Pamela Pettyjohn has lived in Coney Island for three decades, and she’s the first to admit that those early days were grittier. “There were a lot of vacant lots and burned-out buildings and drugs and things, and people were leaving Coney Island rapidly,” she says. Her description stands in stark contrast to the Coney Island of today, where the clanging of new construction fills the neighborhood once known as a “poor man’s paradise,” and where two gleaming glass high-rise towers rise directly from the beach. “People in the community were asked to stay and build the community back, which we did,” says Pettyjohn, who is president of the Coney Island Beautification Project. “And I guess we built it back so well now everybody wants to live here.”
Since 2013, in fact, roughly 1,920 residential units have been built in Coney Island, compared to 635 units in the decade prior, according to an analysis of Department of City Planning data. And every single one of these new units lie within Coney Island’s floodplain.
A community of about 50,000 residents, Coney Island is on a peninsula, with a creek to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. A decade ago, the neighborhood was pummeled by Superstorm Sandy, which hit during high tide. During the storm, the surge waters near Sea Gate, a private community on the west end, reached 11 feet above ground level. Much of that water came not directly from the ocean but from Coney Island Creek. The ensuing flood disrupted elevators, power, heat, and hot water in almost all of Coney’s existing high-rise buildings. It took weeks to restore service to all residents.
The area’s shared infrastructure also took a beating. The MTA’s Coney Island Complex rail yard took on debris and water, which damaged essential equipment. And when the water finally receded, sand remained on the streets, making them hard to navigate.
If a Sandy-like storm were to hit Coney Island today, the impact would be even more extreme because the oceans are higher than they were just a decade ago due to climate change. From the perspective of climate scientists who take the long view, the city should not even allow development in places like Coney Island that will be underwater in a matter of decades. Instead, some argue that the government should begin to move people who live in those places out of harm’s way, a process known as “managed retreat.”
That, however, is easier said than done. Urban planners and government officials work on a shorter timeline and balance a host of factors—chief among them, the city’s acute housing crisis. In order to meet existing needs and accommodate expected housing demand, New York City must add 560,000 units of housing by 2030, according to a January report commissioned by the Real Estate Board of New York.
The process of determining what is built where in any city, but perhaps especially in New York, is fraught with interests, some in competition: zoning rules—and the feasibility of changing them—building code requirements, flood risk assessments, community opinion, historic value of neighborhoods, and developers’ profit motive, among other factors.
In the decade since Sandy, these forces produced the opposite of a “managed retreat” from flood-prone areas like Coney Island. Instead, the city has largely doubled down on building housing in coastal areas, also including in Long Island City, Dumbo and Williamsburg. The city saw these areas as ripe for development because they weren’t as dense as other neighborhoods, in part because of their waterfront locations. And the decision to rezone those parts of the city made development opportunities there profitable.
While the city required new developments in those zones to adhere to stricter standards in order to better withstand the effects from worsening storms and sea-level rise, multiple experts told THE CITY that the longevity of these properties beyond the middle of the next century is uncertain. At some point, city planners admit they will need to draw a hard line about where building is and is not allowed in order to truly contend with climate risks.
But the maelstrom of forces that shape development in the city isn’t there yet. “In New York City, we have spent a lot of money in places where the battle will ultimately be lost, but we’re not ready, politically, to concede,” says Anita Laremont, who spent over seven years in the City Planning Commission, including briefly as chairperson. “To consider an undertaking that would eliminate whole areas from being eligible to have housing would be exacerbating an already large problem.”
In the meantime, New Yorkers like Pettyjohn, of the Beautification Project, are living in older homes that have not been upgraded to adhere to newer flood-resistance standards; they are more vulnerable to rising waters than neighbors in newer housing.
Of all the buildings in the floodplain citywide, just under 4% meet the 2014 resiliency standards because they were constructed or altered after the requirements went into effect. The other 96% of buildings don’t have to comply, a recent report from city Comptroller Brad Lander found.
When the next Sandy-level superstorm strikes, the owners of these homes will face an immediate risk of property loss—and residents could find themselves on a forced exodus from the communities they’ve spent decades struggling to build up.
