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Could a Real Estate Development Save New York from Climate Change?

Building our way out of this mess has a certain twisted appeal.

af Matt Taylor
28 maj 2014, 5:30am

Illustrative rendering of the proposed 500-foot "land reclamation" project in Lower Manhattan, courtesy of NYCEDC

Climate change has gone from being a bogeyman that will arrive sometime in the distant future to a clear and present danger, one that needs to be dealt with whether the public and political elites want to or not. So it's understandable that innovating our way out of the mess has gained a certain twisted appeal in this age of Silicon Valley hero worship and technological optimism. Given that industrialisation over the last century and a half got us here, why not look to the same forces of advancement for the solution to our carbon dioxide woes?

If only some bright and shiny new object spawned by technocratic genius could fix it all and save the day at the last possible moment! (See the absurd cottage industry of "clean coal," which is just as impossible as it sounds.) Or maybe, as recently departed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed in one of his more freewheeling moments last year, we can physically ward off extreme weather events (which are going to happen more and more often as the planet warms) with levees that double as economic boons for depressed neighborhoods.

A study commissioned by Bloomberg in the twilight of his administration was released last Thursday finding that "Seaport City" – an embankment in Lower Manhattan designed to protect the area from rising sea levels and future flooding – is not only "feasible" but might even be financially self-sustaining thanks to the possibility of real estate and other development on the new land producing substantial revenues. And this capitalist optimism isn't limited to New York: Cities from Scheveningen in the Netherlands to Tokyo are experimenting with multi-purpose levees that would seem to offer a beacon of hope as the polar ice caps melt and sea levels inch higher.

It's not just billionaires like Bloomberg who are on board with the Seaport City project – even some enviromentalists are (tentatively) intrigued. "Without some sort of investment or infrastructure to protect it, Lower Manhattan will not be able to endure as a centre of the city. It simply won't," said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

The only problem, according to many of the environmental and urban policy experts I spoke to, is that at least in the case of New York, this kind of multi-purpose levee might not do all that much besides soothe the nerves – and pad the bank accounts – of select Manhattan business elites.

"In New York City, there is only one religion, and it's called Manhattan real estate," said Joel Kotkin, professor of urban development at Chapman University and an expert on the local landscape. "Developers and architects are always going to want to build new stuff."

It's not exactly a shocker that an idea conceived by Bloomberg would be a gift to New York's business community, which got its way for all 12 years of his reign. But Bill de Blasio ran (and won) the race to succeed him on a vow to challenge the supremacy of entrenched local financial interests, meaning how he proceeds on Seaport City could prove something of an indicator for just how serious the new mayor is when it comes to taking on corporate power.

"Somebody's going to make a lot of money out of this," said Orrin Pilkey, the celebrated Duke geologist who accurately predicted the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged Lower Manhattan and the Jersey Shore in the fall of 2012. Pilkey likened Seaport City to the levees that failed New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit nine years ago, suggesting the "absurd" proposal would provide the "illusion of comfort" but little else.

De Blasio's track record on housing and development, as Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York has reported, is that of a pragmatist even if his national image is decidedly left-wing. The mayor has historically been happy to cut deals with local business interests on controversial projects like Atlantic Yards – the deal that paved the way for the construction of the Barclays Center – when it suits his broader ambitions, so the city government's willingness to embrace a leftover proposal from the Bloomberg era cannot be ignored.

"This is a decades-old dream of big real estate to build out into the water, and build big, wrapped up in the rhetoric of resilience,'" said Tom Angotti, professor of urban affairs at the CUNY Graduate Center and director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. "It would be extremely costly, benefit mostly the wealthy, and the rest of the city and region could easily be underwater in the meantime. It is the most unequal and unjust plan I could imagine."

Dumping a bunch of public resources into a massive moat to defend the castles of American high finance would be a startling development given the sharp break with Bloomberg the new mayor promised. Besides, there are significant regulatory hurdles to new construction on any American waterway.

"On its surface, this proposal seems to be against the law – it violates the Clean Water Act," said Brent Blackwelder, a 40-year veteran of the environmental movement and president emeritus of international environmental network Friends of the Earth.

Still, erecting barriers to protect against rising sea levels is a fairly intuitive part of any modern city's tool kit for addressing the terrors of climate change and New York seems likely to go that route sooner or later given federal inaction and steadily rising global temperatures. The authors of the study and the city officials who commissioned it believe Seaport City can overcome legal challenges and other obstacles, and caution that it is just one part of a broader effort to modernise local infrastructure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (a metric by which New York has far outpaced many other American cities).

"There is a pathway through the environmental regulatory framework", argued Daniel Zarrilli, director of the city's office of resiliency and recovery and a Bloomberg appointee who was kept on by de Blasio to head up post-Sandy projects. Zarrilli added that he harbors "no illusions that this is an easy permit to achieve."

So it's one thing to shake our fists at the fact that policymakers let the problem get this bad in the first place, but skepticism of techo-utopianism should not blind us to the scary reality lurking right around the corner.

"Any major project can turn into a boondoggle, but I think we have to be creative," said Bystryn of the League of Conservation Voters. "Think of the Dutch, who do this sort of [major project] all the time. That's the reason they've been able to continue to live on that little piece of Western Europe. Otherwise they'd have been underwater a long time ago."

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

Tagged:
environment
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bill de blasio
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flooding
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