ULI bringing balance to extreme weather debate

As the New York area recovers from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, one of the lingering questions has been the issue of how to protect buildings and infrastructure vulnerable to flooding and what to do about future development.

Some have proposed legislation restricting land use going forward, forever banning building in areas destroyed by the hurricane.
Other groups, like the non-governmental Urban Land Institute, say they have a more balanced approach and can help communities in the midst of debate.

Richard Kessler

“There are a number groups now thinking some very basic things,” said Richard Kessler, chairman of ULI New York.

“For instance, why are all the building services underground? Why is our electric switch gear in the basement? Should we re-do zoning codes to give mechanical bonuses to developers? These are some of the questions we have going forward.” Formed after hurricane Katrina, ULI created hurricane task forces called Technical Assistance Panels, which are made up of land use and development experts who do outreach to hard hit communities, offering advice on how to best address possible future natural disasters as they start to rebuild.

Kessler said that ULI New York is in discussions to bring their TEP’s to one particularly hard hit municipality on Long Island. Nationally, ULI is working with communities in New Jersey and in the Philadelphia area.
One distinction Kessler wanted to make was that even though there is a small group of ULI members who are under 35 that volunteer on weekends to provide support, the Urban Land Institute is not an emergency response group like the Red Cross. It is a strategic planning and thinking group that is more future focused.

“Groups of ULI members go out into community and try and help deal with a land use or planning issue,” said Kessler. “ULI seeks to work in an advisory capacity. We help to bring best practices as learned by our members to the table to provide objective information to decision makers to help them.”

Anything that ULI does via a Technical Assistance Panel is pro bono to a community Kessler said. For communities and municipalities near water, a different kind of planning will be important aspect as they begin to plan the future of land use.
Public opinion has shifted somewhat in the aftermath of Sandy. In November 68% of American voters felt that global warming was a serious problem.

Just two days before Christmas, a report released by the journal Nature Geoscience showed that temperatures at Antarctica’s Byrd Research Station are rising twice as fast than previously anticipated.

“There is clear evidence that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is contributing to sea-level rise,” said authors David H. Bromwich & Julien P. Nicolas in the report. “We confirm previous reports of West Antarctic warming, in annual average and in austral spring and winter, but find substantially larger temperature increases.”

Reports like this have caused development companies like New York’s Lightstone Group to alter plans for future developments built near water, especially as governmental organizations like FEMA make changes to advisory standards in anticipation of further sea rise.

“Since Hurricane Sandy, Lightstone has indicated it will likely further elevate the project,” said Ethan Geto, of Geto & de Milly, Lightstone’s public relations firm in an e-mail.

“There will be absolutely no flooding of the buildings in a future Sandy-like storm. There also will be no basement — all mechanical equipment will be similarly elevated well beyond the reach of any possible floodwaters,” he said.

Lightstone’s Gowanas project now calls for all vital building service equipment to be placed close to 20 feet above ground level.
However, not all developers will be as willing to give away rentable space to protect electrical systems and boilers, Kessler said.
That is where he feels ULI’s membership of real estate professionals working in an advisory role will be key at balancing developers concerns with those of the community at large.

“ULI has an array of members that will look at the hurricane on a big picture basis for the future,” he said.

“I think we are going to look at building codes. Maybe the boilers and the electrical switch gear need to be on third floor. No developer would want to give away useable rentable area in order to do that, so maybe we give someone credit for the space that would normally be below grade but is now out of harms way.”

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