In a neighborhood of Staten Island where Hurricane Sandy flooded homes, swept boats into the streets, and caused at least two deaths, builders have already resumed construction on a series of new houses, raising concerns among residents who have long tried to halt development in the area.
Many residents fear that the ongoing development of the shorefront might make the area even more vulnerable to storms, in part by directing water away from the new properties and toward older, weaker buildings. "We used to have that land to absorb water," Carol Zirngibl, a longtime community advocate, said in Crescent Beach on Tuesday, looking at a construction area where workers were hammering together the wooden frames of at least five homes. "We don't have that anymore."
Zirngibl, who lives in a bungalow-style house, is the former president of the Crescent Beach Civic Association, a neighborhood group that disbanded last year after its most recent effort to stop developers fell short. Over the last decade, Zirngibl has led a community campaign against the construction of two projects in particular.
The first, called Sailor's Key, a complex of more than 100 two-story structures, includes the unfinished houses that Zirngibl pointed out on Tuesday. After residents first learned of the developer's plans to build on the site in 2000, they held meetings and sent letters to officials objecting to the plans. In 2002, as part of a broader alliance of residential and environmental groups called the Coalition for Great Kills Harbor Park, they testified at a hearing at New York City's Department of City Planning.
Eileen Monreale, a member of the coalition's steering committee, called for the city to incorporate the property into its plans for a nearby waterfront park, and asked for a temporary moratorium on building in Staten Island until the city came up with a "comprehensive plan" for developing the borough.
In her testimony, Monreale specifically noted that the proposed building site was located in what the Federal Emergency Management Agency had designated as a dangerous flood zone and warned that the planned development "could endanger life and property." (She also discussed Staten Island's notoriously congested roads and argued that overdevelopment would harm the borough's "beautiful waterfront and wildlife.")
But the City Planning Department ruled that the developers could go ahead with a scaled-down version of their original plan, and although the city adopted a new set of zoning rules for Staten Island in 2004, it didn't specifically prohibit builders from putting up homes in the borough's most vulnerable waterfront areas.
A decade after that hearing, workers are now erecting the last of the scores of houses that have gone up as part of Sailor's Key.
For Zirngibl and her neighbors, fresh memories of Sandy has also revived concerns about a development that has yet to be built -- a three-story, 87-unit residence for people over the age of 55, poised to go up on an undeveloped plot of land overlooking the sea.
In June 2011, the local community board voted against the plan, and the Department of City Planning denied the builders' application for a permit. But in February 2012, another city department -- the Board of Standards and Appeals -- ruled that the development wouldn't hurt the neighborhood, and Rampulla Associates Architects, the architecture firm representing the developers, was allowed to proceed.
A spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning said that builders must abide by FEMA guidelines when building in FEMA flood zones. The Board of Standards and Appeals did not return a request for comment.
Despite these rulings, residents have argued that the structures could prove dangerous not only to the people who live in them, but also to the people living next door. In the low-lying wetlands that make up much of the south shore of Staten Island, undeveloped properties act as buffers between homes and the sea, absorbing water that flows in from the ocean during storms. By building on those properties, residents say, developers could potentially redirect water toward the small, bungalow-style homes that have sat along the area's low-lying streets for decades.
Marianne Bongolan, a retired school psychologist who was involved in the Crescent Beach Civic Association, said she thought the Sailor's Key complex may have contributed to the damage caused by Sandy by displacing water that would have otherwise accumulated on the property. Standing in front of the development, she pointed out that the builders had raised the ground underneath the complex above the height of the neighboring streets. "Water has to go somewhere," she said.
When Sandy struck, she said, the water mostly avoided the Sailor's Key buildings and flooded the lower-lying bungalows, destroying many of them.
Bruno Savo, the corporate head of Savo Brothers, the developers behind Sailor's Key, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Phil Rampulla, an architect with Rampulla Associates Architects, said that the 87-unit residence designed by his company will rest on pilings, allowing water to flow underneath the structures. He added that work on the project has stalled for the time being as builders wait for FEMA to release a new map showing updated flood-level predictions. (The flooding caused by Sandy exceeded the flood-zone boundaries on FEMA's current map.)
The issue of water displacement, as urban planners call it, is also very much on the minds of residents in the nearby neighborhood of Oakwood Beach. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Jackie Nielsen, a community leader who fled the neighborhood for New Jersey after a series of floods ruined her home in the '90s, said she feared that one group of structures in particular may have caused water to flow directly toward the homes of three people who drowned during Sandy.
Jonathan Peters, an urban planning expert at the College of Staten Island, said that he and his colleagues are working on a study of water displacement. A building could cause the flow of water to shift toward other structures, "impacting their safety," he said.
Peters, who grew up near Crescent Beach, said he believes that the city's policymakers should consider this issue as they contemplate the future of land development on Staten Island.
In the wake of Sandy, Crescent Beach residents have said that they once again hope the city will consider halting further development of the south shore until coming up with a plan specifically aimed at protecting the area from floods. A spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not respond to questions about the neighborhood, but Bloomberg announced last month that he would convene a special task force to look at development and flooding issues on Staten Island. Officials will meet on Wednesday at City Hall to begin the process, and to discuss the possibility of buying out Staten Island residents who want to leave their homes.
In a televised speech last week, Bloomberg seemed to suggest that the city may take the water-displacement issues into account. "We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainable," he said, before conceding that the city had yet "to determine exactly what that means."