New Risks–and Incentives–to Build Resilient Communities

In the wake of unprecedented storms and flooding, the design world has begun to treat resiliency as a new discipline for creating better, more risk-ready communities.
john cetra in focus

In the wake of unprecedented storms and flooding, the design world has begun to treat resiliency as a new discipline for creating better, more risk-ready communities. Last year the American Institute of Architects made it a focus, helping the Rockefeller Foundation fund “chief resilience offers” in 100 U.S. cities. Schools from Harvard to the University of Texas have put in place programs to study resiliency through urban planning, landscape architecture, building design and even public health. Building codes are changing in hundreds of municipalities, too.

Yet the building developers and architects on the front lines of implementation are facing a daunting new challenge: How to fund resilient design. Even with the momentum and clear public benefits of resiliency, recent studies show that private landowners and developers need incentives. The most successful state and municipal government efforts have recognized this, and have implemented ways to make it more worthwhile for owners to incorporate resilient features into their properties.

One of the best techniques has been incentive zoning, which rewards smart design and inventive development, and it could play an even larger role going forward. Similar to the inducements of higher densities or floor-area ratio (FAR) in residential developments—and the recent push for sustainability features like green roofs—building projects in risk-prone areas could earn height or bulk bonuses for including public amenities that mitigate hazards or help cities adapt to climate change.

The Louisiana Resiliency Assistance Program (LRAP), a public-private initiative melding community development and disaster recovery, identified dozens of planning techniques for resiliency. On the plus side, incentive zoning “provides flexibility and discretion to traditional zoning through market-based measures,” LRAP concluded, and could be used to “offer density bonuses to developers in exchange for exceeding minimum mitigation requirements; for maintaining or protecting natural features that help mitigate hazards or climate change impacts; or for providing safe rooms or community shelters.”

For multifamily investors, the appeal of resiliency is clear: their properties perform better and ensure higher returns over a longer period. Market mechanisms like incentive zoning help persuade owners to act sooner and more responsibly.

Other techniques can help build resiliency into our communities, such as conservation easements and tax-increment financing (TIF). Similar to the national success seen in protecting wetlands in and adjacent to residential projects, limiting use of open space or ecologically critical tracts for the purposes of controlling floods and storm surge has a significant side benefit: It creates open, natural green spaces near our dwellings.

Whatever methods are used, the key would be to target areas with the highest propensity for flooding. And in many of those areas, such as New York City, in certain vulnerable areas there’s little or no opportunity for changes to building codes currently. In many ways it makes it harder for them to happen. Many of the retrofit approaches to resiliency–such as installing hydrostatic walls to waterproof existing foundations–are complex and expensive. Yet by addressing zoning, cities can create opportunities along waterfront areas while also encouraging better-protected buildings.

Examples of recent multifamily developments that plan for the future without any incentives at all include 443 Greenwich Street, a late 19th-century former bookbindery that CetraRuddy is restoring and adapting into 53 unique, market-rate residences. In this case, the developer is funding a number of forward-thinking moves that boost property values in a location with flood planes of 11 feet above the cellar level. The design locates mechanical units and the boiler room on the roof in case of flooding, and emergency generators on site will be sufficient to allow for continued use of service elevators and major appliances in case of a utility power failure. A 12” hydrostatic wall along the cellar perimeter blocks water from seeping into lower levels.

443 Greenwich thumbnail

443 Greenwich Street

The design of 443 Greenwich Street, inspired by its original architectural details and grand proportions, celebrates its classic design while introducing distinctive, crafted details and modern materials that heighten its residential adaptation. The design also places an emphasis on natural light, maximized through its large arched windows, double-height spaces and views of a lushly landscaped courtyard. Working with the existing structure, residential units are carefully distributed to create unique and varying spaces within the seven-plus stories of this building. And behind the scenes, resilient design ideas make the residences even more valuable.

At 77 Commercial Street in Green Point, Brooklyn, CetraRuddy is designing a 720 unit residential development, which will incorporate a rare, 3-acre public park on the waterfront. The new construction includes two towers at 30 and 40 stories nestled into an eight-story base with 720 residences including 200 affordable units. Other ground-floor commercial uses and community facilities will merge with outdoor open spaces including a shore public walkway along Newtown Creek. Additional recreational green space will activate the rooftops.

77 Commercial

77 Commercial Street

The façade’s rich, rustic-colored brick base and glass towers reflect the industrial neighborhood, with an elevated landscaped procession of the buildings lower floors as it reaches toward the waterfront. In this way, the community receives accessible waterfront housing, and offers an opportunity to revive the waterfront through dynamic and sustainable public spaces. Yet it also implies a new level of rigor for resilient design. The mechanical units for 77 Commercial are roof mounted, and utility vaults are waterproofed to resist damage. All residential levels are raised 16 feet above flood plane. A pedestrian promenade also referred to in zoning parlance as an “upland connection” brings residents from street level to the raised residential levels, and the amenity spaces are located on the sixth and seventh levels to minimize potential damage from flooding.

In both of these projects, the developers are leading the movement toward resiliency by “pushing the envelope in some way rather than simply sitting back and waiting for government to require it,” as [[Amanda Dameron, chief editor]] of Dwell magazine, said at a recent forum.

On a fundamental level, the community, developers and architects can address the need for resilient building. Yet to employ new techniques in resiliency and to make the investments required by potential severe weather and flooding, we need both public and private partners to acknowledgement that this is the future of our cities. We all share the concern, and we see a big opportunity to rethink multifamily design–but we need real incentives to get there with the urgency it deserves.

John Cetra cofounded CetraRuddy in 1987 on the principle that architecture should engage the urban fabric while enriching the human spirit. With a passion for innovative, inspiring designs and a commitment to real world solutions, Mr. Cetra has led the firm to international recognition while building thousands of units of affordable and market-rate residences. Through his practice, Cetra develops the interrelationships of architecture, urban design and planning to develop sophisticated responses to projects ranging from new construction to conversions of landmark buildings. He is a recognized industry leader in tall building technology, historic buildings and analytic site development. Cetra has a Master’s degree in Architecture and Urban Design from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Spitzer School of Architecture of the City College of New York.