After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the coastal community of Sheepshead Bay can serve as a model for climate resiliency.
The low-lying coastal community of Sheepshead Bay is representative of many of the waterfront areas just beginning the long process of rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
Hundreds of single and two-family homes were flooded, extensively damaged, and face ongoing mold problems. Dozens of other homes were so severely damaged or contaminated that they still remain red-tagged by the Department of Buildings, a measure that prevents re-occupancy until DOB determines otherwise. And dozens more were completely destroyed, leaving many families in this predominantly working-class community without permanent or steady shelter.
Originally developed for seasonal usage, the community’s idiosyncratic housing stock and infrastructure are particularly vulnerable to climate change and difficult to rebuild. There are approximately 140 homes clustered in shallow street courts that are between four and seven feet below the flood plain. They are in need of acute mold remediation along with major structural upgrades to make them habitable and insurable. These homes and other non-traditional small dwellings will be hard to rebuild under the City’s zoning laws. Most crucially, the area will continue to be vulnerable to future storm surges; homes would have to be elevated thirteen feet to satisfy FEMA’s Advisory Base Flood Elevation requirements. For these reasons, a house-by-house approach to recovery would be perilous to the long-term sustainability of Sheepshead Bay and similar communities. In order to ensure long-term resiliency, rebuilding must be comprehensive and community-wide.
In addition, the community’s pre-existing infrastructural problems complicate the rebuilding process and represent a salient concern for many homeowners. The current drainage system is poorly designed, and the low-lying courts are quickly flooded even during an average rainstorm. Without smart community planning, these problems could be further compounded by well-intentioned resiliency measures. For instance, one concern that local residents have raised is that building a levy system without building a drainage system behind it would likely exacerbate flooding.
Lastly, with little knowledge of the complex zoning, regulatory, and engineering processes necessary to elevate the community and ensure a comprehensive rebuilding, local residents will be extremely challenged to take full advantage of funding from rebuilding programs and assert their interests with powerful entities during the rebuilding process.
In order to address the complications and urgency of rebuilding, along with the absence of formal local stakeholder representation, Pratt Center and Deborah Gans of Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture collaborated with a group of impacted homeowners providing them with preliminary architectural assistance to support their rebuilding efforts.
Specifically we reviewed zoning, engineering, and building code issues that could impact raising the small homes above new base flood elevations; assessed historic and current sewer and infrastructure conditions that impact these small homes; and presented recommendations for a context-specific integrated approach to rebuilding at a neighborhood scale. These recommendations examined the host of rehabilitative, logistical, community-based, and bureaucratic actions needed to rebuild sustainably. They addressed:
As a framework for elevating multiple homes simultaneously and integrating residential rebuilding into the creation of a more resilient infrastructure, these recommendations collectively represent a more comprehensive approach to rebuilding and climate adaptation in waterfront communities. The homeowners we worked with were enthusiastic about seeing this community-wide resiliency framework come to fruition. We are currently working closely with them to catalyze the implementation of our recommendations for rebuilding and resiliency through strategic coordination with the NYC Houses Reconstruction Program and other City, State or Federal resources and programs.
About Deborah Gans, Professor of Architecture
Deborah Gans, Professor of Architecture at Pratt Institute and lead architect on this project, has extensive experience designing disaster relief housing and facilitating post-disaster community planning and rebuilding in New Orleans and Kosovo. Her firm, Gans Studio, has won numerous awards and accolades for their innovative housing design, and Gans has extensive experience working closely with planners, engineers, landscape architects, and students of these disciplines to deploy architectural services in support of community-driven rebuilding plans.