No one needs to remind Mayor Dawn Zimmer how important it is to move quickly on Hoboken’s flooding problem — her residents tell her after every storm.
“I’m advocating as strongly as I can that we move as expeditiously as possible,” said Zimmer two weeks ago. “From the community process, we completely understand that everyone is very concerned every time we hear about a storm coming, every time it rains.”
In Rebuild by Design, Zimmer found a program to match her pace. In just a year, the federally run resiliency competition went from being formed to announcing its winners, among them a comprehensive strategy to resist, delay, store, and discharge stormwater in Hoboken, Weehawken, and Jersey City. With that victory came a $230 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But before that money can reach the mile-square city and begin funding infrastructure, it must travel through every level of government.
Despite extensive involvement from community stakeholders like Zimmer, Hoboken’s Rebuild by Design project has heretofore been a primarily private undertaking, produced by a team of firms led by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropic organizations.
With federal money now in the picture, the process of realizing that proposal will be as much about navigating the complex world of grant notices, RFPs, and action plans as it will be solving engineering puzzles. As it stands, the first major infrastructure improvements under the comprehensive strategy to be fully realized will likely be those Hoboken can do without any HUD funding.
Federal funding on the way
The Rebuild by Design money for the Lower Hudson is just a portion of the almost $502 million granted to New Jersey in the third round of disaster recovery funds for the Sandy Region. Since 2013, HUD has given $4.1 billion in Sandy-related disaster funds to New Jersey.
But before the $230 million hits Hoboken, it must work its way down the chain of command. First a notice of the grant must be published in the Federal Register, which HUD Regional Administrator Holly Leicht said should be happening in August. Then the state of New Jersey is responsible for creating an action plan detailing how it will use the funds.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our three communities to be able to protect from [a] major storm event.” -- Dawn Zimmer
The state, said Ragonese, is “still trying to understand what’s possible” within the fiscal limits of the project. He added that DEP will definitely seek the input of community stakeholders like Zimmer throughout the process.
In addition, Daniel Pittman, who led the Lower Hudson project for OMA, said his team has scheduled meetings with representatives of state agencies.
Once the state’s action plan has gone through a mandatory public comment period and been approved by HUD, the money will be disbursed to the state in a smaller phase for planning, with shovel ready projects only receiving money once the design is complete. That’s because grantees have only two years to spend HUD funds once they has been allocated, though they can request a waiver to extend the deadline.
Resist strategy first
Zimmer is advocating for the Rebuild by Design project to focus first and foremost on preventing a storm surge from flooding Hoboken and its neighbors in the event of another Hurricane Sandy.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our three communities to be able to protect from that major storm event,” said Zimmer.
The two main breach points through which Sandy’s storm surge entered Hoboken were Weehawken Cove on the city’s northeast corner and the area around Hoboken Terminal in the extreme southeast.
Based on water level data for the Battery in Manhattan, which is roughly equivalent to Hoboken, a 100-year storm surge would reach a height of around 8 feet above average sea level. This number, however, does not take into account the gradual rise in sea level associated with climate change, which the New York City Panel on Climate Change says could reach two and a half feet by 2050 in the worst case scenario.
Marten Hillen, a flood risk expert for Royal HaskoningDHV who was part of the Lower Hudson design team, calculated that a berm or levee in Hoboken would have to stand almost16 feet above current sea level to prevent a 500-year flood. Not coincidentally, Hillen said building to prevent a 500-year flood would yield the optimum point at which “any dollar spent on flood defense achieves the maximum amount of flood risk reduction.”
Preventing a surge from entering Weehawken Cove in northwest Hoboken is a particular priority of Zimmer’s. “We already own the land, we’ve done the site remediation—the puzzle pieces are in place to move ahead and get this piece done as expeditiously as possible,” said Zimmer.
The city completed the first stage of a planned 4-acre park on the land, an athletic field at the corner of Park Avenue and Sixteenth Street, last fall. For the remaining area adjacent to the Hudson River, Zimmer wants to see open space and various amenities built over and into a series of levees.
For inspiration, Zimmer has looked to the Dutch, the renowned masters of the sea who were Hoboken’s first European inhabitants. During a trip to the Netherlands sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure in May, Zimmer Tweeted her admiration about the “impressive multipurpose design” of a levee in Rotterdam that incorporated shopping, parking and a “beautiful park.”
Two of the firms behind Hoboken’s winning proposal have roots in the Netherlands, and Hillen said that six of the 10 finalists in the Rebuild by Design competition featured Dutch expertise.
Absorbing the water
Unfortunately for Hoboken, storm surges aren’t the only thing Hoboken has to worry about. During extreme rain events, particularly while the Hudson is at high tide, Hoboken’s sewers back up and overflow, creating flash floods. And according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the amount of rain falling in extreme events in the Northeast has increased 71 percent since 1958.
Hoboken’s western edge was historically an area of marsh and tidal pools, and remains the shallowest point of the city today. The surface of Hoboken is currently 94 percent impervious to rainwater, so large amounts of runoff naturally flow to this area during torrential storms.
Mayor Zimmer said Hoboken is “moving on a parallel track” to create a network of parks on the western edge that can function as massive water retention chambers, taking pressure off the sewer system. In June, the city received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to design the final portion of a planned Southwest Park. When completed, the park will be able to hold 200,000 gallons of water.
In the coming months, Zimmer plans to hire a design firm for the park and apply for a low-interest loan to cover the remaining costs not met by the federal grant.
Hoboken is also trying to move forward with plans for a park on the BASF-owned site on Eleventh Street (formerly known as the Henkle-Cognis site). City officials met with representatives from RE.Invest Initiative, another resiliency-focused organization funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, this week to discuss possibilities for funding a new park there.
Pump as harbinger?
Once water is stored in the parks, it must be pumped back out to the Hudson. The city’s first pump, which serves the southwest, was completed in early 2012. In conjunction with North Hudson Sewage Authority (NHSA), the city is now moving forward on a second pump for the northwest quadrant in the roadbed on Frank Sinatra Drive near Eleventh Street. However, the planning process Hoboken had to go through gives some sense of the stumbling blocks that could lie ahead in future state-led Rebuild by Design projects.
Last May, the city announced plans to build a second pump in Maxwell Place Park. But because Hoboken has received money from the state’s Green Acres program, including $1 million for the design and development of Hoboken Cove Park, DEP required Hoboken to get an additional approval, even though Maxwell Place Park was not built with Green Acres money. This led Hoboken to move the pump to Frank Sinatra Drive.
The city applied for a low-interest loan for the pump’s installation this past March. Once the pump is fully approved, it will be 18 months until it is constructed and able to remove 50 million gallons of water from the city per day.
Of all the major improvements proposed under the comprehensive strategy laid out by Rebuild by Design, Zimmer said either the pump or the Southwest Park would be the first to be fully realized. Smaller things like expanded tree pits on Washington Street could come before.
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.