“Devastated” is the word often used to describe the Rockaway Peninsula in the months following Hurricane Sandy, and with good reason. The 11-mile spit of low-lying land that separates Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean was one of the hardest hit areas in New York City. In the Rockaway community of Breezy Point, 135 homes burned to the ground. The beach at Fort Tilden was so badly damaged that it has yet to reopen. And residents of Rockaway – where the bay and the ocean met – lost their boardwalk, their subway connection to the rest of the city and their power for nearly a month.
Amid this devastation, though, was one of Hurricane Sandy’s great resilience stories.
Arverne By The Sea, the largest development project on the Rockaway Peninsula since Robert Moses built the area’s public housing complexes, survived the storm all but unscathed.
“Over 90 percent of the project weathered the storm flawlessly,” says Gerry Romski, the development’s project executive. “There was some flooding in a bayside area that was tied into an old storm drain system, but that was it. Our grocery store opened three days after the storm and was the only one open on the peninsula for six months. Our electric was back on as soon as crews got out there.”
The development’s ability to manage Sandy’s wind and water had very little to do with good luck and much more to do with thoughtful planning and a building process that incorporated resilient and storm-resistant designs from the start.
“Looking back,” says Romski, “starting from scratch – having to put in all new infrastructure, new wastewater systems, new storm runoff drains, new electric – proved essential to our durability.”
The development sits on 172 acres of land that runs east to west from Beach 60th Street to Beach 81st Street. The majority is oceanfront, but as the lot moves west it doglegs north towards the peninsula’s bayside.
Until Arverne’s developers acquired the land in 2001, it was city-owned. Over the years, it was coveted by big name developers like Forest City Ratner (for a residential project in the late 1980s) and Donald Trump (for a casino to rival Atlantic City’s in the early 1990s), according to Romski.
In the late 1990s, New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development worked with the community to craft a plan for middle-income housing on the site. Arverne By The Sea, a project co-sponsored by the Beechwood Organization and the Benjamin Companies, was one of eight proposals submitted after an RFP. Romski believes Arverne’s strong relationship to the nearby A-train stop at Beach 67th Street, its two-family, rental-friendly designs, and its storm-resistance measures all helped carry the day.
“During the planning, rising sea level and category one and two hurricanes were factored in,” says Romski. “We had a plan developed to deal with storm surge. The boardwalk was built to absorb energy, and we built up dunes along all of the oceanfront lots.”
“We also raised the grade substantially, nearly five feet.” he says. “We added something like half a million yards of fill and then built all new infrastructure. New roads with new storm-water drains, storm-water systems at each lot, underground electric lines, waterproof transformers.”
The units – condos that start at $395,000, as well as two-family homes, which start at $580,000 and go up to just over $1 million – were constructed with storms in mind, too. There are concrete slab foundations, wooden pilings that raise the first floor an additional three feet and hurricane-grade windows.
Despite how well the development withstood the storm, Hurricane Sandy did make an impact on the project. When asked if the storm affected sales, Romski replies, “I can’t say that it hasn’t, but we continue to sell units. Certainly we saw a minor reduction after the storm, but, see, it’s coming back.”
To date, 1,400 of the planned 2,300 units are complete, as is the 55,000-square-foot supermarket and a great deal of planned retail space. A YMCA sponsored by the developers will open on Valentine’s Day. An 800-seat charter school that was part of the original design has been operating in a nearby and recently closed parochial school. It has yet to establish a permanent site.
Still, the vast majority of this development sits right on the Atlantic Ocean, only a few feet above sea level. When asked about the long-term future of the project, given predictions of rising sea levels and more intense storms, Romski says, “The simple answer is to look at the new preliminary flood zone maps. If you look, most of Arverne is out of the 100-year flood zone. We are already building higher than the design flood elevation. We’re well positioned for the future.”
“But,” he adds, “there are no guarantees in life.”
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