The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the process of revising flood maps and construction recommendations for the Jersey City-Hoboken region – and city planners and local officials don’t like what they see.
According to a FEMA spokesman, these flood maps and building advisories were already in the works prior to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated Hudson County and parts of New York last fall, but were released in draft form early so that cities in the area can begin to protect themselves from similar storms in the future.
These maps and guidelines have yet to be finalized and adopted by the agency. But if approved in their current draft, city planners and local officials say they will radically change the urban landscape in a way that could hurt commerce and alienate residents and customers.
“The problem,” said Jersey City Planning Director Robert Cotter, “is the base flood elevations [for our area] have been raised by the new FEMA maps.”
Older flood maps for Jersey City and Hoboken allowed for ground floor commercial and residential space. It appears the new maps will advise against such architectural designs and will recommend that buildings be elevated to avoid flooding from future hurricanes.
“Depending on the area, the new regs are now saying you have to build…seven or eight feet up in the air,” said Cotter. “What it does is, it really challenges the retail space, because there’s a lack of communication with pedestrians down below [on the sidewalk]. In SoHo, where there’re the old warehouses, every one of those buildings that has a loading dock on the ground level and commercial space three or four feet above the sidewalk, you’ll see that none of those spaces is retail.”
‘It’s a different world we’re living in now.’ – Bill Sheehan
Forcing architects and developers to elevate the lowest floors, Cotter said, means retail space would be lifted off the ground, out of reach for pedestrians and consumers.
“If you’re selling a sweater or a pair of shoes, you have to be at [ground] level. The customer has to be able to see the store, look at the merchandise through a glass window, and walk in,” said Cotter. “Psychologically, customers won’t take the trip up a flight of stairs.”
Retail stores, he noted, would be very hesitant to sign leases in buildings where the commercial space is elevated, which could make developers less interested in building in places like Jersey City and Hoboken.
The new recommendations – which FEMA spokesman Darrel Habisch emphasized are not requirements – wouldn’t affect any development that has already been completed, any development that has already broken ground, or any project that has already received its building permits. But the recommendations will likely impact projects that are currently in their planning stages. And new buildings that don’t comply with the new FEMA standards won’t be eligible for federal flood insurance in the wake of a damaging weather event like Sandy.
“This could be devastating to retail,” said Cotter.
Floodgates v. waterproofing
He’s not the only one who’s concerned. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has expressed her own concerns to Gov. Chris Christie. Specifically, Zimmer said the new regulations may affect any plans for development on NJ Transit property along Hoboken’s southern border.
Zimmer, Cotter, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, and Brandy Forbes, director of Planning and Community Development in Hoboken, recently met in Trenton with officials from FEMA, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the state Department of Community Affairs to see if the new guidelines can be modified and adapted to fit urban communities.
Zimmer has recommended a controversial plan to build a system of federally-funded flood walls around Hoboken to protect the mile-square city from another devastating storm like Sandy. Since she first made this recommendation several weeks ago in her State of the City address, Zimmer’s proposal has been praised by some, criticized by others.
“Floodgates do their job, up to a point. But there’s no way of predicting what the next storm is going to bring,” said Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan last week. Sheehan is part of the national Riverkeeper environmental organization, and lives in Secaucus.
He added, “Let’s say you build a 12-foot wall around Staten Island. That can potentially keep the water out – unless the surge is higher than 12 feet. Then the water would pour over the wall and it wouldn’t be able to get out. Then they’d have to bring in pumps to pump it all out.”
He pointed to Moonachie and Little Ferry – two towns that rely on flood gates to protect them – as communities that suffered this type of fate during Sandy.
Cotter has his own recommendations.
“One of the solutions we’re suggesting is you have sort of ‘sacrificial space’ that would be at sidewalk level, but might require customers to go up a flight of stairs [inside] to get to the retail and merchandise,” he said. “Another option is you make your retail or restaurant space very water resistant. You could build it out [of something other than] sheet rock, and you put up concrete, or stucco, or tiles.”
At least two businesses in Jersey City on Grand Street are built this way, said Cotter, and even though they were hit during Hurricane Sandy, they were able to reopen faster than many other businesses were not similarly waterproofed.
Riverkeeper: Retreat now
The best solution, according to Sheehan, is also the one that is, perhaps, the least popular.
When asked what flood-prone communities should do to better protect property, he said, “Retreat. It’s the one word that no one is throwing around out there. It’s a different world we’re living in now.”
He added, “According to Rutgers University, the average tide level is going up over the next 50 years. The areas that flooded during the big storm are just going to keep flooding.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.