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New Jersey By Design: Five Visionary Projects for Rebuilding After Sandy

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to make sure that Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts are not just focused on short-term goals.

That’s why HUD is holding a competition called Rebuild by Design that it hopes not only will rebuild the areas damaged by the October 2012 storm, but also will help those areas become both more resilient in the face of future storms and rising sea levels and more sustainable economically and environmentally.

RBD was announced by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan in June 2013. Winners of the competition will be eligible for Sandy-related Community Development Block Grants, though actual funding has not been set aside. Rebuild by Design officials have said funding decisions will not be made until the end of the competition.

The competition is taking place in four stages, which began with an initial study of the larger region that was narrowed down to more specific proposals now being turned into master plans and designs for specific projects for places as diverse as Hoboken and the Connecticut coastline.

Initially, more than 140 teams entered the competition. Ten teams were chosen for the second round and submitted 41 “design opportunities,” or general concepts for various regions. For the third round, Donovan selected one option from each team in November, and each team is now moving forward with detailed designs and master plans.

The planning and design work being done by the teams, which include architects, designers, academics, and others, is being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Community Foundation of New Jersey, and other nonprofits. Each participating team was given $100,000 for round two and another $100,000 to fund round-three work. The deadline for phase three plans is the end of March.

'A Culture of Resiliency'

The goal is to build a “culture of resiliency” that addresses current and future climate and ocean conditions, Rebuild by Design co-chairman Henk Ovink said, while also using contemporary design and engineering approaches to create economic opportunities in the Sandy-affected region.

Ovink, who has served as director general of Spatial Planning and Water Affairs for the Dutch government, was asked by Donovan to oversee the competition because of the Netherlands’ experience with flooding and water-control issues. Nearly 60 percent of the Netherlands is prone to flooding, he said during a press briefing recently, which is why the Dutch have created a multidisciplinary approach to addressing flood risk that takes into account reduction of risk and growth. The intent is to bring many disciplines --architecture, design and planning, but also environmentalists, and business groups -- together so that the goal is not just on protecting economic assets or safeguarding housing. Bringing everyone to the table, he said, will allow all of the concerns -- the immediate danger to human life and economic stability, the impact that development has on these dangers, and the expected effects of seal-level rise -- to be addressed.

Ovink and HUD officials said they are hoping for projects that both use and alter existing landscapes in ways to minimize the need for extensive flood walls, while at the same time using other assets -- boardwalks, streetscapes, urban gardens and new green designs -- to reduce storm surges and control water when it does breach the coastline.

The New Jersey Five

Of the final 10 teams, five are working on New Jersey projects that focus on the Shore, Hoboken, and the Meadowlands:

  • Coastal Commercial Financing, HR&A Advisors, Inc. with Cooper, Robertson & Partners

  • New Meadowlands: Productive City and Regional Park, MIT CAU/ZUS/Urbanisten

  • The Hoboken Plan, OMA Team

  • Resilience and the Beach, Sasaki/Rutgers/Arup

  • Designing with Nature for the Future of the Mid-Atlantic Coast, WXY/West 8

Five other teams are focusing on Manhattan; the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx; Staten Island; Nassau County, NY.; and southern Bridgeport in Connecticut.

The teams have been working with public officials and community members in each region and have started holding public meetings not only to present their preliminary findings to residents and other stakeholders, but also to gain feedback from residents.

None of the teams were ready to offer cost estimates for their projects. They have until March to develop final drawings and plans, which will then be reviewed by a panel of judges that will include Donovan; several academics focused on environmental and design issues; and representatives from the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Urban Land Institute, and the American Institute of Architects. A recommendation will then be forwarded to Donovan, who will make the final decision.. The winning project will be eligible for Community Development Block Grant funding, though the final amount of the award has not been determined.

While one project will be selected, Ovink said that all 10 plans will be available, and local, state, and federal officials will be able to continue exploring whether they can be put into practice.

What follows are descriptions of the five New Jersey teams and their goals:

Coastal Commercial Financing : Asbury Park

HR&A – along with Cooper, Robertson & Partners; Grimshaw Architects; Alamo Architects; Langan Engineering; W Architecture; Hargreaves Associates; and Urban Green Council – is working on a design that will look to develop a new economic model for the Jersey Shore. The idea is to leverage rebuilding money to both create physical defenses and put in place better financing models that can help pay for the defenses and needed upgrades as the rebuilding effort moves forward.

