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Resiliency Planning Post-Sandy: An Interview with Daniel Zarrilli, Part 2

Sandy NYC

Flooding from Superstorm Sandy, October 2012 (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Last week, Gotham Gazette sat down with Daniel Zarrilli, recently appointed director of the city's newly created Office of Recovery and Resiliency, to get a sense of the City's approach to resiliency and climate change. Zarrilli is now one of the three top officials in city government responsible for crafting and overseeing the de Blasio administration's Sandy recovery and climate resiliency planning efforts (along with Bill Goldstein, Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure; and Amy Peterson, director of the Housing Recovery Office). 

Zarrilli, a licensed engineer, is no stranger to the daunting challenge of preparing New York City for climate change: he was interim director of the Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability at the end of the Bloomberg administration.

Gotham Gazette sought to understand, first, how the new administration plans to utilize the extensive resiliency planning already put in motion by de Blasio's predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and, second, how the de Blasio administration views the future of the city's coastal communities as sea levels rise.

A third focus of the conversation is how the administration plans to work with local communities on the front line of climate change. Only time will tell, but the de Blasio team's purported commitment to community engagement might be what ultimately sets apart its approach to climate change.

In part one of the interview, Zarrilli discusses the City's general approach and where plans stand in terms of those inherited from the previous administration, the logistics of his office and the administration's other offices doing similar work, and the challenges involved in forecasting out 30, 50, and more years into the future.

Below, read Zarrilli's thoughts on buy-out programs, flood zones, community engagement in resiliency efforts, and more.

Gotham Gazette (GG) talks with Daniel Zarrilli (DZ), director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (Part 2 of 2)

Buy-outs and Flood Zones
GG: The City's just-released "One City, Rebuilding Together" report briefly mentions homeowners on Staten Island who may participate in a State buy-out program.

DZ: We've been cooperating with the State's buy-out program. The City doesn't have a buy-out program where we return land to nature. What we do have is an acquisition program where we can help people, through the Build it Back housing program, acquire their homes, and then ultimately we can rebuild, whether it's an elevated or otherwise more resilient home on that piece of property. So that's what we've been doing.
The state's been advancing three different buy-out areas in Staten Island, and we've been cooperating with them on how that's going to work.

GG: Would you consider expanding buy-out or acquisition as time goes on?
DZ: That question remains to be answered in the future. You could look at this across the city - there's 160,000 or so people who live in the Rockaways. We're not going to buy out the Rockaways. Our analysis shows that with coastal protection investments, with building investments, and with infrastructure investments, we can actually reduce that risk to what we think is a manageable level into the time horizon that we've laid out as our planning horizon.

GG: Do you think that the risk from rising sea levels is "manageable" in the city's Zone-A areas?
DZ: It's confusing terminology. Our evacuation maps used to have a "Zone A" on them. And the [FEMA] flood maps have an "A-Zone" on them.
We've done away with Zone A on the evacuation maps: instead of A, B and C, now we have 1 through 6. It used to just be based on the intensity of the storm that was coming towards the harbor. Now it's actually two variables: it's intensity and it's storm track, whether it's going northeast or northwest, it makes a big difference. The evacuation zones go 1 through 6...I just want to establish that first.

The A-zone is the 100-year floodplain as FEMA defines it on their flood insurance rate maps. We've been working with FEMA. There's things on [federal flood] insurance [for homeowners] where there's been big changes to the insurance program. Some of those were causing insurance to be unavailable and unaffordable. We've helped advocate and provide technical support, ultimately a new law that was passed through Congress to reduce the impacts from flood insurance, and make sure that it was available and affordable.

At the same time, we're advancing a number of mitigation efforts to buy down that risk in those zones. So we think, yes, that absolutely applies in the A-zone properties, in the 100-year floodplain, that we can make the right investments and it's incumbent upon us to make those investments, but we can make them to buy down that risk.

GG: In terms of working with developers in those areas...You're not going to be eventually cutting off areas of the city to development?
DZ: It's maybe counter-intuitive but the safest place to have been [during Sandy] on the Rockaway peninsula was right on the coast in the newest development, Arverne by the Sea...It really boils down to the fact that building codes work. And the newest buildings fare the best because they have these protections built into them. Our real challenge is about how do we incent building owners [of] older buildings to make upgrades, to get their boilers or their electrical equipment out of the basement, or to otherwise elevate their home in certain areas.

Amy Spitalnick, director of public affairs at the Office of Management and Budget: As part of the ["One City, Rebuilding Together"] report, we've expanded eligibility for acquisition for re-development to incentivize just that [building flood resistant homes] for homeowners who live in floodplains. We've expanded, on the recovery side, eligibility for a number of programs. This is one piece of that to help make sure that homeowners who were hit hard who would be interested in selling their home to the City and the State for re-development have that opportunity, no matter their income level. And then it can be built back in a more resilient way.

DZ: Over time, we can upgrade our entire city building stock that is at risk in these flood zones by doing exactly that: building better and newer structures where we may have older, more vulnerable structures currently.

GG: The program that you're describing is not the buy-out program we hear about?
DZ: [This] is different than the buy-out. When people talk about buyouts, they're generally talking about the New York State buy-out program, which is buying a home and turning it over to nature. That's one set of properties. It's only three neighborhoods in Staten Island. It's Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach. And the State's said very explicitly that it's shutting down the buy-out program after those three neighborhoods in the city.

Separately from that is the acquisition program where the City and the State are cooperating to acquire homes from homeowners that want to sell...That [damaged] home can be demolished and then the parcel can be disposed of and sold for new housing development that meets all the most recent building codes. It's probably elevated; it probably has all the features of the most modern home construction.

Spitalnick: That's run out of our housing recovery office as part of Build it Back..."Acquisition" is the city program, "Buy-out" is the state program.

