In the aftermath of Sandy, images of the destroyed Rockaways haunted the news. A fire wiped out 111 homes in Breezy Point, and protective sand slipped away from flat beaches. More than 33,000 residents applied for FEMA disaster aid, while hundreds of survivors were shuttled into hotels as temporary housing. Many lost their jobs. It was also a wake up call. "Hurricane Sandy made it all too clear that, no matter how far we’ve come, we still face real, immediate threats," Mayor Bloomberg said earlier this year. "This is urgent work, and it must begin now."
This past April, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, along with a coalition of affordable housing developers and the American Institute of Architects, announced a design challenge: On more than 80 acres of undeveloped Far Rockaway beachfront, architects could compete for the opportunity to plan a sustainable, resilient future community area. The jury received 117 proposals from 24 countries, and settled on four finalists, revealed on July 18.
As part of the challenge, architects had to account for up to 1,500 units of housing in low to midrise buildings, 500,000 square feet of commercial space, a 35-acre nature preserve, nine acres of dunes, 3.3 acres of open space, and a public elementary school, PS 106. The finalists chosen came down to Ennead Architects, from New York, Seeding Office of London, White Arkitekter from Sweden, and Lateral Office of Toronto.
Many included similar elements: all had storm surge channels, basins, boardwalks, and natural defenses, but differed radically in terms of set up and vision. Seeding’s presentation, for example, made a point to "avoid gentrified feeling design," and Mason White of Lateral Office emphasized "local character" in his presentation. White Arkitekter compared its vision to a new Williamsburg, with lots of space for creative types—though Williamsburg is an area now notorious for steamrolling affordable housing and pushing out lower-income residents.
"On and along the boulevard the design houses a large quantity of small-scale business opportunities, such as shops and galleries, together with small studios, for creative people," Arkitekter’s mock-up notes. "The presence of creative people can, as proven in the East Village and Williamsburg, trigger interest and future urban development and the design proposes to build on the existing interest in the Rockaways by inhabitants from Williamsburg."
White Arkitekter also proposed the notion of "anti-fragility." The firm’s plan set development a bit further back from the shore, but also featured an arrow-like boardwalk jutting out onto the sand. "The flood will come and we can’t block it by just sticking a big wall in front of it. We have to work with it," architect Sander Schuur noted. Ennead dealt with resiliency by mapping out a layered dune complex that would provide natural barriers amid homes, and Seeding created an undulating boardwalk structure that would help manage waves.
Lateral’s presentation, meanwhile, featured a landscape dotted with flood basins that doubled as spaces for recreational use. The firm’s design notes that the basins could be used as sports fields. Denmark has actually taken that idea to the next level—Rabalder parken, a redevelopment area on the site of an old concrete factory, has flood drainage basins that also work as skate parks.
No matter how visually pleasing and structurally innovative the designs are, the key is to develop livable, sustainable community resources, notes Councilman Donovan Richards, who represents the Rockaways. "I’m looking for at least 30% affordable housing," Richards tells Co.Exist.
"We have to make sure that we can ensure that people who live in the area also can live at the site, also college students looking for affordable rentals. And I’m not talking about the Bloomberg definition of affordable housing," he says, adding that he is confident and excited about the proposals. "Affordable housing, recreation, and jobs—those are three things we really need in the Rockaways."