The Fight to Rescue Lower Manhattan From the Next Sandy

The coastal areas of New York City have two choices: retreat, or advance to the shoreline with a bigger shield.

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Courtesy of NYC Mayor's Office

The coastal areas of New York, particularly those lining Lower Manhattan, have two pretty clear choices in the post-Sandy era. One is to retreat from the shoreline so the next flood has far less of an impact. Writing about that possibility shortly after the storm, New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten said shrinking from the shore would be as great a change as the city's known since the days of Henry Hudson — "and a dreadful one to get used to."

Too dreadful, it appears, for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently embraced the second option: advancing to the shoreline with a bigger shield. Back in June, Bloomberg outlined a plan for Seaport City, a new neighborhood in Lower Manhattan specifically designed to protect the southeast edge of the island from the next great flood. Last week's request for proposals to study the idea in detail promoted Seaport City from the realm of fantasy into that of legitimate possibility.

While short on details at the moment, the general idea is for Seaport City to form part of a "multi-purpose levee" protecting the area against any storm surge or sea-level rise that emanates from the East River. Officials characterize Seaport City as the counterpart to Battery Park City on the west side, which did a pretty good job fending off the Hudson River during Sandy. They also think the financial promise of a new downtown neighborhood could help the project pay for itself [PDF]:

This approach would provide the protective value of a traditional levee while also providing new land on which commercial and residential buildings could be constructed, both to accommodate the City’s growth and to help finance the construction of the multi-purpose levee.

The questions and complaints have already started to roll in. In a Wall Street Journal piece from June, environmentalists opposed the idea of coastal land-fill, planners wondered about the wisdom of building a new waterfront district in the face of climate change, and locals feared the demise of the historic Seaport neighborhood. One current merchant told the Journal he worried Seaport City, with a phalanx of buildings facing the river, would sever old Seaport from the sea:

"I don't think any of us would want to have a literal Battery Park City East. If it were the same idea, there would be a lot of opposition. But none of us really know. We just don't know."

With comparisons to Battery Park City coming from both sides of the debate, that neighborhood's own embattled development seems worth remembering, too.

When the billion-dollar plan to build Battery Park City was announced in 1969, opponents immediately condemned its failure to provide low-income housing. Five years later, architects and planners fought passionately over the neighborhood's physical appearance. By 1979, funds had dried up and "nothing but grass" populated the area, prompting the New York Times to editorialize that Battery Park City was facing its "last chance."

As it finally neared completion in the mid-1980s, however, the neighborhood was called "one of the better pieces of urban design of modern times."

Obviously it's far too early even to dream about whether Seaport City will rise to similar ranks. But it's certainly not too early to recognize the two options facing old Seaport, retreat or advance, nor does it feel too dramatic to argue that the area's second chance, here in the wake of Sandy, should probably carry the urgency of a last one.

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