Sea Level Rise and Flood Vulnerability on the Western Queens Waterfront: How Community Land Trusts May Support Longer-term Resilience in Western Queens

By Max Scott and Veronica Olivotto

Urban Systems Lab
Resilience Quarterly

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A RESILIENCE essay series in collaboration with the Urban Systems Lab. Read part one here: Imagining Collective Ownership: Community Land Trusts versus Amazon’s HQ2

Part 1 of provided an overview of how community land trusts (CLTs) work, how they can promote not just housing and working space affordability but also energy efficiency, flood resilience, food sovereignty, and the history of how the Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT) was created.

Part 2 will provide an in-depth analysis of the WQCLT’s main project: the Department of Education (DoE) building and surrounding public land in Long Island City (LIC), Queens. This piece will try to answer five main questions: assuming that the WQCLT gets ownership of the DoE building, what would “community control” look like? How would the community land trust function as an organization and manager of land? How does floodplain exposure influence risk for the WQCLT lots? What are the post-Sandy building or land regulatory standards that the DoE building may need to comply with once occupied? How is a CLT model better suited to deal with the long term effects of climate change?

The first, and possibly most important, difference between land ownership under a community land trust and land ownership in the private market is that with a CLT there is a separation between the land and the buildings atop the land. The prevailing mode of thinking based on private real estate tends to conflate land and what can be built on top of the land. While land (without buildings on it) is also sold as real estate, its value derives from what can be built on it, and thus what profit can be made from it. Under a community land trust model, land is understood as a collective resource to be stewarded by all who use and benefit from it. This understanding of land is separate and distinct from what goes on top of it. Under this model, the CLT owns the land but it then leases the buildings on top of it to people who will use it. These leases are typically ninety-nine years long, and in all ways except when these leases are a form of ownership. Crucially though, because they are leases and not deeds, the homes cannot be bought and sold in a rapid or speculative manner for profit. Typically, the ninety-nine-year leases include many rules and agreements (decided collectively by the Board of the CLT) that prevent the flipping of houses for quick profit or other methods of speculating on real estate. As Jenny Dubnau, Co-Chair of the WQCLT Board, says: “the 99-year ground lease of CLTs has the intent (and hopefully the impact) of creating essentially permanent affordability […] nothing is truly permanent in this world, but the more we can enshrine strong policies that encourage community engagement around land-use and bake in long-term affordability, the better-off subsequent generations of working class city-dwellers will be”. This is because the buildings are meant to be homes, not commodities, and the land is meant to be owned and managed collectively, not simply a tool for wealth accumulation.

One example of a fully functioning CLT in New York City is the Cooper Square CLT on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Cooper Square Community Land Trust was established in 1991 and manages 19 apartment buildings with 303 residential units and 23 ground-floor commercial units. It’s ownership structure is slightly different from other CLTs because the leaseholders of the buildings, who were originally simply the tenants, organized into a Mutual Housing Association. So the land-building ownership structure of that CLT is as such: the Cooper Square CLT owns the land while the Mutual Housing Association leases the buildings from the CLT. And as with all CLTs, decisions are collectively made through discussion and argument during Board meetings. The Africatown CLT in Seattle and the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont are two examples of successful, mainly residential, CLTs in the United States.

What makes turning the DoE building into a community land trust different is that it would be quite possibly the first entirely commercial CLT in the United States. Since the building is zoned M1 for industrial and commercial uses only, without a major rezoning the building could solely be used for commercial purposes. While this particular type of CLT would be unique in New York, there is no lack of demand for affordable, long-term commercial space for lease. Everyone — from artists looking for studio space to light manufacturers and craftspeople needing cheap workshop space to street vendors needing a low-budget storage space for their trucks — is looking for a multi-purpose commercial space like this. A CLT in the DoE building would provide hundreds of thousands of square feet of new, much-needed and deeply-affordable space. Yet, while the DoE building is well positioned to serve the needs of the community, it also sits in a floodplain that was impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Therefore we must also consider the implications that climate change will have on this stretch of land.

Urban development in floodplains continues largely unabated in NYC, posing a continued risk to people and properties. New York State is one of the five states with the largest number of people living in floodplains between 2011–2015. Approximately 620,074 people live in the 100-year floodplain in NYC, which amounts to 269,164 housing units (NYU Furman Center, 2017). As mentioned in Part I, LIC has been gentrifying in a concentrated fashion on the coastline south of Queensboro Bridge, with towers such as Hunter’s Point South and Gantry Plaza transforming the socio-economic landscape of a predominantly commercial and industrial waterfront (See Map 1).