Focusing on Asbury Park, which has 200,000 square feet of commercial, retail and entertainment, the team is looking for ways to generate more revenue for local businesses so that they can pay for the improvements that are needed.

The HR&A plan will create a set of design options and strategies that the city and the business community can use to protect themselves from future storms. And it also will seek ways to help the city expand its prime business season beyond the traditional three-month tourist season.

HR&A partner Jamie Torres Springer said his team’s plan is likely to have four components:

  • Building more organizational capacity for merchants, which could include expanding existing merchants associations and official business districts or creating new ones to ensure that there are officials in place dedicated specifically to building business and to making sure that businesses are ready for future weather events.

  • Building physical defense systems -- which could take the form of new floodgates; installation of back-flow preventers to keep sewers from backing up; and elevating mechanical operations like heating and air-conditioning, computers, and other systems.

  • Creating new flood-prevention systems, which could include walls and hardened edges or other efforts, to prevent Deal Lake and Wesley Lake from flooding the city from the north and west.

  • Growing the retail economy and expanding it into the fall and winter months so that there is more money available to businesses to keep them viable and to help them pay for needed improvements.

The plan is currently in the early stages. Final details, including cost estimates, are not expected before March, but Springer and HR&A Director Ryan LeVasseur both said that there are many “opportunities for investment” in the city that build on the “rebirth along the waterfront” and along Cookman Avenue and the historic downtown.

“There is a great opportunity to leverage the recent (real estate) investments to strengthen the town’s overall economy,” LeVasseur said. “This is about getting people back to the Shore and getting people back more often in times when it is not the height of beach season. That will help make it more affordable to be more resilient.”

“This is something that will be important across the region,” Springer said. “If you are standing still, you are only trying to protect what you have. But if you are expanding, there are a lot of interesting design ideas and opportunities.”

New Meadowlands: Productive City and Regional Park

Kobi Ruthenberg, a design associate with the Center for Advanced Urbanism at MIT, says the Meadlowlands presents both a challenge and a unique opportunity for residential and commercial growth.

His team -- a partnership of MIT CAU and the European design firms Zus and Urbanisten -- is seeking to create a new master plan for the area, which would include a regional park that could serve as the Meadowlands’ central focus and a new mixed-use housing and commercial developments.

“The Meadowlands is very low, it is historically marshland, and it floods regularly without storms, so that when storms hit it is extremely vulnerable,” said Ruthenberg, the project leader. This is of significant concern, he said, because the region is home to “vital networks,” such as mass-transit and utilities infrastructure that are “crucial for the region.”

“That is why there is a lot at stake in terms of utility and infrastructure companies,” he said.

In addition, the region is badly contaminated because of its history as an industrial hub. Storm surges and more general flooding exacerbate this, because they dredge up the pollutants and cause them to spread.

That is why any plan for the Meadlowlands has to do more than prevent floods. The MIT team is looking at the problems of the Meadowlands through four lenses: development and economic development, ecology and water issues, infrastructure and transportation, and energy and utilities.

“Through these lenses, we are trying to maximize the potential of the Meadowlands as an urban area,” he said. “Instead of people thinking of it as a backyard, as a bad place, we are trying to change that and have them look at this as an asset, as a regional park and as a place to live next to and use for recreational purposes.”

Central to this vision, he said, is an expanded park concept, which would tie existing recreational areas together and create new recreational opportunities, but requires the clean up of polluted properties. How this will take place, Ruthenberg said, is under discussion.

“We are hoping it can transform into a real park and be programmed with civic functions,” he said. “But to do that, we need to increase accessibility and reduce the pollution. That could include local, site-specific work that needs to be done on each polluted site, and the development of a regional idea of how pollution can be reduced through manipulation of water dynamics.”

At the moment, he said, there is minimal control of water flow, which means that existing businesses and residents remain threatened and lessens the potential for future development.

The team is looking at how water flows in the greater Meadowlands region -- which includes much of the eastern half of Bergen County and parts of Hudson County. One effort include looking at ways that different kinds of plants and other vegetation might absorb and redirect water and act as filters to remove pollutants, he said.

