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Designers Float Six Ways to Reinvent the Coastline

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Landscaped trenches that keep rain from overpowering rivers. Underwater beds of eelgrass to reduce erosion. Waterside sitting areas that would give a front-row seat to the rise in sea levels. These are some of the inventive ways New York City and nearby coastlines might be better protected against severe storms like Sandy as a result of the six winning proposals of the federal government's Rebuild by Design competition. While each proposal tackles a different shoreline region, environmental sensitivity plays a big role in each.

Image Courtesy of Scape/Landscape Architecture
Reef Street: This project calls for building a string of concrete breakwaters off the coast of Tottenville, a hard-hit neighborhood on Staten Island's south shore, to buffer against wave damage, flooding and erosion. It includes a 'reef street,' micropockets of habitat for marine life.
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The region "is a special geography that is badly in need of renewal," says Richard Roark, a partner with Olin, the landscape architecture firm working on one of the winning proposals.

The question, Roark adds, is "what kind of environment are we going to create for the next generation?" That question also drove designs for the proposals.

The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored the competition to protect cities most vulnerable to severe weather and announced the six winning proposals in June. With the intent of keeping the proposals from languishing on the drawing board, HUD pledged $920 million as seed funding for their implementation. The competition required a year of work for the project teams, which are packed with engineers, architects and ecologists.

Some of the projects may break ground as early as next year, while others may take decades to realize. All still have a long way to go before they are fully funded, although team members are optimistic. They say that, regardless of how much gets built and when, the competition was an illuminating exercise in collaboration.

"The genius of Rebuild by Design was to bring all these people together so often to exchange ideas. And these were people that had never really spoken to each other before," says Alan Blumberg, a professor of ocean engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Though his team's proposal, Blue Dunes, which called for constructing a string of protective islands, did not make the final cut, he's hoping to work with another team going forward.

Paid for through HUD's Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) by way of the federal $47.9-billion Sandy relief package, Rebuild by Design was announced in June 2013 and initially attracted 140 teams from 15 countries. The competition asked applicants to mull solutions for regions ranging from small beach towns to high-density urban centers.

The jury included Ole Bouman, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute; Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang Architects; and Kate Ascher, a partner at BuroHappold Engineering. While at first the teams focused on several neighborhoods of their choosing, the jury at a later stage in the competition assigned each proposal team its own specific project. Over the course of the contest, teams could also receive up to $200,000 to support field research.

Big Wins

The federal project awards varied in amount with the largest by far, at $335 million, going to a plan known as "Big U." With a team that included the Bjarke Ingels Group, an architecture firm known as BIG, as well as BuroHappold Engineering and Arcadis, the $418-million proposal targets the low-lying southern edge of Manhattan. Big U calls for building a 10-mile, U-shaped ribbon of protective berms and flip-down flood barriers. It includes an area for viewing the rise in sea levels, which would be called a "reverse aquarium" and be located at Battery Park, where a parking lot currently sits.

One of the berms would anchor the first phase of the project. It would be located at a 1.5-mile section between the FDR Drive and the East River Park that could block storm surges while providing elevated recreational space landscaped with salt-tolerant plants.

Groundbreaking could happen by 2017, says Jeremy Siegel, a BIG designer and the project's leader. He adds that because the city's Parks Dept. controls that section of the waterfront, the likelihood is good that construction will begin soon. The city is also expected to help raise funds to make up the $83-million balance of Big U's budget, Siegel says.

The BIG team had also considered Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx, but Manhattan was interesting because of its high residential density and extreme vulnerability to storms, he says.

Indeed, 20% of New York City public housing is in a flood plain. "You have to make sure any investment you make is serving as many purposes as possible," Siegel says.

A team called Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge won HUD's second-largest financial commitment, a $230-million grant. The $410-million project is centered on New Jersey's waterfront around Hoboken. Because the region is prone to severe flooding, the project will add a system of pumps to collect water that would otherwise overwhelm sewers and pipe it away from streets.

The improved drainage would go a long way in a place where the ground is 94% impermeable because of many paved surfaces, says Marten Hillen, a flood-risk engineer with Holland-based Royal HaskoningDHV, a team member along with Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the global design firm.

Although the plan is not likely to be fully completed until about 2040, its first phase—which will include building a park at Weehawken Cove with wetlands to resist storm surges—could start within a few years and have a five-year time line, Hillen says.

Securing $150 million in federal funds, the New Meadowlands proposal calls for redefining the perimeter of a 30-sq-mile section of this vast, marshy swath of northern New Jersey that has been harmed by development over the decades. Total funding for this project was unavailable.

The project, headed by the Center for Advanced Urbanism, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology think tank, aims to restore some of the wetlands, turning them into what the team calls Meadowpark and Meadowband. The park would feature a public wildlife refuge surrounded by a berm to keep floods at bay. Atop the berm, Meadowband would be a high-density street with apartments and hotels offering access points to Meadowpark. The first phase of the project would be built in communities on the northern edge of the Meadowlands—including Little Ferry, Moonachie and Teterboro.

A team featuring architecture firm Interboro Partners and engineering firm Apex Cos. heads up Living With the Bay. The plan tackles the frequently waterlogged southern shore of Nassau County, Long Island, N.Y. Its $125-million grant will be spent on improving the corridor around the Mill River, one of Long Island's most-polluted waterways, in a phase the team refers to as "slow streams."

That phase includes a sluice gate, which could be closed in case of storms, keeping out storm surges. Excess asphalt on streets near the river would also be removed and replaced with landscaped trenches, or bioswales, to help filter polluted storm runoff and improve the overall health of the shoreline.

The total cost of this first phase will likely be $177 million, says Jay Borkland, Apex's director of national waterways. The project's overall cost is expected to be more than $900 million. Groundbreaking on the Slow Streams phase could happen next year, with completion by 2017, he adds.

"Some people who live in the Sandy-affected regions would say it's not fast enough," Borkland says, "but [for] the scale and interrelatedness this requires, you can't go too quickly."

Staten Island, where 24 people died during Sandy, is the focus of Living Breakwaters. A team that includes Scape/Landscape Architecture and Parsons Brinckerhoff will use its $60-million grant to construct a string of concrete breakwaters off the coast of Tottenville, a hard-hit neighborhood. The total cost of the three-phase project is roughly $180 million.

The breakwaters will buffer the coast against destructive waves, create habitats for fish and oysters and create "calm" areas for kayaking, according to the plan.

With $20 million in federal funding, the Hunts Point Lifelines project will focus on one square mile in an industrial neighborhood in the South Bronx that also is home to a low-income population. The $800-million project will protect existing wholesale food markets that are vulnerable to storms because they are on low-lying land. The stores account for 60% of the produce, 50% of the meat and 30% of the fish eaten by New Yorkers, says Roark of Olin, which helmed the plan along with the University of Pennsylvania's PennDesign school.

In the initial project phase, Roark's team will plant shoreline-strengthening native species such as eelgrass along a waterfront section. Down the road, levees would be installed, which will be made of locally manufactured concrete panels to create much-needed jobs. "Our supposition is that there is a way to integrate neighborhoods and working industry," he says.

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