Map 1: Long Island City land uses South of Queensboro Bridge (Made with the Urban Systems Lab Data Viz Platform Stormwater.nyc: http://stormwater.nyc/share/jgrs8a)

Long Island City is also highly segregated with ethnic minority groups, especially Black Americans, concentrated just north of the Queensboro Bridge (See Map 2). The main “invisible wall” is the Queensboro Bridge itself, north of which is Queensbridge Houses which has a median household income of only $15,483. Research shows that people living in poverty and who are socially marginalized have reduced capacity for self-protection in terms of mitigating flood hazards at home pre-event, evacuating in response to flooding, returning home or to employment in the aftermath of a flooding event, or even accessing social protection such as flood insurance, hazard mitigation infrastructure, emergency response information and assistance (Elliott 2006, Maldonado 2015, Collins et al., 2018; Chakraborty et al., 2019). The socio-economic differences between the north and south coastal areas of LIC underscore a differential vulnerability and ability to rebound in the aftermath of flooding events that will be exacerbated by future climate change. This gap will continue to widen unless action is taken to invest in protective infrastructure for the working-class BIPOC communities north of the bridge.

Map 2: In shades of purple, African American population by census 2010 tract level in Long Island City concentrated north of Queensboro Bridge (Made with the Urban Systems Lab Data Viz Platform Stormwater.nyc:http://stormwater.nyc/share/g25wgk)

When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRMs) placed 33 square miles of the city within a 100‑year flood zone. But, flooding exceeded this 100‑year flood zone, with the flooded area of Queens alone almost double FEMA’s projections (PlaNYC 2013a). Much of the flood water rose from Newtown Creek and the East River into Long Island City, with waters from the East River mostly coming in via Anable Basin (Kensinger 2018). Up to six feet (1.8 m) of flooding occurred along 2nd Street, 5th Street, 51st Avenue, and Borden Avenue, causing damage to numerous buildings, though overall much of the neighborhood was not affected by floodwater (PlaNYC, 2013a). Yet simulated flood modeling done by the Stevens Institute of Technology, showed that if the hurricane had hit between 7 and 10 hours earlier, at peak high tides in the Western Long Island Sound, it would have produced the worst coastal flooding in the Upper East River, Western and Central Long Island Sound (Georgas et al.,2014). This goes to show that the severity of flood events is highly influenced by a variety of contextual factors, along with regional projections for rainfall and sea level rise.

Regional precipitation in New York, in the middle range sea level rise projections (25th to 75th percentile), would increase, especially during winter months, by approximately 1–8% by the 2020s, 4–11% by the 2050s, and 5–13% by the 2080s (Horton et al., 2015). Future coastal flooding events are also expected to become more common. By the 2050s, middle range (25th to 75th percentile) projections of the annual chance of today’s 100-year flood (1% chance of occurring annually) is expected to increase to between 1.6% and 2.4%. By the 2080s, this figure is projected to rise to between 2.0% and 5.4%. This means that the historical 100-year flood event could occur between 2 and 5 times more often (Horton et al., 2015).

According to FIRMs, the Long Island City Department of Education (DOE) building, which is owned by the Department of Transportation, is located in Zone AE (see Map 3), a high risk flood zone with a 1% chance of flooding in any given year. The waterfront sites have a base flood elevation of 12 feet, while many of the adjacent street elevations are between 5 and 8 feet. Mandatory flood insurance requirements apply to mortgages for buildings in Zone AE. The map below also shows that the building, as well as the lot adjacent, owned by the NYC Department of Small Business Services (DSBS), is also exposed to future high tides combined with Sea Level Rise (SLR). Here we used the high estimates (90th percentile) projected monthly precipitation changes under each SLR model (10, 30, 58 and 75 inches). The DSBS lot, which is vacant at the moment, may already partially flood under the 30 inches by 2050 scenario, whereas the DOE building would see substantial flooding under the 58 inches by 2080 scenario. Both lots would be considerably affected under the 75 inches by 2100 scenario. It is important to consider that the 90th percentile, high end projections of sea level rise are useful for conservative, risk-averse planning (Norton et al., 2015), while considerable uncertainty exists around the amount and timing of future SLR.