‘Not Just a Flood like Sandy’
Over the next 15 years the waters around Coney Island will rise by 6 inches, according to New York State Climatologist Mark Wysocki, That might not sound like much, but according to NASA, every inch of sea level rise translates to a loss of 100 inches of coastal land; 6 inches across a relatively flat coastline means the shoreline moves inland by roughly 50 feet. By 2050, the total sea level rise will be around a foot, according to a recent technical report by NOAA, which when combined translates to a total loss of 100 feet of shore line.
As a result, the next hurricane could result in even worse storm surge than occurred during Sandy. “Stand on the beach, and imagine 6 feet of water coming at you from the ocean, not just as one wave, but as an entire wall,” Wysocki says. Estimates provided by the Department of City Planning Flood Hazard Mapper show that by 2080—in less than 60 years—much of Coney Island will be flooded during high tide.
“In Coney Island, by the end of the century, the vast majority of the area will be underwater due to regular tidal flooding, not just a flood like Sandy,” says Kate Boicourt, director of Environmental Defense Fund’s New York–New Jersey climate resilient coasts and watersheds program. By then, any residents or visitors who wanted to get to parts of Luna Park, Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand or Gargiulo’s restaurant might need to splash through streets of standing water—if any of those storied attractions are still there.
“It’s just mind-boggling how short-sighted the city has been in its planning process,” says Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Jacob, whom Bloomberg appointed to the inaugural New York City Panel on Climate Change. Jacob added that new housing built in the last 10 years will only be good for a couple of decades, or “maybe if we are lucky, towards the end of the century.” The city’s system of planning, which considers multiple factors in addition to climate change, doesn’t accommodate these long-term climate risks because it wasn’t designed to do so.
The path for new housing construction in Coney Island took off under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Bloomberg administration was lauded for climate initiatives like PlaNYC, a strategic blueprint to help the city accommodate roughly one million more residents by 2030 while at the same time combating climate change. But even its climate projections stopped in the middle of this century.
Looking further would be too paralyzing, according to Seth Pinsky, the former president of the Economic Development Corporation who oversaw the Coney Island redevelopment. Pinsky also served as the director of Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency after Sandy. “The thinking that we had was, if we can protect the city, from 2030 to 2050, then that buys us time to think about the strategy for 2060, 2070, 2080, and 2090,” Pinsky says. “At some point, technology will change, our focus will change, and we’ll be able to address the even more dire consequences that are coming behind 2030 and 2050.”
In other words, officials were banking not on future climate conditions improving, but on future technological innovations that could allow people to live in areas dramatically reshaped by climate change. To that end, the newer the development, the longer it should, in theory, be able to withstand those future conditions, because of new building codes and requirements aimed at preventing the kind of damage that happened as a result of Sandy. These include the installation of backwater valves and standby power systems, the creation of emergency flood plans, and elevating important equipment above rising water levels, among other requirements.
And just as Coney Island serves as a bellwether for what could go disastrously wrong by continuing to build aggressively in vulnerable areas, it’s also a hallmark of what engineers and developers have been able to do—given current incentives—to future-proof that development.
The New and Improved Coney
Under Bloomberg, the city endeavored to transform Coney Island into a year-round destination. The plan to revitalize the neighborhood involved bringing more housing, retail and services, as well as entertainment options beyond the Wonder Wheel and the parachute jump.
In 2009, the Council Council approved rezoning for 19 blocks of Coney Island. The plan established an amusement district and was expected to create 4,500 new units of housing. Public comments to the rezoning plan at the time raised concerns about the impact of climate change, and in response, the city said it was working on an adaptation plan to ensure the rezoning would be consistent with PlaNYC and take into account infrastructure needs.
In an effort to boost businesses and accommodate new residents, the city made a series of sewer upgrades and other infrastructure improvements to 50 blocks in and out of the zoning area. Some streets were elevated about three feet higher, and the city also made below-grade infrastructure improvements.
