Resilient Cities

Massive New Storm-Protection Barrier Funded for Lower Manhattan

“The Big U,” one of the winners of the Rebuild by Design contest. Photo credit: THE BIG TEAM / Rebuild by Design

The New York Metropolitan area will soon see a massive, $335 million berm along Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a $60 million living breakwater along Staten Island’s South Shore, a $20 million study of protecting the food distribution center in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point and a $125 million effort to protect north south waterways and the Mill River in Southern Nassau County.

Selected as winners of the Department of Housing and Urban Development-backed Rebuild by Design contest, the proposals will receive nearly one billion from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program to move into an implementation phase. The winners from New Jersey, which will receive $380 million, will be announced this afternoon.

Such significant financial support from the federal government not only marks a notable shift in the way HUD distributes disaster relief funds, it also establishes a new and powerful role for design competitions in the United States.

Gallery: Rebuild by Design

Previously, contests like Green NOLA — which was put on by Global Green USA after Hurricane Katrina and received significant national attention because the actor Brad Pitt was closely involved — took a similar approach to disaster recovery but lacked the backing of the federal government, as well as the funding and implementation support that is a central component of the Rebuild by Design contest. With nearly $1 billion in backing, Rebuild by Design is by far the largest contest of its kind in the nation’s history.

The winning projects based in New Jersey will receive $380 million in implementation funding. Those targeting New York State will receive $185 million, and the projects focused on New York City will receive $355 million. (Staten Island’s project funding will come out of the pot for New York State).

Holly Leicht, who as the New York and New Jersey Regional Administrator for HUD oversaw Rebuild by Design, said, “The implementation is really critical. This is really the end of the beginning. The rubber hits the road now.”

Asked why HUD decided to hold the competition, she told Next City, “There were two driving factors: The first was an affirmative decision that Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery money should be spent, in part, not just on immediate recovery, but also on long-term future resilience. Because there was an emphasis on that, it was immediately felt that this should be done in a far-reaching way to bring in innovative ideas.”

“The second driving fact is that government does not have all the answers. And HUD Secretary [Shaun] Donovan is very committed to get the most forward-looking, creative thinking in the world on resilience. And it would be hard to argue that other places — particularly in regard to water vulnerability — are not ahead of us. That international focus, we wanted to tap into that.”

Their timelines for completion have not been set, but at a press conference today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promised the audience that work would begin as soon as possible and continue until the job was done. “Over four or five years, you’ll see a hugely different physical reality in this city,” he said.
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Despite the excitement surrounding these projects, there is some evidence that design contests do not always produce the most popular results. An Ohio State University study of “80 buildings recognized as architectural masterpieces found that only three resulted from design competitions — and in one of the three a losing design was recognized as the masterpiece.”

Additionally, there are some in the design community who find the whole premise of competitions problematic. David Airey, a Northern Ireland-based graphic designer, maintains a website called No! Spec, which argues that speculative work and spec-based design competitions are unethical.

“The designers in essence work free of charge and with an often falsely advertised, overinflated promise for future employment; or are given other insufficient forms of compensation,” the website states. “Usually these glorified prizes or ‘carrots’ appear tantalizing for creative communicators just starting out, ending with encouraging examples like ‘good for your portfolio’ or ‘gain recognition.’ The reality is that they often yield little extra work, profit or referrals. Moreover, designers must often sign a contract unwittingly waiving their valuable creative rights and ownership of their work to the ones promoting this system.”

Leicht, however, sees the unfunded projects that are a byproduct of the competition as a boon to the larger conversation around rebuilding and resiliency. “If you were only doing funding for projects that were going to be funded, you’d ended up with a smaller universe of proposals,” she said. “This way, all of the research from the original 150 entries is now part of the conversation. Casting such a wide net at the outset, even if you’re not funding them all, all of the ideas have a life of their own.”

Leicht also sees design competitions as an increasingly significant part of the federal grant mechanism.

“I think HUD would like to see more contests like Rebuild by Design,” she said. “But the onus is really on the federal government and the grantees to shift from creative brainstorming to implementation. If congress and communities see that this translates into real projects that benefit communities, then that will hopefully become a model.”

“We’re focused on design competitions that produce results,” she added, “not just plans that sit on shelves.”

Update: At 3:30 this afternoon, HUD announced the winning New Jersey projects. For the Garden State, $230 million will go into creating a “resiliency district” in Hoboken, with the hopes of incentivizing public-private financing for further enhancements to the area, and $150 million will go towards wetland restoration in the Meadowlands.

Resilient Cities is made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b

Tags: new yorkresilient citieshurricane sandybill de blasionew jerseyrebuild by designcontest