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  • Kinga Rajzak

High-rise behemoths planned for Two Bridges area despite flood warnings

CJS News

By Kinga Rajzak

Manhattan Square One far left, next to proposed developments.

NEW YORK - Johnny Gonzalez, has lived in the Two Bridges area all his life. Sometimes he still recalls Hurricane Sandy’s destructive force, as he motors down the East River Drive near his home by the Brooklyn Bridge.

“It was like when you flush the toilet and everything starts to come up,” said Gonzalez, director of coding at a Chelsea-based firm. “The road lanes disappeared and things were floating around. There was no electricity, no water. We were terrified.”

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was one of the most powerful storms in New York City’s history, killing 43 people and injuring thousands. The storm affected more than 90,000 buildings in the flood zone.

After the hurricane over 1 million children missed school for a week because of commuting issues, while 2 million people had no electricity and running water for two weeks. Sandy was also the costliest storm in New York’s history causing $19 billion worth of damage along the city’s 520 miles of coastline.

In the aftermath of the storm’s destruction, FEMA redrew the city’s flood maps that had been untouched for nearly 30 years.

The new map delineates most of the downtown shorelines, including the Two Bridges area as a high-risk flood zone, and advises special regulations regarding insurance policy and refurbishment recommendations for buildings new or old.

“FEMA does not regulate building code,” said Donald Caetano a spokesperson for the agency in New York City. “We give the city guidance and warning, but it is up to the local municipalities to enact our recommendations.”

Shortly after Sandy, construction began on Manhattan Square One at 252 South St. The 800-foot-tall residential tower offers apartments from $1.23 million for one bedroom to $6.6 million for three-bedroom units.

These condo prices stand in sharp contrast to the average $1000 rents at the nearby housing projects, where residents pay either 30% of their adjusted gross household income for rent or pay a flat rent amount, whichever is lower.

The “vertical village,” as Manhattan Square One advertises itself, will withstand any storm and will be finished by 2019. It will have amenities including a cigar room, a dog spa, a private bowling alley and more.

The development is the first of the several high-rise behemoths planned for the area.

“This neighborhood used to be for people with low income, but slowly nobody can afford the rent,” said Suzan Lopez, an administrative assistant and local resident. “If there is more flooding, where do we go? They will take down more of these projects and build new buildings.”

Manhattan Square One sits on the site of PathMark, a local supermarket that was demolished after Sandy.

“There was a low budget store right there, where that eyesore is,” said Jessica Rios, a home health aide, gazing at the new high-rise. She has been living in the area for more than 10 years. “Now there is nowhere to buy normal food. You have to go far to get even the most basic stuff.”

According to FEMA’s guidelines, buildings should be “retrofitted,” that is refurbished in line with new flood-proof regulations. But to redevelop old tenement walk-ups and project buildings – social housing for low-income families provided by New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) – is costly. The Housing Authority has about $6 to $14 billion in repairs on its project buildings already without the plans of retrofitting social housing.

New buildings could offer a solution to battle future environmental challenges such as flooding, but wholesale replacement of the city’s existing building stock would take decades, let alone strip neighborhoods of their historical charm.

Developers can’t build in the city, though, unless the Department of City Planning (DCP) and Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) approve the building designs. The designs must adhere to the city’s special zoning requirements, regarding allowable size, height, use and location of new developments, and their imminent effect on the density and “personality” of the neighborhood where their construction is planned.

After Sandy, the city saw persistent damage to certain buildings, opening up the conversation for resilient new waterfront developments.

Margret Chin, councilwoman of the Two Bridges area, and the local community board have been wary of the new building initiatives on their waterfronts. They said, that sleek high-rises would threaten the preservation of affordable housing, pose environmental hazards, and interfere with the neighborhood’s characteristic.

Last year, the city ruled in favor of a set of high-rises that would be additions to the Manhattan Square One Tower. The impact of the four mega towers came to light this June when the DCP released an environmental impact statement for the proposed developments. The documents suggested that the towers would be storm resilient, innovative and bring only “minor” changes to the area.

The DCP released the document right before the Two Bridges community board and local council broke for their summer holidays, further restricting the community’s chance to oppose building plans.

“These developers have been caught red-handed in a cynical attempt to sneak in four humongous towers with as little opposition as possible,” Chin said in a statement released by her office.

Chin, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer cited “lack of transparency” for the plans and appealed the decision to allow more high-rises. They asked ULURP and City Planning Commission for additional reviews of the building plans, hoping to stop “greedy developers.”

The community board will release its “out of session” recommendation about the building plans around the end of August and will announce its final observation about the buildings’ impact on the area on Oct. 17.

“We want this to go through a fully public review process,” said Marian Guerra, Chin’s spokeswoman. “In the end, there should be a vote at the City Council regarding the future of these development plans.”

The disputed residential developments will include a more than 1,000-foot tower at 247 Cherry St. by JDS Development Group, a 700-plus foot tall tower by Starrett Development at 275 South St., and twin tower at 260 South St. that would be 60 stories tall.

Planned residential skyscrapers around Two Bridges area.

Residents are anxious about the prospects of the luxury buildings and believe that whatever will be built in the area the environmental impact will be enormous.

“What if the water comes again,” said Lopez. “We will suffer and the rich will have everything in there, they will be taken care of.”

The new towers are planned to be self-sustaining and provide electricity up to a week in the event of a natural disaster.

Construction of a series of levees, a floodwall and park to protect lower Manhattan will begin next year.

In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requested smart green design and urban development proposals that would make New York City more resilient against future flooding, hurricanes and rising sea levels. The competition, called Rebuild By Design granted funding to Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) architectural group, and eight other architectural companies to create the BIG U project.

Big U flood protection plan for Two Bridges and East River Park.

The BIG U calls for a 10 mile-long protective system around lower Manhattan including the Two Bridges area, East River Park and Battery Park to defend against future inundation.

Yun Choi, an IT specialist, moved to the area before Sandy, and said the water was 3-feet tall when the storm hit. He said that future flooding would most certainly cause more damage to the public housing in the area.

"After Sandy, the council planned to build water walls to protect us," he said. "I guess that was meant for fancy buildings like this here, pointing at Manhattan Square One. "People do not care about the poor."

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