When Amazon announced on Tuesday that it would build one of its new headquarters in Long Island City’s Anable Basin, environmentalists were quick to notice that the site could be partially underwater by 2050. By the next century, it will be completely submerged, according to the environmental research group Climate Central’s most recent projections. Situated in an inlet along the East River, the site is currently home to parking lots and warehouse spaces, but when Amazon breaks ground, which could be as soon as 2019, new apartment complexes and office buildings will go up—all of which would be vulnerable to flooding if sea levels rise even just a few feet.
After Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast in 2012, New York City adopted new building codes to help minimize the damage of such flooding. Today, developers working in flood zones are required to elevate their buildings above the anticipated water level in a storm. An additional set of guidelines for waterfront developers recommends that they build floodgates and levees, create wetlands and barrier islands, and elevate surrounding land to address flooding and erosion. But these recommendations are nonbinding—it’s up to developers to decide whether or not they want to put up the money to build such green infrastructure.
For Amazon, this means that any attempts to shore up its Long Island City site will have to be entirely on its own steam. Before deciding to split its new headquarters between New York City and Northern Virginia, the company considered several HQ2 locations vulnerable to flooding, including Miami, Newark, and Boston, without making any public statements about how it would adapt to rising tides. Then, on Tuesday, the company agreed—in lieu of property taxes—to offer New York City a series of payments, earmarked for infrastructure improvement (streets, sidewalks, utilities, transportation, schools, and the like). Among the priorities listed on its Memorandum of Understanding with the city was “environmental remediation,” the closest Amazon has come to displaying an interest in the environment. As yet, the company has not released any details on what types of projects might be included in this category.
If history is any guide, however, Amazon will protect itself without thinking of the surrounding neighborhood. Too often, said Amy Chester, the managing director of the collaborative research and design group Rebuild by Design, developers only build barriers to climate change around their own sites, ignoring neighboring areas that are at risk. “What you end up having is islands of protection,” she said. Meanwhile, nearby houses and businesses are often left even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. “If a developer is protecting its own site, where is that water that it’s displacing going to go?” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor at Cornell’s School of Architecture, Art, and Planning who studies urban environmental governance. “It’s going to go to the many places that don’t have elevated buildings and flood walls.”
Over the last ten years, South Boston, for example, has witnessed an explosion of development in its Seaport District (including a brand new Amazon office expected to house 2,000 workers), an area that is projected to be underwater within the next century. Developers there have responded to the threat by fortifying their towering office buildings and hotels with inflatable or storable floodwalls. Then, last March, when a Nor’easter inundated Boston with the third highest storm surge on record, streets throughout the Seaport and in nearby South Boston filled with water. That hasn’t stopped developers elsewhere from leaning on floodwalls for protection, though. In Florida, about 64,000 homes will experience repeated flooding just from high tides within 30 years. There, too, owners are erecting portable walls to keep water off their properties. In Queens’s furthest southern reaches, just twenty miles from Amazon’s Long Island City site, luxury real estate developers—such as JDS, whose Saltmeadow project broke ground in 2015, just three years after Sandy—are building their electrical utilities and apartments above ground level, which is enough to meet the New York City guidelines passed after Sandy, but not enough to offer any protection to its neighbors further inland.
“Just go around the harbor,” said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance. “Red Hook is as vulnerable as it was when it was devastated by Sandy, the Rockaways are a little bit better but not much.”
While it’s still unclear what—if anything—Amazon plans to do to shore up its new site, what is clear is that simply building floodwalls, or agreeing to build above ground, is insufficient. A better adaption model exists just a little further down the East River, however. In Hunter’s Point South, the city has planted more than an acre of wetlands modeled on the ones that existed there 200 years ago, before the New York Daily News, along with some sugar and railroad companies, set up shop on the site. The native flora is designed to absorb and gently release storm water back into the river. Further south, in Williamsburg, at the site of an old Domino Sugar refinery, a private real estate development firm, Two Trees, also recently invested $50 million into a public park elevated above the floodplain.
There are similar plans in the works in Long Island City; the developer of a site just to the north of Anable Basin, TF Cornerstone, which was recently brought on as a partner on the Amazon project, has proposed rezoning the site to include a park, built in the floodplain, which would protect against shoreline erosion using tools such as bioswales to retain runoff water. Of course, it’s still unclear whether the park will actually be built now that Amazon is moving its HQ2 there, and even if it is, such an investment would put only a small dent in the massive unfilled need for coastal protection.
In this, the fight over Amazon’s new site has lessons for the developers and urban planners working in places vulnerable to climate change. Waterfront development is surging across the country, particularly in dense cities like New York where outmoded industrial waterfronts offer some of the only large spaces for new development. Meanwhile, according to Robert Freudenberg of the Regional Plan Association, which does independent research and advocacy on urban planning issues in the Tri-state area, “Private capital flows into new development and new parks, and meanwhile existing neighborhoods stay at lower levels of adaptation and innovation.”
It’s often said that climate change and environmental risk disproportionately impact poorer people and minorities. Low-income and minority families are more likely to live closer to dangerous industrial facilities, leading to a range of health complications. (Black children are, for example, twice as likely to have asthma as white children and ten times more likely to die of complications from asthma.) They are also more likely to live in flood-prone areas with deficient infrastructure. But the role private companies play often goes unnoticed: Because funds for resilience at the city, state, and federal levels are limited, developers are left to dictate which parts of the city will be protected from environmental harm and how. Amazon is currently in this position, and unless it takes its responsibly seriously, it is only going to be part of a much larger problem.
“We tend to think about private sector adaptation primarily at the scale of individual properties,” Shi said. “But if you’re thinking about the longer term future, the threat is at such a magnitude of scale, it really is a collective action problem.”