The city's Vision 2020 waterfront plan is an attempt to make the waterfront more accessible for recreation, more welcoming to industry and more liveable for residents. Underlying those age-old claims on the coastline are new fears about rising sea levels and natural disasters, such as those that hit waterfront industry in Japan last month and the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

Photo by: Marc Fader

The city’s Vision 2020 waterfront plan is an attempt to make the waterfront more accessible for recreation, more welcoming to industry and more liveable for residents. Underlying those age-old claims on the coastline are new fears about rising sea levels and natural disasters, such as those that hit waterfront industry in Japan last month and the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

Viewed from the water, the coastline of Sunset Park, Brooklyn is a wall of brown and grey: concrete plants, garbage transfer stations, power turbines and a host of small industrial businesses, past and present. But for residents of the neighborhood, many of whom live across the street or even next door to such businesses, the colors to worry about are not just the drab, faded hues of industry. They are also the bright reds and oranges that mark Sunset Park on government storm surge maps.

According to data from the city’s Office of Emergency Management, much of the neighborhood’s industrial coastline—and waterfront industrial areas around the city—could be underwater in even a category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 to 95 miles per hour. Worse storms, consistent with the type that have hit the city periodically over the past two centuries, would bring worse flooding. Until this year, those who worried about such a deluge tended to speak of a Katrina-like scenario, referring to that hurricane’s dispersal of pollutants throughout New Orleans’ low-lying neighborhoods. With the earthquake and tsunami is Japan, there is now a more recent model.

New York City recently completed a long-term plan for its waterfront, called Vision 2020 and intended to frame zoning decisions, regulatory moves and budget choices affecting the waterfront for years to come. But as ambitious as it is, the plan hasn’t resolved decades-old questions about how to reconcile competing desires for the city’s 500-mile shoreline. If coastal flooding is inevitable—and history strongly suggests that it is, at least at some point—can a city that wants to use its coast for industry ever keep nearby residents safe?

Six industrial zones

The city’s Vision 2020 plan follows previous planning efforts by aiming industrial development at six zones spread across four boroughs (though not Manhattan). These zones, termed Significant Maritime Industrial Areas, are in the lowland areas where industry has typically been in the city: the South Bronx, Staten Island’s north shore, Newtown Creek between Brooklyn and Queens, and the Brooklyn zones of Red Hook, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park.

For around two decades, environmental justice activists representing those areas and the surrounding communities have objected to such designations, arguing that the lower regulatory threshold for new industrial development within the zones means problematic businesses are more likely to move there.

With the zones, known in technical shorthand as SMIAs, “You have a city policy that encourages clustering of polluting infrastructure,” said Eddie Bautista, a former Bloomberg administration official who is now executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. The group supports industry in principle as a source of accessible jobs, Bautista said. Still, he added, “There’s an overall city commitment to fair sharing by city neighborhoods, but the SMIA program seems to go against that.”

On a recent drive through Sunset Park, home to the largest of the six industrial zones, Bautista and his wife, Elizabeth Yeampierre, navigated down Third Avenue under the Gowanus Expressway. Yeampierre, who is executive director of the United Puerto Rican Organization Sunset Park (UPROSE) and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice advisory council, pointed left, then right. To the left, on a hill rising up toward Greenwood Cemetery and the city park for which the neighborhood is named, were rows of houses, with stoops and vinyl siding. To the right, past businesses with names like Third Avenue Grinding Shop and BC Auto Rebuilder, were two blocks of warehouses and repair shops, then the network of city piers. Interspersed among it all, though not as numerous on the uphill side, were still more houses.

“In Sunset Park, the water would go up as far as Third Avenue,” Bautista said, referring to the Office of Emergency Management projections for a category 2 or even an unlucky category 1 storm. “There are all kinds of chemicals and all kinds of materials being used on the waterfront that we aren’t aware of. So when the water comes up, it turns the whole area into a giant brownfield.”

The damage from such a flood, of course, would be widespread.

“There’s this thinking that if the water’s only coming up as far as Third Avenue, then everybody else is OK,” Yeampierre said. “But what it means is that there’ll be a blackout, that all of the things associated with industry will be underwater.”

Watching for water

When the Vision 2020 plan came out on March 14, Bautista and Yeampierre—who had been in multiple meeting with city officials during its development—said it had taken important steps toward addressing their concerns. The plan, they noted, includes recommendations to study brownfield remediation and review the industrial uses allowed in SMIAs, with an eye toward controlling the discharge of pollutants into air and water.

With regard to flooding, the plan calls on city agencies, over the next two years, to “develop more accurate consideration of current flooding risks,” to “study urban design implications of enhanced flood protection,” and to “study best practices for increasing resilience to coastal flooding and storm surge.”

In an emailed statement, Jovana Rizzo, a spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning said the plan seeks to reconcile many competing interests on the city’s waterfront, but that industrial uses cannot benefit at a cost to public health. The department, she said, will be studying industrial zones and the way the city handles them—an undertaking that could lead to changes to zoning, building and other administrative codes to minimize industry’s negative effects. Targeted zoning and narrower performance standards may be used to regulate industrial uses in areas outside the designated zones, she added.

Bautista called the language in the Vision 2020 plan and its short-term component, the Waterfront Action Agenda, good news. But, he added, “the devil is always in the details.”

He emphasized, though, that environmental justice concerns are not necessarily in conflict with an industrialized waterfront.

“We need mixed-use, we need the robust manufacturing sector to be able to hire our community,” he said, riding along the waterfront with Yeampierre. “So for us, it becomes the more complicated question of how do you make mixed-use work. Unlike environmentalists, who would like to turn this all into esplanades, environmental justice people know we need to work somewhere.”