Alexandra Silversmith, the former executive director of the Coney Island Alliance, during her tenure touted the expected influx of residents to potential business owners on the peninsula. “There is an opportunity with the residential population to make a go of it and not just be focused on the summer crowd,” she says. “That’s basically one of the big things when we talk to people and we talk to brokers: explaining to them that there’s literally thousands of people that are about to move in.”
Because of the 2008 financial crisis, there was little to show immediately after the rezoning, but in the years that followed, all after Sandy struck, development on Coney Island proliferated. This building boom was not unique to the peninsula. Between 2010 and 2020, 18.2% of new market-rate apartments and 13.6% of units for low-income residents were built on New York City’s floodplain, according to a recent report by the Furman Center. Citywide, nearly 9% of all existing residential units are located in high-risk flood zones. That means a higher share of new units are being built in areas that are highly likely to flood than in the past.
Nothing better exemplifies this housing boom in Coney Island better than the two 22-story towers that make up the beachfront Ocean Drive development, built by John Catsimatidis’ Red Apple Real Estate in early 2020. “You breathe in that ocean air, you’re gonna live 10 years longer,” Catsimatidis says. “I really believe that, by the way.”
For his part, Catsimatidis said he doesn’t believe in the scientific projections that show parts of Coney Island will be underwater in a matter of decades. The flood protections built into his buildings, which are full of luxury rentals, are there to make others “feel comfortable” and “in case you do get a flood,” he says. Catsimatidis wants to expand the development by building three more towers. The two that exist, which he says are almost fully leased, have windows that can withstand extreme winds, ground-level deployable flood barriers and elevated first floors.
And it’s not just Coney’s shining luxury complexes that adhere to stricter building codes and resiliency requirements developed after Sandy. In the middle of the neighborhood, L+M Development Partners, BFC Partners, and Taconic Investment Partners are at work building developments with about 1,000 affordable units in all. So far, one 446-unit building is complete. It boasts super-strong aquarium glass on lower exterior doors and windows, elevated mechanicals, and a back-up diesel generator. It has no basement and no apartments on the ground floor. In the event of a storm, doors with louvers would let floodwaters pass in and out, and workers would set up flood barriers around the entrances.
The design of L+M’s building is typical for new construction across the city’s flood zones. Still, planners say that the new guidelines, as well as retrofitting of existing buildings, merely push the vulnerabilities further into the future. “Do I think people will be living in that new building that’s new in Coney island in 50 years? Probably not,” says Deborah Morris, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University and the former executive director of resiliency planning at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development under the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio. “But does that mean it’s not providing a valuable service here in 2022? I think it is.”
Coney’s Most Vulnerable
The residents who live in Coney Island’s older, unretouched housing stock, however, don’t have 50 years. They may not even have 10. “The housing that is getting built today in Coney Island is actually going to be relatively safe, because it’s being built above existing, better demarcated floodplains,” Pinsky says. “The bigger challenge in Coney Island is all of the buildings that were built 40 years ago that we haven’t invested in protecting.”
In Coney Island, 91 of 2,805 total buildings (3.2%) were constructed or structurally altered after the 2014 flood resiliency standards took effect, according to an analysis of city planning data. About 9% of Coney’s residential units fall in this category. The rest haven’t had to implement resiliency changes by law. The owners of certain properties built before those standards kicked in have outfitted the buildings with more resilient features, but there is no definitive record the city keeps about these upgrades.
The New York City Housing Authority is still undertaking resiliency upgrades at six of the nine public housing developments in Coney Island in response to Sandy; the other three have been upgraded. At Gravesend Houses, new utility annexes will keep electrical equipment elevated, and first-floor windows have bolts installed to attach flood barriers in case of storms. Entrances around the development are surrounded by metal and concrete structures, where larger flood barriers could be installed.
But Gravesend, like some of the other developments in Coney Island, is still getting its power from temporary boilers, a decade after Sandy. And the resiliency-related work at at least two developments has caused disruptions in heat, cooking gas and water for some residents.
