The brackish channel at the convergence of the East River and Upper New York Bay separates Red Hook from the Financial District at the southern tip of Manhattan. Take the twenty-minute ferry between the two neighborhoods and you’ll see just about all of Red Hook’s several miles of waterfront. Hugging the coast are recreation areas, small businesses, an IKEA, a Fairway, a cruise ship terminal, warehouses, and other industrial sites.
When Hurricane Sandy ripped ashore nearly four years ago, in late October 2012, most of these sites flooded. More than half of Red Hook is below 10 feet in elevation, and it was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York City during the storm. The timing of the storm—with high tide—caused even more water to surge into the streets, homes, and businesses of Red Hook.
At one point during the storm, Red Hook resident Tone Johansen, 50, went into the basement of her brick townhouse—a few hundred feet from the waterfront—to get something. “The window exploded and I barely made it out,” Johansen said. Water filled the basement, rising to a level of two to three feet on the first floor. It did the same in the adjacent building, home to Sunny’s Bar, which she and her husband founded (he, the Sunny after which the bar is named, died in March of this year). Between repairing the foundation, getting new boilers and other equipment, and other construction, it took ten months and $100,000 for the business to be up and running again.
Another resident, Karen Blondel, 53, stuck out the storm in her first-floor apartment in the Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn. Her apartment is about a half mile from the water and several feet above the ground level. While water did not come into her apartment, she said the basement below was filled to its ceiling. “I had a severe mold and mildew problem for a while,” she said. A contractor for the New York City Housing Authority eventually cleaned it up.
Like many residents of the Red Hook Houses, Blondel also didn’t have electricity for several weeks. Because most of the mechanical equipment for the complex, including boilers, was located in the basements, the vital infrastructure of the building was destroyed. Blondel estimates there are still four or five temporary boilers in use on the campus.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has allocated $438 million to repair and update the Red Hook Houses. The project is still in the feasibility stage, but ideas being floated include new on-site power generation sources; raised power distribution pods; and restoration of roofs, sidewalks, playgrounds, and other facilities.
Still, while these efforts should improve the ability of the complex to rebound more quickly than it did after Sandy, it won’t stop water from coming in the first place. For that, all residents will have to rely on a new infrastructure project—led by the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the NYC Economic Development Commission and designed to help protect much of Red Hook from future floods.
In short, a wall. Called the Integrated Flood Protection System, the project will largely consist of some kind of physical barrier to prevent water from entering the neighborhood during a storm. In different sections, it could take the shape of an elevated street; an elevated bike path; a retractable barrier; a landscaped street median; a simple, traditional wall; or other options. Depending on where exactly officials decide to place the barrier—right on the waterfront or a few blocks inland—some businesses and industrial sites near the waterfront, including Sunny’s, may be on the outside of the wall.
Where that wall will go, and just what it will look like, is still being decided. And citizens are hoping they’ll have a voice.
A presentation made by city officials to Red Hook residents active in neighborhood resiliency efforts lists the constraints that influence where the barrier can go—including floodplain and flood depths, topography, property ownership, transportation routes, critical facilities, utilities, drainage system, and zoning. But there is one more factor that should play into where the barrier will finally go, and it’s the impetus for such presentations from the city: public opinion. The city is supposed to engage the community during the planning process, and it appears it is at least trying, with varying levels of success.
While city agencies are in charge of the project, the funding is all federal dollars. Half of the money for the flood protection project comes through FEMA and the other half through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has a mandate for community engagement. The mandate includes requirements to encourage citizen participation, hold at least two public hearings, and provide information about the funds used in the project. (It does not, however, require citizen opinion to be incorporated into the project.) So far the city has held two meetings open to the public, as well as several follow-up meetings with key organizations in the community. Some Red Hook residents are frustrated at the process, not sure of whether their ideas are being taken into account.
Stephen Kondaks, 62, is one. The Red Hook resident has attended both public meetings on the protection project and engaged directly with city officials on the topic. He and his wife, Andrea Sansom, stayed through Sandy as the first floor of their three-story 1860 frame house filled with water.
Kondaks said he felt like the first public meeting of the project went over all of the issues raised previously in the community without really advancing the discussion. “It was kind of insulting,” he said. He wanted something to react to, he said, not just vague questions like whether people want access to the waterfront (because of course they do, he explained). He wanted to know things like what it’s going to look like, how high it will be, which streets will fall behind and in front of it, who it’s going to protect, and if it’s going to lower residents’ flood insurance.
Kondaks was also disappointed in the poor turnout on the part of residents. (Sansom, his wife, noted that the meeting wasn’t well advertised in the neighborhood.) The second meeting was somewhat better, the couple said. “They had a series of five or six diagrams, one of them had various methods of raising the street or raising the sidewalk,” said Kondaks. Yet Kondaks still didn’t think it went far enough. Poor acoustics didn’t help, he said, and that the format—in which small groups talked and conveyed opinions through group leaders—was flawed. Representatives at each table summarized the small-group discussions, but that meant some opinions got lost.
