a shifting design paradigm defined by a range of resilient waterfront strategies.                                                                             

As a senior associate and member of Gensler’s sustainable design leadership team, Oliver Schaper, AIA, LEED AP BD+C and ND, CDT, presented “Small Means and Great Ends, the winner of the FAR ROC Design Competition for a Resilient Rockaway. Of the 117 proposals submitted, the collaboration between Gensler, White Arkitekter, and Arup was selected to rejuvenate the Averne East site consisting of 81 acres of city-owned oceanfront in the Eastern Rockaways. Schaper revealed that the team employed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of “antifragile” to inform its design philosophy and meet the competition’s multifaceted sustainability and resiliency criteria. In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb describes antifragility as a state of being beyond resilience or robustness. While the resilient resists shock and stays the same, the antifragile is capable of thriving, growing, and improving in the face of adversity. The team strove to incorporate antifragility into its design through strategies that reduce damage from future extreme weather events, maintain access and operation, and promote quick recovery, while also promoting community cohesion and connectivity. Elements such as geotextile tubes filled with sand strip energy from storm surges before they reach the shore, while wooden boardwalks designed with pivoting walkway panels further dissipate storm wave energy. Ultimately, Shaper and the FAR ROC competition’s winning team focused on a holistic and community-based approach to resiliency. Creative solutions capable of withstanding catastrophic events begin with strong communities that take pride in their environments. Throughout the site, a community center, learning center, nature preserve, and a system of pubic squares have been employed to encourage education concerning key climate-related issues, while also serving as places of refuge during extreme weather and engendering a broader sense of community. Innovate projects such as “Small Means and Great Ends” test the boundaries of resilient and sustainable design, pushing the built environment to address climate related issues directly and intelligently.

The Domino Sugar Refinery is surely one of Brooklyn’s most notable current developments. As a project architect for SHoP Architects, Lisa Schwert, AIA, stated that the Williamsburg waterfront project epitomizes many of the challenges and opportunities faced by New York’s shoreline. In partnership with Two Trees Management and James Corner Field Operations, the new Domino master plan focuses on reimagining an original 2010 city plan. The site’s 2014 iteration features 12% more office and commercial space, 10% more affordable housing, and 60% more publically accessible green space, in addition to securing permission to build 15 stories higher than the original 40-story allowance. The $1.5 billion development features many of the elements commonly associated with contemporary resiliency strategies, including building above the 100-year floodplain, elevating mechanical systems, and employing green space as a natural infrastructural buffer. Ultimately, the project is positioned to reinvent Brooklyn’s skyline with the renovated and landmarked Domino Sugar Refinery and adjacent green space serving as the site’s central features. The development also seeks to be sensitive to the scale and character of the existing streets. The height and scale of the project will drastically alter the Williamsburg waterfront; however, unique design elements that allow light to penetrate the inland streetscape and a sloping scale that descends to respect the neighborhood’s context challenges much of the booming area’s, arguably less appropriate, development. From a resiliency perspective, the Domino site strives to balance emerging best practices in flood- and extreme weather protection with a novel community-based development strategy. This promotes a more thorough analysis of the conditions that define any large-scale project, holistically linking environmental, social, and economic considerations.

Graham is the Director of Project Resiliency for the New York City-based Development Management firm Cirgenski + Capalino and covers a variety of sustainability and resiliency issues concerning the built environment.

Event: Waterfront Housing in a Post-Sandy World
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.17.14
Speakers: Lisa Schwert, AIA, Project Architect, SHoP Architects; Oliver Schaper, AIA, Senior Associate, Gensler; Eran Chen, AIA, Principal, ODA; Wilbur L. Woods, AIA, Former Director, Waterfront and Open Space Division, NYC Department of City Planning and Professor, Hunter College, CUNY; and Bonnie A. Harken, Architect, APA, President, Nautilus International and co‐chair of the AIANY Post‐Sandy Initiative’s Waterfront Working Group (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY Housing Committee
Co-Sponsors: AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee and AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR)

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