Concerns about wildlife

Environmentalists bristle at such characterizations. Marcy Benstock, director of the New York Clean Air Campaign, sharply criticized the waterfront plan upon its release, writing in a statement that some of its recommendations “ignore the most critical lesson of the Japanese tsunami” and “would have devastating impacts if regulators approve them.”

Still, Benstock said in a subsequent interview that she is not against industrial development, even within feet of the waterfront. “It’s an issue of where development should be sited, and in-water projects are the only thing that we oppose,” she said. That, she added, included projects involving piers, pilings and barges, which she said jeopardize near-shore fish and shellfish habitats.

And even a quarter century after Westway, the Hudson River highway plan that Benstock-led community activists defeated, the current waterfront plan contemplates putting more and more infrastructure in the water. In Brooklyn, projects identified as priorities in the Waterfront Action Agenda include dredging and pier replacement at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, construction of new berths for commercial vessels in Red Hook, and a complete overhaul of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park to receive ships and barges.

Some such development, Benstock said, is inevitable. She added, however: “One tug boat needs to be in the water if it’s actually needed to move things around. But you don’t need a parking lot, a vast parking lot, for every tug boat, barge and vessel you’ve ever dreamed of coming to New York City.”

Moreover, she added, not all projects that are built in the water need to be in the water, or even nearby. When they are built, she said, “Not only have you destroyed irreplaceable habitat, but you’ve virtually ensured that it’ll all be destroyed in the next big hurricane, which the city is overdue for.”

Industrial reality

Advocates for waterfront industry, though, argue that its survival is equally precarious, and that its loss should not be understated. The Bloomberg administration says the 130 projects in the Waterfront Action Agenda are expected to create 13,000 construction jobs and at least 3,400 permanent maritime and industrial jobs.

“These are jobs that are desperately needed in these communities,” said Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of more than 500 companies, civic groups, unions, utilities and other organizations that advocates for opening the waterfront to commerce and recreation.

Brownfields from industry near the water should be remediated, he said, and existing industry safeguarded–a process that can be as complex as cleaning up decades-old toxic sites or as simple as erecting flood barriers and storing chemicals in watertight containers at existing facilities. As for whether new industrial development near the water is feasible, given the risks to human and wildlife populations nearby, he added, “Absolutely it’s feasible. Those facilities that laid waste to Newtown Creek and other places are gone. We’re not doing heavy manufacturing. There’s a whole different animal of small shops that have developed.”

As an example, he cited the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit developer that owns four buildings full of industrial tenants near the creek.

Paul Parkhill, that organization’s director of planning and development, said New York’s shrunken industrial base has left behind smaller and less destructive uses.

“A hundred years ago the waterfront was just sort of a dumping ground for industrial effluents,” he said. “There’s a lot less heavy processing work that happens on the New York City waterfront these days.”

Besides, both Parkhill and Lewis argued that some uses, like barge shipping, have environmental arguments in their own favor.

Without it, “we’d be drowning in trucks,” Lewis said, adding, “That’s a huge environmental benefit. So those who would question the viability of increased usage of the SMIAs for transportation of goods are being myopic. We need that. We need it clean and good and environmentally friendly, but we need it.”

And even if the waterfront is not the ideal place for all this industry, moving it in a crowded and fully built-out city doesn’t seem a viable option, Parkhill says. “If your perspective becomes that it’s too dangerous to have industry on the waterfront because there could be a flood, then that’s it. That’s the end of industry in New York City.”

Besides, “I’m not sure that this is the fundamental issue that New York is going to have to deal with in case of a huge flood,” he said. “If there’s a category 5 hurricane and significant parts of the city flood,” Parkhill said, “I think there will be much bigger issues to deal with than the fact that there’s industry on the waterfront.”

Significant risks

True as that may be, it is also true that in a category 4 storm—the most severe for which the Office of Emergency Management published projections in its 2009 Hazard Mitigation Plan, with winds over 130 miles per hour—parts of Greenpoint, including the oil refineries along Newtown Creek, could be under as much as 19 feet of water. Even in a category 1 storm, under the same projections, the flooding could be three feet deep along the creek and five feet deep in Red Hook.

In a separate, ongoing local planning effort to envision a 21st Century industrial zone along Newtown Creek, local stakeholders are trying to plan for industry that is environmentally friendly, Parkhill said. Still, he said, in such planning, there can be a tension between jobs and community health and environmental concerns.

“Short of getting rid of all industrial uses, you’re not going to solve these issues in a completely clean way, so to speak,” he said. “And from our perspective, the implications of getting rid of all industrial uses are extreme as well.”

The debate will have plenty of time to unfold. To put much of the broad Vision 2020 plan into action, the administration would have to revise its Waterfront Revitalization Program, the city’s coastal zone management tool, last updated in 2002. Besides the administrative work needed to draft such changes, they would also require the approval of the City Council and New York State.

For activists, Bautista said, the process provides multiple opportunities to apply pressure. Another opportunity—indirectly related—presented itself on Tuesday, at a hearing held by the City Council’s Landmarks, Siting and Maritime subcommittee. There, activists argued that a proposed delay in opening several solid waste transfer stations unfairly concentrates the remaining transfer stations on overburdened parts of the city’s waterfront. Though the matter falls under the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, Bautista said, “It’s just the ongoing problem that we have of siting infrastructure fairly and equitably.”

Of the Vision 2020 waterfront plan’s language on that matter, he added, “All we got is a commitment to work with us on it, and a tacit acknowledgement that something needs fixing. It’s always helpful to have an administration acknowledge there’s a problem and commit to working on it. How that happens, that’s anybody’s guess.”