Blondel, of the Red Hook Houses, voiced some of the same criticisms as Kondaks. In particular, the format of the second meeting made her feel as if all voices weren’t being heard. She also mentioned that residents of the Red Hook Houses were under-represented.
After the second meeting, Kondaks and others complained about the format, and the city responded with a plan for one-on-one meetings with various organizations.
When The Brooklyn Ink asked about whether project leaders had shaped the community engagement plan as a response to this feedback, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency responded that for this phase of the project, they wanted smaller, more targeted conversations, to engage a wider audience and have more “substantive discussions.”
Kondaks attended the targeted meeting held with the committee from the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program. He said that for that meeting city officials working on the project brought maps showing the potential placement of the new infrastructure—something tangible the group could respond to. Kondaks and Sansom both spoke of well-intentioned, smart people who are working on the project, and they think that at least some city officials are listening to what the community is saying.
The Brooklyn Ink also asked the Office of Recovery and Resiliency about what it has learned from residents, and we got in reply a list of fifteen lessons and priorities that the officials said they took away from attendees at the first two public meetings. These included maintaining maritime capacity, taking drainage issues into consideration, minimizing intervention on residential streets, minimizing impact on traffic flow, parking spots, and loading/unloading zones, and simply protecting the neighborhood as much as possible.
Preserving neighborhood character and creating a positive integration of the barrier with the community were also on the list. Specific requests shed light on what that means: residents suggested that the city coordinate with other local projects, provide jobs and training for local residents in the construction of the project, continue to keep the community engaged, and enhance preparedness measures for future storms. People also requested improvements to the bike-friendly environment of the neighborhood, its pedestrian character in industrial areas, and Red Hook Park.
How these priorities will be incorporated into the project is still an open question. Urban planning experts say that incorporating a community’s consensus into a major project is difficult to achieve.
For one thing, you first have to define consensus. Donovan Finn is a visiting assistant professor at Stonybrook University who studies the dynamics of disaster recovery and how those efforts affect the resiliency of a community.
“What is consensus? Maybe you get 100 people in the room, you could have 100 different opinions,” said Finn. Even if you only have five opinions represented in that group, he said, reaching a majority might not be possible.
There’s also the complication that not everyone in the community engages in the process. Johansen, the bar owner a few hundred feet from the water, said she hasn’t been to any of the protection project meetings. “I had a period where I went to everything,” Johansen said. But “It’s very frustrating to hear from people in suits how you should spend your thousands,” she said. “When you’ve been through a catastrophe like this, you want to be self-reliant. You think, ‘What if I had solar panels on the roof and didn’t have to rely on ConEd?’ You start to think like a survivalist. I don’t have time for the bigger things.”
For those community members who do want to participate, certified planners in the United States have a code of ethics, said Finn, that requires them to listen to the community and incorporate public opinion into their work. “Local people are experts about their place. They know its history; they know what they want, what their neighbors know and want. But they’re not necessarily experts on the topic. They typically aren’t civil engineers.”
The engineering is where the reality of which community priorities are going to be possible to include in a project comes into play. “You can have a conversation about it with the community, but at the end of the day, structurally, it may have to go in a certain place.”
There are also budget limitations and restrictions in place. “There’s a long-standing critique of federal recovery money by local governments that the funding use is very narrow,” said Finn. It’s been somewhat broadened more recently, and the Obama administration has pushed for further relaxation of the restrictions, “but the problem is Congress,” Finn said. “They’re terrified of graft, they’re terrified of waste.”
Creative cities find ways of supplementing with other, more flexible money, Finn said. While Finn hasn’t personally attended the protection project meetings, he’s been to hundreds of other public meetings for state recovery efforts in New York. He’s optimistic about the Red Hook project because some of the other organizations contracted by the city on the project have a good reputation for involving the community. But he admits it will be difficult.
New York City estimates it will take $20 billion in all to fix the Sandy damage. “NYC is a big, complex city,” said Finn. “And for better or worse, to spend that amount of money in a reasonable amount of time, you have to have a bit of a Robert Moses mentality. You have to think big. Although I think that these agencies are trying to do the right thing, by not saying ‘screw this neighborhood.’ But there is an urgency to build this stuff now because we don’t want another Sandy.”
Meanwhile, the Red Hook community will likely have to wait until the project moves from planning to implementation to decide whether their opinions were heard and incorporated in the protection plan. Kondaks and Sansom commented that even when officials appear to be listening, it’s hard to know because most of the time the officials don’t give feedback.
But at least on paper, a general shift towards community engagement does seem to be under way. “There has been significantly more focus on public input and participatory planning after Sandy than ever before,” said Finn. “Overall the way the federal government thinks about disaster recovery is changing, and public participation is becoming much more important.”
As the Red Hook projects—and billions of dollars worth of other disaster recovery and resiliency projects around the state and the nation—are implemented, communities will be judging for themselves: Did citizen participation matter?