Cleaning the water and controlling its flow will allow for development of a larger park area and the potential for commercial and residential development along its boundaries. The specific outlines of the park have not been drawn and the locations for development have not yet been identified, he said.

“Industry will have and still has a large part” in the region’s future, he said. “The location and its proximity to Manhattan and to the New Jersey ports are crucial to the way goods move in the region.”

But residential development should also be a key component in a “more compact and more flexible” design that allows “residential and industrial uses to mix.” The goal is to create a more vibrant and economically diverse region that can sustain itself and afford the changes that will be necessary into the future.

“We are interested in productive landscapes and productive districts where you can imagine residential and light industry and warehousing in the same area,” he said.

The Hoboken Plan

The goal for Hoboken is resilience, according to a design team looking to protect Hoboken from future flooding. With sea levels rising, the two-square-mile city is expected to remain susceptible to flooding, which is why a team of designers and engineers led by Netherlands-based OMA is crafting a multipart master plan to help protect the city’s 50,000 residents and important regional facilities, using proven Dutch techniques.

The OMA team, which also includes Royal HaskoningDHV, Balmori Associates, and HR&A Advisors, chose Hoboken because it presented an intersection of important factors, said Daniel Pittman, lead designer for OMA on the project: It is prone to flooding, is densely populated, is loaded with regional assets like hospitals, schools and transit hubs, and also offers redevelopment potential.

“Our proposal looks at Hoboken as a whole city,” Pittman said, “and asks ‘what is the approach you can take to provide resilience on a city-wide scale.’”

Much of Hoboken was under water during and immediately after superstorm Sandy. That is because of the city’s geography, Pittman said. Hoboken was an island surrounded by marshland into the 1800s, when much of it was filled and eventually paved over and the city, a third of which is water, sits at sea level.

“That is the base condition and why you have these surges, the tidal and ocean flooding comes in from north and south and why flash flooding is concentrated in former marsh area,” he said.

The issue, Pittman said, is that the water comes into the city much more quickly than it can be discharged. So the approach OMA is using for the master plan, which was developed through discussions with local officials, is four-pronged, he said: Resist the water by creating natural or man-made sea walls; delay the movement of flood waters by redirection or absorption; store flood waters; and discharge the water.

The First Prong

The resistance prong will require floodwalls at the two main breach points, Weehawken Cove and Hoboken Station, though the city can make use of some of its existing infrastructure, Pittman said.

The redevelopment of Hoboken Station at the southern end of the city into a hardened, flood-resistance facility is a key element of the plan, Pittman said. The station would work with the nearby coastline, which would be built up and landscaped, to repel rising floodwaters and prevent a breach to the south.

To the north, redevelopment of parkland along Weehawken Cove could be used as a natural floodwall, with higher, landscaped elevations along the water to prevent a breach there.

The second prong would require both city and local residents to engage in smaller-scale projects that could slow rainwater, including construction of gardens designed to absorb rainwater or the use of so-called green roofs, which absorb some water and slow its runoff and delays its pooling in the streets.

The third prong builds upon this by creating a green belt around the city on unused train tracks. The belt would both direct water away from residential areas and act as storage until storms pass, he said.

In addition, the city could redesign underground parking and other facilities to serve as storage for water when major storms hit. It also could build water storage under its parkland and encourage local residents to put in place their own storage strategies.

Taken together, these efforts would be designed to slow the flow of water and allow for it to be pumped back into the river once storms pass, and they will be included in a master plan that it could be implemented over time and with the hope that the stakeholders – the residents and businesses -- will make enough small changes to alleviate the need for massive infrastructure investment, he said.

“The point is there are things that can be done on many different scales,” he said. “And because of that, you can get to that final level of resiliency in a more efficient way.”

The Hoboken proposal has been mentioned in relation to the current scandal concerning allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Sandy aid was withheld from the city due to her lack of support of a downtown redevelopment project. Zimmer has expressed support for the Rebuild by Design effort, but has questioned whether the project will ultimately be supported by the Christie administration. While the competition is a federal effort, a HUD spokesman told the Associated Press that state officials would have some say over what projects move forward.

Jersey Shore: Resilience and the Beach

There is more than one Jersey Shore. That is the approach that the Sasaki team is taking to its resiliency plan for the state’s coastal regions.

