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After Sandy, how smart is ‘smart growth?’

Yonkers Waterfront Hudson River

A view of the Yonkers waterfront.

From Yonkers to Ossining, Westchester developers are moving ahead this winter with plans to redevelop vacant industrial sites on the Hudson River for residential and retail uses. But is “smart growth” – as planners call the movement to redevelop properties near mass transit and existing infrastructure as high-density neighborhoods supported by new retail and commercial enterprise – looking as smart on the riverfront in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?

Amid the flood stories swapped, that question hovered over discussions at a recent daylong presentation in Peekskill on revitalizing Hudson riverfronts in an era of global climate change. An event sponsor, Scenic Hudson Inc., in 2010 published “Revitalizing Hudson Riverfronts,” a report recommending conservation and development strategies for river communities that seems more urgent and timely as New York recovers and rebuilds from the late October disaster.

Steve Rosenberg, senior vice president of Scenic Hudson, said this post-Sandy period is “an opportunity to make it right” in development on the riverfront, which he said New York state should view as “the goose that laid the golden egg.” Making it right will require a change in thinking, he said

“We have to start thinking like we’re amphibians, perhaps,” Rosenberg said, and be prepared to “get wet once in a while” as sea levels rise and more frequent and severe flooding occurs with global warming.

Rising sea levels and more intense storm events will create “amphibious zones” in 82 Hudson River communities with about 250,000 riverfront properties, said Sacha Spector, Scenic Hudson’s director of conservation science.

Storm surges, which caused deaths and billions of dollars in property damage when Sandy struck the metropolitan region, “will be riding on top of a higher ocean” and inflict wider flood damage in coming decades, she said.

In Ossining, village planner Valerie Monastra said she has seen a change in Westchester’s planning and development community in the wake of Sandy.

“Clearly in my personal opinion it seems to have had an effect on the way people are looking at waterfront development and waterfront design,” she said. “The last thing we want is to construct waterfront development that continually has flooding issues.”

Most developers are willing to pay “slightly more” in construction costs “because they themselves don’t want to deal with flooding issues time and time again,” she said.

Monastra said the village of Ossining in the last five years adopted measures that left it better prepared for major storms.

The village in 2007 expanded its storm water control regulations, which had applied only to properties one acre or larger, to generally included properties of 2,500 square feet or more. In 2008, Ossining adopted new and stricter flood regulations required by the state, she said. In 2009, the village revised zoning regulations to require a 50-foot setback for buildings on the waterfront. The village previously had no setback requirement.

“I think between the new flood regulations, the storm water regulations and the new zoning code, that we are taking the proactive steps that we need,” Monastra said.

“We’re not looking at stopping development on our waterfront,” the Ossining planner said. “It’s about creating the right development along the waterfront.”

Developer Martin Ginsburg saw the Hudson surge over a newly built bulkhead at the riverfront site of Harbor Square, a proposed 168-unit apartment building and retail and restaurant development on which Ginsburg Development Cos. expect to break ground next spring.

“It was a 750-year storm,” Ginsburg said of Sandy. “It’s very hard to plan for a 750-year storm.”

“However, since we’ve had this particular type of storm, we’re certainly going to modify our plans to reflect what was the high-water level for this kind of storm.” Floodwater rose about four feet above what was projected as the high-water level for a 100-year storm, Ginsburg noted.

Ginsburg said flood-exposed areas of the Harbor Square site will be designed to resist flooding “and any buildings will be above what we now have with the 750-year flood plan.”

In Yonkers, business owner and prospective waterfront developer Ron Shemesh saw flood damage at his Excelsior Packaging Group plant at 159 Alexander St. Shemesh, though, has not been deterred in his plans to redevelop the long-vacant Glenwood Power Plant, which also sustained some flood damage on the Yonkers waterfront. His development company, Glenwood POH L.L.C., has a purchase contract on the approximately 1.48 million-square-foot power plant complex, whose twin red-brick smokestacks are landmarks on the lower Hudson. The Yonkers planning board is reviewing the developer’s proposal to create 256,475 square feet of hotel, restaurant and entertainment space in the existing historic buildings.

The estimated $175 million project is expected to create 1,800 construction jobs and an estimated 955 permanent jobs.

Yonkers residents at a recent planning board hearing objected to Shemesh’s proposal to build an underground parking garage on the site of Trevor Park, north of the power plant site, and build a new park atop the garage.

The Glenwood project “presents a unique and extraordinary opportunity to expand and enhance Yonkers’ appeal as a destination, as well as raise its local, regional, national and international profile, “ the developer told city officials. “It will also serve as a national model for innovative architectural preservation and full adaptation of former power structures.”

Whether that innovative model will incorporate flood planning that applies data collected in the recent storm is not known. Shemesh could not be reached for comment.

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About The Author

John Golden
Westchester Bureau Chief

The Business Journal’s senior writer, John Golden directs news coverage of the county and Hudson Valley region as Westchester bureau chief. He was an award-winning upstate columnist and feature writer before joining the Business Journal in 2007. He is the author of “Northern Drift: Sketches on the New York Frontier,” a collection of his regional journalism.

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