DZ: But we are partnered with the State on the acquisition program.

GG: What is the overall time frame for the City's climate resiliency [SIRR] plan?
DZ: It's a ten-year plan from when it was released - it has milestones and metrics; an action plan with 2013 milestones, 2014 milestones, and 2020 milestones. But ultimately we expect to see the entire plan, all 257 initiatives, can be implemented in 10 years. Some of those are subject to available funding and we still have work to do on securing that funding, but that's the timeframe that we're talking about.

GG: For the lay person, is it correct to understand that the measures in the SIRR plan fully protect all NYC neighborhoods (whether they are in A-Zones or not) from the projected increase in sea and flooding levels?
DZ: We prefer to approach this from a risk management perspective, and our goal is to significantly buy down future risk. But we can't expect to fully eliminate risk.

That being said, the City conducted a comprehensive risk analysis of our entire 520-mile shoreline, looking at the likelihood of flooding and what that flooding would impact (building density, critical infrastructure, vulnerable populations, etc). Our approach is to invest first in areas of highest risk.

GG: A very basic question: will all structures in NYC eventually be compelled to storm-proof themselves because of new building codes?
DZ: All new structures will be required to build to the most recent codes, including the 16 new building code local laws which were passed by the City Council and adopted into the code. These codes will require resiliency and flood mitigation measures based on the best-available flood hazard information. New codes, however, do not apply to existing building, except in limited cases. So we will also work to encourage and incent existing buildings to make resiliency upgrades.

Communities and Community Engagement
GG: What is the status of Seaport City?
DZ: One of our initiatives in the Southern Manhattan chapter was to study a multi-purpose levee on the eastern edge of Southern Manhattan.

It's really a recognition of the risks in that part of Lower Manhattan, from roughly north of the Brooklyn Bridge all the way around the tip of the Battery. There's huge transportation infrastructure that's at risk, hospitals, vulnerable populations living in NYCHA properties and other low-income neighborhoods, economic activity of global importance - all of that combined - and really low-lying property that was built and filled right into the river at-grade [at the same level].

We learned from places like Arverne by the Sea or Battery Park City or other newer, modern developments that they can weather these types of events if they're built to the most modern standards and they're elevated.

We started thinking about different ways to provide that same level of protection in highly vulnerable neighborhoods, and landed on this concept which is tested globally: multi-purpose levees that can provide that sort of protection.

The alternative is potentially a 13 or 15 foot wall right on South Street...under the FDR, blocking people off from the waterfront. Not really in line with us trying to encourage waterfront access and use, just a big wall.

And so instead, if you can slope that protection in over a much longer run, you can build that in and make it slope...more naturally build it into the urban fabric. So that's what we're studying.

We commissioned the team that is looking at the engineering feasibility, does it even work? The environmental feasibility, can this be permitted? And third, is the financial feasibility: could a project like this potentially pay for itself with the created land that you've now developed with this multi-purpose levee?

We expect to be releasing the feasibility study results soon on that, and we'll have more to say on it when we do.

GG: We spoke with you last fall about community involvement in the City's resiliency planning process, specifically two advisory task forces: one made up of local elected officials and community board members, the other made up of representatives from community organizations. What has happened to them?
DZ: Yes, the CBO [community-based] task forces. I think it's really important for us to engage the local communities into this process. We very much want to do that. It's very much in line with the mayor's goals of bringing people into the emergency planning and resiliency planning in their own neighborhoods.

There will be more to come on this, but this is something that we absolutely want to do. We want to continue to engage local organizations in this planning and development process because the people that know their neighborhoods best are the people that live in their neighborhoods. There is more to come on that.

GG: So those task forces could essentially be re-activated?
DZ: It might not take the exact same form as we had in the last administration. We want to make it as effective as possible, and we might be re-thinking some things, but we absolutely want to engage with local organizations.

GG: Is this connected to the City's statement [in "One City, Rebuilding Together"] that they want to engage local communities as they develop the next iteration of PlaNYC?
DZ: It has to be. It can't be disconnected. We're planning and moving forward initiatives, but, at the same time, we're thinking about how we want the next plan update to work by April, 2015.

GG: That's soon.
DZ: It is soon. We'll be having those conversations out in the affected areas.
GG: Are the Climate Change Task Force and the Panel both fully in effect as they were under Mayor Bloomberg?
DZ: Yes. All the members of those serve at the pleasure of the mayor. We're working through the mechanics of those bodies. The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) is as active as ever and is looking towards their next work [the Panel will be releasing an updated analysis of climate change data and what it means for New York City later this year].

The Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which is city agencies as well as state, and private infrastructure providers, is really hungry for the data that's coming out of NPCC in order to apply that to their own capital decision-making process.

GG: A question on PlaNYC and sustainability: Mayor Bloomberg was a major proponent of expanding the city's use of natural gas. Does Mayor de Blasio have a position on the use of natural gas vis a vis renewables? What's the energy plan for the city?
DZ: The Mayor in his platform was very clear that we're going to be exploring and maximizing our use of renewables. We have an existing gas infrastructure and we want to make sure it's as safe as possible for all our residents in the city, but we're going to be exploring our expansion of renewable sources in any way we can.

GG: Will that be outlined in PlaNYC in more detail?
DZ: We don't have an exact outline on what the April 2015 update looks like, but I'd be shocked if energy is not a major component of the efforts of PlaNYC going forward.

GG: The State is going through an energy policy planning process in which the public has been able to testify. Would you be coordinating with the State on that?
DZ: We talk to the State quite a bit on these issues, and I see no reason why that wouldn't continue.

[This was the second part of our two-part interview with Daniel Zarrilli - read part one here]

by Sarah Crean for Gotham Gazette


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