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A New Plan to Rebuild a Resilient Red Hook, Block by Block

By Nikhita Venugopal | October 28, 2016 11:06am | Updated on October 31, 2016 8:39am
 According to BASF, the Model Block is a method of urban planning that can be used to preserve the neighborhood's character while also creating resiliency against coastal flooding.
According to BASF, the Model Block is a method of urban planning that can be used to preserve the neighborhood's character while also creating resiliency against coastal flooding.
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Image source: Terreform ONE

RED HOOK — Since Hurricane Sandy devastated Red Hook four years ago, city and federal agencies, private companies, nonprofits and local groups have been working on different projects to keep the neighborhood safe from future storms — but for one advocate, the answer starts with a single model block.

"We know that change is coming," Alexandros Washburn, a Red Hook resident and professor of urban design at Stevens Institute of Technology said in a recent interview. "But it has to be on our terms."

Washburn and others are promoting a "model block" concept, a community-driven blueprint for urban planning that would preserve the character of the neighborhood and incorporate flood protection.

"People have been trying to put things in Red Hook forever," said Washburn, who previously served as the city's chief urban designer under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "They thought that Red Hook in the past was a weak neighborhood."

The "model block" is among five interconnected ideas compiled in a recent report from German chemical company BASF:

• Network of green corridors with features such as bioswales, bike paths and community gardens 

• Coastal recreational parks with permanent and temporary barriers to protect from storm surges

• A job training center

• Complete renovation to New York City Housing Authority's Red Hook Houses to make it more energy efficient and flood resistant

The report asked the question, "Can Red Hook provide a model for urban resilience?"

The white paper was published by BASF earlier this year after workshops, meetings and a summit involving Red Hook residents, on urban solutions for neighborhoods in coastal cities. The company, along with Washburn and architecture firm Terreform One, also took part in a panel discussion on the report last week.

"By incorporating the latest building technology from BASF into Red Hook’s existing building stock, the model block would serve as a best practices blueprint for coastal cities around the globe, demonstrating how smart design can affordably preserve the character of a neighborhood and contribute to its resiliency and sustainability," the report said.

"Plans for the model block would then be shared with area landowners and developers, who could adapt the best practices to meet their own needs."

In September, global engineering firm AECOM put forward a grand vision for a redeveloped Red Hook that would include waterfront skyscrapers and a subway link to lower Manhattan. AECOM's plan outlined three scenarios in which developers would add between 25 to 45 million square feet of new development to the neighborhood as well as coastal protection for flood-prone areas.

But Washburn saw the plan as a "top-down" approach that failed to consult the community or take its needs into account. The "model block," by comparison will be a "bottom-up" way of planning that takes local ideas into consideration. 

But "what it looks like, the shape it takes, has to reflect the policy and value of our community" — a form of planning that harkens back to the teachings of activist Jane Jacobs, Washburn said. 

Red Hook was almost entirely submerged by several feet of water when the hurricane hit in October 2012. Located in Zone A of the evacuation zone, much of the neighborhood was without power, heat or phone service for several days to months.

In the four years since the superstorm, the city has proposed the concept of a $100 million flood protection system for Red Hook and is currently studying its feasibility. Three early-stage maps offer a glimpse of the system's area of protection, though no specific details or maps have been provided as of yet.

At NYCHA's Red Hook Houses, the city is looking for a developer to build a financially self-sustaining heat and power generating system for the public housing project. The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] has allocated $438 million for work on NYCHA buildings damaged by Sandy.

During Sandy, the storm surge caused widespread flooding and nearly all ground-floor buildings were required to strip out saturated walls to get rid of the mold.

Under tentative plans, the model block would be designed with mixed-use buildings to preserve affordable housing, light manufacturing and public green space. Residential units would be located on upper floors while the ground floor would be used for workshops or micro-retail, Washburn said. 

Moving residences above the flood elevation level will protect locals' valuable possessions. "It's much easier to either move or replace a saw then it is to move or replace a lifetime of your home's belongings," Washburn said.

FEMA recently agreed to revise the city's flood maps after post-Sandy maps put 35,000 more homes and buildings in at-risk areas.

Doug Brown, a sustainability manager at BASF, added that the block would key into an old, yet "simple idea of people being able to walk downstairs to work and back, and eliminate the commute,” he said during the panel discussion at Center for Architecture last week.

An official plan for the model block does not exist yet, but Washburn is working to organize local meetings to engage the community and seek their input for a proposal that can be presented to the Department of City Planning.

"We've come to realize since Sandy that part of resilience is physical," he said. "But the larger part of resilience is social."