Map 3 Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQLT) Lots Exposure to Present and Future Sea Level Rise and Flooding

Our map shows that the DOE building and the adjacent vacant lot owned by DBSB are in the AE Zone, meaning that purchasing flood insurance will be mandatory for the DoE building. FEMA is currently in the process of updating and replacing the preliminary flood insurance risk maps issued in 2015. The new Risk Rating 2.0 should be released in October 2021, delivering new insurance rates that should be more transparent, equitable and better reflect actual flood risk. This update will likely change the landscape of insurance rates for many New Yorkers, and buying flood insurance now is probably going to save money in the long term. Some local urban development regulations in the floodplain have also changed after Hurricane Sandy. Under Local Law 29–2013, old and new buildings in the riskier Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) — Zone A — need to have wet floodproof basements below base flood elevation (BFE) and reduce their living areas elevation. Buildings also need to be elevated 25 feet above ground and be subject to inspections through the raising process. Under local law 83–2013, building plumbing systems in the SFHA need to be provided with backwater valves to prevent sewage backflow from the public sewer system. Complying with these regulations, without external sources of funding may stifle WQCLT’s ability to use the DOE building as a permanent co-working and small businesses space moving forward. We believe that climate-induced flooding on the LIC coast involves adapting not just the DOE building but the entire Queensbridge area, and therefore it requires a concerted effort of the City and State to finance building retrofits and coastal protection as part of a comprehensive plan to deal with current and future SLR. As Memo, Co-Chair of WQCLT Board, puts it: “this is a bigger issue than what our little CLT can tackle on its own, but we can at least be aware of it and factor this issue into any building-specific designs we make.” Back in 2017 WQCLT’s partners, the Long Island City Coalition and the Justice for All (JFA) Coalition, have been active in calling for the review of the Environmental Assessment Statement and Draft Scope of Work part of DCP’s rezoning proposal. They listed a series of concerns, including measures to protect upland communities exposed to flooding and SLR, and an environmental review of proposed hard-edge walls (up to 13’) and buildings.

Acquiring community ownership of the DOE building and adjacent DSBS lot could trigger a process that re-imagines the socio-ecological relationships between the building, its future residents, the land, and the river. The coastal lots could perhaps be turned into a wetland park that supports ecological and hydrological functions of the East River, while protecting inland buildings from incoming storms and wave action. This park would also provide recreational functions through walking paths and benches. An archetypical example of such coastal protection, mixing social and ecological functions, exists — albeit at a much larger scale — just south of the Anable Basin: the Hunter’s Point Park and its Southern extension completed in 2019. With the aim of protecting a 5,000-unit housing complex built on the Southern shore of LIC, this area received huge investments by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), involving the construction, architecture and design companies at the cost of $165 million. Why couldn’t the City or the State partner with the WQCLT, LICC and JFA, as well as surrounding businesses in the Anable Basin, instead? A public-private partnership with a land trust (Grannis, 2020) to design and build green infrastructure approaches to reduce stormwater and coastal flooding? An example of such a coalition exists in Rhode Island. The Aquidneck Land Trust is a statewide coalition of nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses that brought financial resources and technical assistance to help private and government landowners in designing and constructing green infrastructure. The land trust also worked to educate residents about ways to incorporate green infrastructure in homes and gardens — including rain barrels and rain gardens (Grannis, 2020). The DOE building could serve as a main hub for such experimentations, by stimulating a mix of businesses that also include emergent design and architectural studios who are committed to working with the Anable Basin landscape and people.

Many failings in climate policy derive from the fact that the communities most affected by the climate crisis are not in control of the development process. As explained in part 1, the CLT governance model is made of a tripartite board that includes broader community members holding generational equity, land stewardship, community control and social justice at the core of their work. It is precisely this model that can make sure that the voices and interests of the environment and future generations are centered when developing climate solutions. A partnership between WQCLT, businesses and the local council would help to secure permanently affordable work space, open and green space for marginalized communities in Western Queens, while also creating a new pipeline for bonds, disaster recovery funds and other financial programs to be directly channeled for land restoration, building retrofits, possible future buyouts and relocation efforts.

Thank you to Jenny Dubnau, Memo Salazar, Nandini Bagchee, James Mongeluzo, James Defilippis, and Cecille de Laurentis for their help answering questions related to land-use around the DoE building, DoE building code regulations, and the functioning of community-based planning.

Max Scott is an undergraduate senior majoring in Liberal Arts and double minoring in Urban Studies and Capitalism Studies. His interests lie in a few different but related areas including political economy, urbanism and cities, and environmental gentrification and social justice. He currently co-chairs the Outreach Committee of the Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT), and also writes about issues of gentrification and housing policy on his website Buildings of New York. He worked as the Urban Climate and Science editor for Resilience Quarterly at the Urban Systems Lab. You are also likely to find him at the Languages Department’s Spanish Socials

Veronica Olivotto is a researcher, teacher and consultant with a keen interest in social justice and its relation to urban climate change adaptation, resilience and flood risk reduction. She is a PhD Fellow at the Urban Systems Lab and a PhD candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School. @V_Olivotto

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Urban Systems Lab
Resilience Quarterly

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/