A data analysis by THE CITY found that more than 2,200 single- and two-family homes in Coney Island face a high risk of taking on water in a 1-in-100-year flood event, a major flood that has a 1% chance of happening in any given year. Because it’s a statistical measure, 100-year floods can and do happen in back-to-back years. Major floods, like those encompassed by the 100-year flood designation, can be catastrophic: flooding buildings and trapping people inside, floating cars, collapsing bridges and sweeping away those who attempt to traverse their waters.
Just 19 homes in Coney Island, like those along West 36th Street and Mermaid Avenue, were elevated after Sandy through the city’s Build It Back program, which rehabbed, rebuilt, or acquired 409 homes in the neighborhood, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations. Lots of the housing stock in the neighborhood remains at the same level before the storm, like Gwendolyn Welsh’s two-story brick home.
Sandy’s floodwaters brought about 3 feet of water to the longtime Coney Islander’s first floor—but aside from a replaced heater and furniture, the home is as it was. “We just fixed it back up,” says Welsh, who is 88, adding she didn’t know anything about how some of her neighbors were able to elevate.
“Retrofitting is a huge issue because it is, structurally, extremely difficult in the built environment we have with multifamily, connected homes,” says Beth Malone, resiliency and insurance program manager at Neighborhood Housing Services Brooklyn, which works with homeowners. “We have no money to do it, the structural issues are immense—and there are also the ownership issues. For a duplex, both families have to agree, both have to fund it and go through the reconstruction process.”
Beyond just single and two-family homes, Laurie Schoeman, director of climate and sustainability in the capital division at Enterprise Community Partners, worries that retrofits for flooding aren’t happening in older buildings—especially, for instance, a family-owned walk-up transferred between generations with only a dozen or so units. “They don’t know how to even keep the lights on,” Schoeman says. “It’s a challenge just to keep the bills paid, let alone deal with the climate risks. Those are the buildings that we’ve got to protect because when they go away, we erode our affordable housing stock. There’s a lot of those buildings in Coney Island.” And, Schoeman added, individual retrofits shouldn’t be the first line of defense. “We’re in a situation where, yeah, the multifamily housing owners have to fortify their homes—the buildings—because the community is not moving quick enough,” she says.
The most significant project to protect Coney Island from storm surge is part of a $52 billion coastal defense system that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed, which wouldn’t be completed until at least 2044. That project builds off recommendations the Bloomberg administration put forth in 2013 aiming to fortify vulnerable waterfront areas from worsening climate risks, including Coney Island.
For her part, Pettyjohn says she is still in debt from repairing her three-story home after Sandy brought up to 7 inches of water into her house. She lost her roof and had to replace it, but otherwise put everything back the way it was. “There hasn’t been anything offered in this community for retrofits or anything like that,” she says. “When they did have the program, the Build It Back program, where you could elevate your houses, it was so very difficult.” As she worries about the next big event, she knows there’s nowhere for her to go. “A lot of us that are living here on the coastline now, one more storm like Sandy and we will definitely be homeless,” she says. “I know that I don’t have the money to rebuild or make any of the repairs.”
Displacement is a real consequence of the disasters. New York City already lacks truly affordable housing. More than a year after the remnants of Hurricane Ida brought severe inland flooding to New York City, 91 displaced families remain living in hotels, unable to find permanent housing—even with government assistance. The same fate could befall others affected by a storm.
The limited, voluntary home-buyout programs in New York City came as a result of Hurricane Sandy, but there is no ongoing program—nor opportunity for homeowners to request a buyout should they want it. But many don’t want a buyout, and are reluctant to move out of communities they helped shape and adore. Pettyjohn has affixed a sign in a front window of her home warning it’s not for sale, an effort to ward off offers she said she constantly gets.
It’s All About Zoning
Zoning, the same tool city government used to encourage more development in Coney Island and other flood-prone areas, also has the potential to guide development away from those areas and towards safer ones. In May 2021, the City Council approved an update to coastal resiliency zoning rules first implemented after Sandy. Those rules governed how buildings could be constructed to take into account flood risk and guided the rebuilding process after a flood. Additionally, in November, new building codes will take effect that in part expand existing requirements to certain emergency facilities—like fire and police stations—into areas that are at a 0.2% annual risk of flooding.