Sasaki, an international planning and design firm based in Massachusetts, is working with the Arup engineering firm and the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Science to develop a multipart plan for the Jersey Shore focusing on the Raritan Bay area at the north, Asbury Park in the center of the state, and the Barnegat Peninsula and Toms River in the south.

The beach and coastal typologies are not uniform, said Brie Hensold, a senior associate with Sasaki and project manager for the team, so the team decided it was important to consider various scenarios.

To the north, the focus is on the towns of Union Beach and Keansburg, which were flooded by both surges from the Raritan Bay and the overflow of neighboring creeks. The communities border Natco Lake, a manmade inland lake that the Sasaki team thinks can be the centerpiece of a flood-mitigation plan that also expands recreational opportunities for both communities. The plan involves potentially “reshaping” the bay coastline of both towns to lessen the potential for ocean surges.

The design also would turn the lake area into a fully functioning recreational area, with trails and boat access, Hensold said. The lake currently is underused, she said, and “part of the plan is to better integrate it” into the life of both communities.

The plan for Asbury Park also involves using several inland lakes to capture and store runoff, while also calling for rethinking the city’s boardwalk and making use of relatively wide local streets to manage water flow, Hensold said.

The lakes – Deal and Wesley – have a “very hard edge,” she said, meaning that the water meets the land without much to slow it should the lakes overflow. The team is considering ways, potentially using vegetation and landscaping, to soften that edge. The boardwalk’s edge, which runs in a straight line, could be altered and integrated with the dunes. The streets could be pitched differently and landscaped in a way to both slow water runoff and direct water to areas where it could be stored, she said.

As for the barrier islands -- in this case a region encompassing Toms River, Berkeley Township, Seaside Heights and Park and some of the smaller towns in the area -- Sasaki is exploring how the region’s tourism industry could be expanded geographically to include some of the inland communities.

“There is a lot of development on the barrier islands, a lot of second homes and they have a lot of different characteristics,” Hensold said. “And (the barrier islands are) tied to the tourism industry, which is important for local economy but also has an effect on state economy.”

Extremely Vulnerable

The region, however, has “extreme vulnerability to sea level rise,” she said. “People need to address this, so we are looking to diversity the tourism industry in that area and create more opportunity for tourism inland.”

Part of the plan will include finding potential opportunities for inland recreation (for trails, camping and boating, among other possibilities) and new transportation networks (bus rapid transit, water taxis, aerial trams) to connect the region to the barrier islands and the rest of the state.

“The beach is core to Jersey Shore culture, a central part, and that doesn’t go away, but we are looking at a more diverse set of options,” she said.

Offshore: Designing with Nature for the Future of the Mid-Atlantic Coast

A group of designers looking at the future of the coastline stretching from Rhode Island to the Delaware Bay is wondering if it is time for a new, manmade barrier reef to be built 10 miles out from the shoreline.

The designers, engineers, architects, and scientists with the WXY/West 8 team are investigating what they call a “big-scale” regional solution that would be consistent with the natural landscape while allowing for ecosystem restoration and other potential uses.

Claire Weisz -- an architect with WXY and spokesperson for a team that also includes West 8, the Stevens Institute of Technology, Arcadis, Verisk, AIR and a number of other experts -- said the purpose is “to understand if there is a regional solution that can have economic benefits both large and small.”

“New Jersey is particularly affected by storms and rising water, rising sea levels, because of its configuration,” Weis said. “The work we have been doing and will continue to do is to see if there is a larger-scale design solution that can lower the surge levels across the board.”

The manmade reef would be designed for multiple uses or “opportunities,” she said. The team is looking into how its impact on water flow and the tides might affect boating and other recreational uses, whether it could result in ecosystem renewal, and if it could house alternative energy generators like wind turbines. It would not be visible from the beach.

“The design approach is always to look at how everything can do more than one thing,” she said.

While the effort is a mult-state one, the impact on New Jersey would be immense, she said.

“To put it bluntly, New Jersey has a particularly vulnerable coastline with many complexities,” she said, adding that the “the exposure is significant” and is compounded by the angle of the shoreline.

“There is a huge amount of water exposure and wind and tides and everything else that affects the New Jersey shoreline, that also makes it the Jersey coast,” she said. “But there is a lot of risk and vulnerability.”

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