After Sandy, Local Residents are Now Drivers of City and Statewide Change

It has been a year since Superstorm Sandy devastated coastal and low-lying communities around the eastern seaboard, and while it was the worst storm to hit the tri-state area to date, it was not the region’s first harmful storm and will certainly not be its last. So the very serious – and imminent – question remains: how do we rebuild for a sustainable future?

This question served as the crux of two recent design competitions held in New York City, which challenged architects, engineers and urban planners to come up with innovative ways to address the vulnerability of our coastlines. But this is by no means a new question. Preparing homes and landscapes to weather unforeseen catastrophes are at the heart of every design plan. What has changed, post-Sandy, is a surge in public awareness and interest in building more sustainably.

After experiencing a natural disaster firsthand, many New Yorkers and New Jersey residents are beginning to see how the impending threat of climate change and the rising of sea tides will continue to affect them personally. Now, they want to act strategically and as quickly as possible.

Jeanne Dupont, founder of the nonprofit, Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, currently lives in the Rockaways and has worked closely with community members on local issues over the past decade. “Prior to the storm, nobody really cared, no one was talking about sustainability or resilience,” Dupont explains.  “As a result of Storm Sandy, it brought more focus to the issues of climate change and it made the people who lived in the Rockaways more engaged in that conversation…and now, overwhelmingly, people have gotten much more involved.”

Capitalizing on this momentum, three developers created the FAR ROC competition to solicit designs for Arverne East, an 80-acre area in the Rockaway Peninsula that has been deemed a FEMA Special Flood Hazard area and has been uninhabited since the 1940’s.

“Going back to the drawing board, redoing the designs, having a topnotch competition, that pays people to do this work, was a very smart idea,” says Dupont. “It brings about and includes some of the concepts we’ve learned from Storm Sandy, and it brings about new and renewed interest in the environment and in building coastal communities off the water.”

The developers —L+M Development Partners, The Bluestone Organization and Triangle Equities—received 117 proposals from across the world, and each design outlined unique strategies to strengthen the endurance of the site through innovative planning and development. The second phase of the competition awarded four finalists a $30,000 stipend to further develop their designs, and last Wednesday, October 23rd, the winner was announced.

A jury of thirteen, comprising local community representatives, urban ecologists, city planners and fellow architects and developers, was deadlocked on two designs.

One design, “Small Means & Great Ends,” came from the Swedish firm, White Arkitekter. They state in their proposal the three strategies that underpinned their design: “reduce and control damage, provide access in the event of a storm, and ensure quick recovery,” to create a community that can better withstand the inevitable stress of natural disasters.

Yet the jury also felt beholden to a proposal by NY-based firm, Ennead Architecture/Ennead Lab that combined the existing natural dune fields of the Rockaways, which protect against wave action, with the durability of new, elevated urban housing structures and piers.

Drawing courtesy of Ennead Architects

Drawing courtesy of Ennead Architects

“It’s the interaction of the two that makes it more resilient,” explains Dalia Hamati, one of the lead designers on the Ennead team. “It was important for us to create something that was livable and beautiful on day one but would perform a hundred years down the line.”

Though the nature of any competition requires an official winner, and ultimately it was White Arkitekter that received this title, juror Alexander Felson feels the most successful design for this site should be a combination of the best ideas from all of the teams.

“My sense is that multiple projects embody valuable solutions, and it was impossible to get it all into one project, but we selected the project that we felt had a balance of the five critical aspects that we described in the RFP,” says Felson. The request for proposal (RFP) called for up to 1,500 units of low and midrise housing, 500,000 square feet of commercial and recreational building, 35 acres of nature preserve, 9 acres of dune preserve and 3.3 acres of open space. “We felt [White Arkitekter] best fit that.”

As the winner, White Arkitekter will work with L+M Development Partners, The Bluestone Organization and Triangle Equities to further develop and implement their design in Arverne East. As the second finalist, Ennead was given the “Leading Innovation in Resilient Waterfront Design Award”, an effective honorable mention, but the Ennead team members see this award, and the entire competition, as the beginning of something bigger.

“I think the greatest thing that this competition did is include the community in that conversation and make them a real catalyst for moving it forward,” adds Andrew Burdick, an Ennead Associate. “We understood that this kind of issue cannot be answered by a sole, single architect…. it has to be an ongoing collaboration with the community and political groups. It’s too important, frankly, to keep the conversation limited.”

The President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also sought to broaden this conversation through their own multi-phase competition, Rebuild by Design.

rebuild photo

“We all know politics are very reactive, and often decisions are based on a one-second event, but it’s up to designers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and people in the region to collaborate together to create a platform for these one-second decisions,” explained Henk WJ Ovink, senior advisor for HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, at an event on October 28th that unveiled over 40 research-driven design ideas by 10 selected teams.

The jury will pick one design per team that will move forward, and has encouraged the public to weigh in on this decision viatheir website. The subsequent, and final phase, of the competition will take place in April 2014, in which each team will submit a fully implementable and fundable proposal, and the winning design will be awarded with disaster recovery grants from HUD and other sources of private and public funding.

What sets a post-Sandy competition apart from those that happened pre-Sandy is the collective consciousness of what is suddenly at stake. “I think that Sandy adds this level of real risk. A human element is much more present now than it was in previous competitions,” says Kurt Nieminen, Junior Designer for Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), one of the design teams.

He adds: “What we’re really trying to do is think about what kind of city we want to live in, and we have the opportunity here to take the momentum of an event like this and say, whether another Sandy happens or not, we want to invest to have a better city.”