But as long as they’re allowed to build in certain areas, developers are not likely to be deterred from building in floodplains or in places along the waterfront. “That doesn’t stop us,” says Andrea Kretchmer, principal at Xenolith Partners, an affordable housing developer that oversaw Coney Island Commons, a building with 196 apartments and a YMCA that was nearly constructed when Sandy hit. “The tendency away from basements is the most obvious concession we are making.”
There’s still room to build now, according to Alicia Glen, former deputy mayor for housing economic development under de Blasio. “The notion that New York City has no place to build is like another weird thing that’s in the zeitgeist, but it’s just not true,” Glen says, who now runs MSquared, a real estate development and investment firm. “Not even close to true.
She pointed to places like the North Bronx and along Atlantic Avenue in Central Brooklyn—places the Adams administration has indicated it’d like to encourage construction of housing. “I don’t know why people are so myopic, and they think, ‘Oh, Long Island City and Williamsburg.’ OK, well, that’s one example of late 20th-century waterfront planning, and that has its pros and cons, but that’s not the future,” Glen says. “The future is TOD [transit-oriented development], really great communities and preferably, I think you would agree, places that are not deliberately being built in the floodplain.”
But in practical terms, a lot of those areas that could accommodate more housing would require a change in zoning. Although adjacent to tree-lined residential blocks north and south, parts of industrial Atlantic Avenue, for instance, are jammed with auto shops. And rezoning a neighborhood is a difficult, time-consuming process and subject to intense pushback by communities and elected officials.
“Technically all neighborhoods are as easy to rezone as any other, but politically some neighborhoods are easier to rezone than others, and this has to do with who has political power and who needs things from the city,” says Sam Stein, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society. “Often we’ve seen upzonings in relatively low-income areas, often majority people of color, and, especially during the Bloomberg era, we saw down-zonings of majority white, largely upper-income areas of the city. This didn’t really correlate with the logic of urban planning.”
‘We Need to Have Bifocals’
There’s a tension with the timeline involved in planning for climate change and shaping a living, breathing city. “This transformation of New York City towards a climate resilient city will take tens or hundreds of billions of dollars—actually, trillions of dollars—and so you cannot come up with that sort of money over a short period of time,” says Jacob, the geophysicist. “So when you make, now, short-term decisions, those short-term to mid-term decisions should be part of a long-term plan so they don’t get in the way of long-term resiliency.”
On the other hand, it might not be prudent to think too far ahead, according to Michael Marrella, director of climate and sustainability planning at the city Department of Planning. “We just need to be cautious about suggesting that with the information that we have today, we have to make absolute decisions for the next 80 years,” he says. “We have to understand the implications of climate change for the next 80 years, but act with a shorter time frame in mind, recognizing the need to continue to adapt over those over the decades to come.”
In other words: “We need to have bifocals,” Marrella says. “We need to be looking both into the projections over the next several decades, but also with an eye toward the potential for, for change over the next next century.”
Scientists say that eventually, people in Coney Island and other vulnerable areas will need places to go in other neighborhoods with less risk. They will either choose to go, or flooding itself will force their hand—but “the first step in retreating is to stop advancing, and right now, we haven’t even stopped advancing,” says A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
And another layer of the puzzle lies with those who live in safer places—inland, not at risk of flooding from coastal storms or sea level rise—and their readiness to welcome “10 new people for every one” who already lives there, according to Morris. “People are not there, and the structure of government makes that conversation really hard to have,” she says, warning that the process of shifting New York City’s development patterns—and where people live—will be “awkward.”
And that’s only if they want to leave. For many, Coney Island is their home. They love the community, the ocean views, the memories of growing up and raising their children there. Besides, they wonder, where would they go? “The thing I believe is that you need to try to do better where you are,” says Pamela Pettyjohn, the longtime local booster. “There’s still a lot that can be done. I guess that’s why I haven’t given up on Coney Island.”
This piece was originally published in THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Additional reporting for this story was provided by Suhail Bhatt and Sam Rabiyah.