NYC mayoral candidates debate future of post-Sandy waterfront

Holly Bailey
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The candidates vying to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg this year insist the city cannot back away from redeveloping its waterfront in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. But with many parts of New York still struggling to recover almost six months after Sandy's devastation, there’s little consensus on how to rebuild—and how it can be done to withstand other potential storms.

Six of New York City’s seven declared mayoral candidates appeared Tuesday at a forum on a boat docked along the Hudson River focused on the future of the post-Sandy waterfront. There, all six repeatedly emphasized that New York should embrace water—insisting it had been a mistake for the city to build roads and highways along its waterfront areas rather than encourage development.

But at the same time, they offered little details on how the city—and how they, if elected mayor—should move forward in the aftermath of Sandy.

“One of the things that has made New York City great is its reality as a river city, a port city. At some point in our history … we turned our back literally and figuratively (on the water) and stopped embracing its potential for jobs … for transportation,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the perceived front-runner in the race, said.

But, she added, “We clearly got the most significant message we could get that we are a waterfront city this past fall with Hurricane Sandy, and we need to recognize that rebuilding and re-envisioning our city in a climate change world is the most important infrastructure project of our time. … This is our moment, and we have to seize it.”

Among other things, the candidates mentioned proposals like erecting a seawall around Manhattan—which is the subject of both a federal study by the Army Corps of Engineers and a city study requested by Bloomberg’s office. But no one outwardly endorsed the plan.

At the same time, Quinn and other candidates expressed support for a plan backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that aims to buy out homeowners in some of the city's storm-ravaged areas and redevelop the property into parkland because of its tendency to flood. But they were careful to note that buyouts shouldn’t be implemented in all neighborhoods.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who formally launched his mayoral bid in January, said the city has a chance to correct what he described as mistakes by urban planner Robert Moses, whose design of New York City's street grid used areas along the riverfront for transportation.

“In the aftermath of Sandy, we have a chance … to get some of this right—whether that is protecting ourselves or whether that is righting some of the economic injustices from the time of Robert Moses,” de Blasio said. “There’s an opening here that we have a chance to act on.”

But none of the candidates had answers when asked how exactly the city would pay for needed infrastructure projects along the water or who exactly would oversee it.

Asked about the possibility of creating a “Department of the Waterfront,” a new city agency that would oversee all the development along the city’s waterways, just one candidate—businessman John Catsimatidis, who owns the Gristedes supermarket chain—endorsed it.

If elected, Quinn said, she would appoint a deputy mayor charged with overseeing the waterfront, while City Comptroller John Liu suggested he’d continue to empower existing city agencies rather than create “more bureaucracy.”

The forum, sponsored by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, was also attended by former Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion. Only one candidate was a no-show: Joe Lhota, a former aide to ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani who resigned his post as head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority to run for mayor.

Lhota, who is a Republican, has said he won’t make any future joint appearances with his rivals, who (with the exception of Catsimatidis) are all Democrats, until after the September primary.