Lower Manhattan may be in danger of becoming the poor stepchild of New York City disaster and resiliency planning. Out of $4.21 billion in federal Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) awarded to the City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, only some $10 million (or less than one-quarter of one percent) has been allocated within the borders of Community Board 1, roughly the area below a jagged line formed by Canal Street on the West Side and the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Side.
More recently, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) announced a “Neighborhood Game Changer Investment Competition” for ideas to foster economic growth in the five areas of the City that were most severely affected by Hurricane Sandy. When it announced the competition, in June, 2013, the EDC said, “it is expected that each of the five impacted areas will be awarded up to $18 million in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief, and more than one award also may be made in each area.” But when the results were made public, Lower Manhattan received no awards and no funds.
In October, the City received its third allocation of $994,056,000 of CDBG-DR funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The de Blasio administration released its plans for this money (with no significant allocation for Lower Manhattan) on December 19, and scheduled a hearing about those plans for January 15. As CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes testified at the hearing, this schedule allowed only, “a short time for preparation by those wishing to comment, especially considering the two major holidays during this time.” Ms. McVay Hughes also said that community leaders were, “disappointed to learn that there was no opportunity for public comment at this, or any previous public hearing on the Proposed Action Plan,” because “this is a critically important part of the review process.”
Ms. McVay Hughes added that, “Lower Manhattan is in desperate need of immediate resiliency and hardening measures. Existing plans for such measures, such as the Lower Manhattan Multi-Purpose Levee, are long-term projects that will not effectively protect Lower Manhattan for several decades.” She noted that even the small amount of money (approximately $1.5 million) allocated to study proposed resiliency measures within CB1 is for an area of the East River waterfront that, “does not include the tip of Lower Manhattan nor any portion along the Hudson River. We support the allocation of funding for this feasibility study, but we request that the study be expanded to cover the entire coastline of CB1, including the Battery and the West side up to Canal Street.”
Ms. McVay Hughes has been joined by a phalanx of Lower Manhattan leaders in fighting to redress this imbalance. The group, which includes State Senator Daniel Squadron, City Council member Margaret Chin, and Downtown Alliance president Jessica Lappin met last Friday at City Hall with de Blasio Administration officials.
“We are clearly one of the neighborhoods that was hardest hit and we should be right up there when it comes to both short-term and long-term planning and implementation,” Ms. Lappin says. “So I raised a little bit of a fuss.
“The goal is two-fold,” Ms. Lappin observes. “First to determine can we do in the short term, three to five years, to protect us from another massive storm. And second, longer term, in the ten-to-20 year range, to ask what are we doing in a big-picture fashion to protect Lower Manhattan.”
Ms. Lappin adds, “this is critical not only because we’re the fourth-largest central business district in the nation, but also because of the infrastructure we have here. The subway lines all come together in Lower Manhattan, Verizon is headquartered here, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is here. So anything that happens here affects the whole City.”
Senator Squadron says, “I’ve been pushing, along with my colleagues, the Community Board, and the Downtown Alliance, to make sure Lower Manhattan gets the resiliency funding it needs. Our continued conversations with the City, including last week’s meeting, are part of moving that forward. There’s no question that Hurricanes Sandy and Irene showed that Lower Manhattan is one of the most vulnerable parts of the City, even though it lies in the center of the harbor. That’s why this effort with the City, my colleagues and the Downtown Alliance is so important.”
City Council member Margaret Chin says, “alongside my local elected colleagues, I’ve made it clear to the de Blasio administration that the safety and security of our growing Lower Manhattan community requires a strong focus on storm resiliency, so our residents and businesses can be prepared for another Hurricane Sandy. By meeting directly with the Mayor’s staff, we sent an even stronger message to the administration regarding the fundamental importance of this issue.”
“It is almost two years, dozens of meetings and presentations later, and it is time to move from words to implementation of real solutions to protect Lower Manhattan from extreme climate change events,” says Ms. McVay Hughes. “The City’s commitment at this junction will be judged on how much money they plan to invest and how quickly. Extreme weather events do not wait for a City budget allocation — Mother Nature has her own timetable.”
Among the concerns raised by this group are the possibility that some storm-readiness measures underway elsewhere in Manhattan may have the unintended affect of increasing the danger to Downtown. “It is especially important to study how partially implemented resiliency measures, such as Phase 1 of the ‘BIG U’ proposal,” says Ms. McVay Hughes, in reference to a project that would create a storm barrier to deflect East River flood waters, “which only goes from Montgomery Street to East 23rd Street, would redirect water into adjacent threatened areas, including CB1.”
The groundwork created by engineering analyses, feasibility studies, and environmental reviews may become critically important, says Ms. Lappin, because, “when money becomes available from the State or the federal government, you have to be ready to move.” Ms. Lappin added, “if you’re not prepared, you’re never going to get funding.”
The next step in the struggle to secure for Lower Manhattan a fair share of preparedness funding may shift to Albany, where the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo is poised to announce allocations for as much as $25 million in support for studies of proposed storm-readiness measures.