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How Should New York City Rebuild Post-Sandy?

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It's been two and a half weeks since Hurricane Sandy smashed into New York, and the question of how to rebuild and redesign the city is increasingly urgent. Last night, the Center for Architecture and the American Institute of Architects NY Chapter hosted a panel to discuss these ideas, and while no two hour event can create solutions, there was some consensus on a few major points: 1) Rebuilding will take a long time, but we also need immediate, short term solutions. 2) The hardest hit areas need to be rebuilt differently, they can not be the same as they were because this is not the last storm the city will see. 3) How our bureaucracy controls real estate, building, and design needs to change. 4) Long term rebuilding needs to be a collaborative effort between a slew different agencies and professions, including architects, engineers, environmentalists, city planners, lawyers and politicians.

On Short/Medium Term Solutions
The only real short term solution was put forth by Dr. Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist and professor at Columbia who made clear throughout the evening his skepticism of sea barriers. Jacob said that short term solutions like inflatable plugs can save our tunnels from flooding, and these types of plugs have already been successfully tested and used around the country.

Medium term solutions proposed include changing the building codes and updating FEMA floodplain maps. The first floodplain maps weren't created until 1983, and obviously New York City has a lot of buildings that were constructed before that, so older buildings are not nearly as prepared for flooding as newer buildings. Howard Slatkin, the city planning commission's director of sustainability, noted that this is why new buildings along the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens fared much better than most in Lower Manhattan.

As for code changes, several panelists said that buildings need to be required to keep their mechanicals on a higher floor or the roof, not in the basement. Regulations for utilities also need to change, so the equipment is waterproofed or protected.

On Rebuilding Differently
New York Times archicritic Michael Kimmelman moderated the panel, and he kicked off the event saying that as New York rebuilds, we have to decide "what parts of the city are necessary to change and adapt, which ones we wish to return to, and which ones we can not." It's a provocative statement to suggest that parts of the city shouldn't be rebuilt, but one that was agreed upon by several panelists. Donna Walcavage, a landscape architect and urban designer, said that if we only looked at rebuilding from a rational and scientific stand point, we would not rebuild homes in places like the Rockaways, Jersey Shore, and Staten Island because they are in floodplains. But because we have to deal with politics, emotions, and socio-economical issues, this is not practical or possible.

Slatkin noted that "our communities need to endure," and as we rebuild, "we need to be sensitive to these things." Robert Rogers, of Rogers Marvel Architects, added that these communities need to be reimagined in a way that they can survive flood waters, by raising them up or building sturdy natural barriers. Klaus argued that the communities themselves need to band together to make the decision to stay, leave, remain the same, or change.

On Changing the Bureaucracy
Kimmelman told a story of how Brooklyn Bridge Park wanted to build a north-south floating bridge that would connect the new piers so people didn't have to walk inland to travel between them. But the DEC shot it down, saying that the shadows could disrupt river ecology. "So, really, if we can't build a 12-foot wide bridge, who's going to believe that we can these bigger things?" he asked. Slatkin replied, "A paradigm shift is required," adding that "we need to adjust" to be able to better work together.

On Working Collectively for Long Term Solutions
Adrian Benepe, the former parks department commissioner, was in the audience, and he called Sandy "a gamechanger," like 9/11 was, in how our government and agencies work together, adding that we still don't know the full effects of this storm. Rogers echoed this sentiment, but noted that unlike the rebuilding after 9/11, this time "we have the benefit of really solid science" to guide us toward solutions.
· AIA New York [official]
· Center for Architecture [official]
· Hurricane Sandy coverage [Curbed]