New York’s Big Plan for Big Storms

For some people outside New York City, Hurricane Sandy came as a surprise. The sheer breadth of the destruction – coastal neighborhoods flooded across three boroughs, homes inundated and destroyed, over 40 people killed in the city alone – somehow doesn’t seem possible in the nation’s largest urban area.

One person who was not entirely surprised, however, was Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Since 2007, Bloomberg has pushed forward his PlaNYC, a 189-page document that calls for making New York City more environmentally sustainable and less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With sea levels expected to rise somewhere between 12 and 29 inches by the 2050s, “the risks from severe storms and flooding that New York has always faced as a coastal city exposed to the ocean are expected to increase, too,” according to the plan’s section on increasing “climate resilience.”

The mega-storm that recently pummeled the East Coast seems to have only strengthened the administration’s resolve to confront climate change head-on.

“The floods and fires that swept through our city left a path of destruction that will require years of recovery and rebuilding work,” Bloomberg wrote in a recent editorial. “If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable.”

While many government planning documents are quickly relegated to dusty bookshelves, however, PlaNYC has remained central to the Bloomberg administration’s actions on everything from zoning to parkland to economic development. At a recent keynote speech at the GoGreen NYC conference, Seth Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, described the administration’s successes so far in meeting the goals of PlaNYC, and laid out what he sees as the biggest priorities for the city’s sustainability efforts in the coming years.

That effort is rooted in two simple ideas. First, climate change is real.

“Notwithstanding noise on the political extremes and in the press,” Pinsky said, “there is a growing consensus that all of us have to consider our economic impact today in order to ensure our survival and success over the long term.”

Second, the risks of climate change also create significant opportunities for government, businesses and investors.

“There’s a commonly repeated view that policies that promote sustainability are in opposition to economic growth,” Pinsky told the conference audience. “In fact, promoting sustainability is good economic policy.”

The scope of those challenges and opportunities is nearly breathtaking, covering everything from brownfields to transportation planning to green building and making the city’s waterfront better able to handle storm surges. Pinsky pointed to places where the city already has made progress toward accomplishing the goals of PlaNYC, including planned solar installations at the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Fresh Kills park on Staten Island, hopefully supplied by innovative startup companies located in a dozen business incubators already operating throughout the city.

Such efforts incentivize both the supply and the demand sides of the green energy equation, making sure that “on the demand side, we’re working to position NYC as one of the nation’s major consumers of renewable energy,” Pinsky said.

Sustainability projects also offer companies and investors new opportunities to profit from density, as New York projects it will add a million new residents by 2030. On the West side of Manhattan, that means a Hudson Yards project that combines $2 billion in public transit spending to create a new neighborhood with 50 million square feet of residential and commercial development, Pinsky said.

Another example is Willets Point in Queens, where brownfield redevelopment and $50 million in infrastructure improvements recently led to a $3.3-billion deal with Sterling Equities to create 5.5 million square feet of development in the area.

“That’s why, even in the face of stiff fiscal headwinds, we continue to invest in public transit and to direct new development to our existing public transit assets,” Pinsky said.

And rather than treat PlaNYC as a completed document, to be frozen in time and strictly adhered to, Pinsky laid out ways in which the administration is fleshing the plan out and expanding it still further, including an upcoming study on the best ways to promote biodiversity and green roof construction, plus a new report on the city’s future clean technology options, which is due out by the end of 2012.

“We not only refuse to act like the proverbial ostrich with our head buried in the sand when confronted by difficult circumstances,” Pinsky said, “but we choose to view these circumstances through the rose-colored lens of opportunity.”

Tags: Policy

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