Gentrification or Economic Development?


Looking at the now iconic New York Magazine cover of New York City during the height of Superstorm Sandy, one will notice a remarkable phenomenon: while most of Lower Manhattan is blacked out from the storm surge, amidst the flooded the streets a small patch of buildings on the southwest coast continues to glow. That little patch of light is the Battery Park City neighborhood, a 92-acre stretch of land reclaimed from the sea during the 1970s.

 Battery Park City was originally planned to withstand storm surges from both Nor’easters and tropical storms. The buildings in the development, instead of relying on storage areas in their lower floors (typically the basement), contain most of their vital machinery on upper levels—safely tucked away from potential flood levels. During Sandy, then, while most generators in many buildings throughout the city flooded, Battery Park City residents and businesses were able to withstand the rising waters. Furthermore, the development uses its basements as floodwater storage areas (complete with drainage pumps, if needed).

Considering the relative success of Battery Park city during Sandy, a group of urban planners decided to construct a similar scheme across the island from Battery Park City, known as Seaport City. As part of PlaNYC 2030’s vision to increase the city's resiliency in future storms, Seaport City will encompass a land mass stretching from just north of the Manhattan Bridge to the far eastern edge of Lower Manhattan. In a statement issued in July 2013, then-Mayor Bloomberg summarized the goal of Seaport City: “Seaport City can provide… protection, while also expanding opportunities for new economic development.”


But this raises many questions: how effective will such a structure be at protecting inland areas? What will be the effects on the local neighborhood?

The first question is quite easy to answer: Seaport City's design as a multi-purpose levee will protect southern Manhattan by acting as a buffer from the full effects of storm surges.

The second question, however, is open to debate. Some vociferously argue that such a project is just another development initiative aimed at ousting local residents in favor of more glamorous businesses. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some argue that, in addition to providing protection, Seaport City will increase business interests in the area, thus providing more job opportunities for locals and improving the quality of life.

All around the city, change is happening at an ever-increasing pace. (The Hudson Yards project on the Far West Side, the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, and Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville all come to mind.) Most recently, residents right here in Morningside Heights have expressed concern over a potential development to replace the charred remains of the Citibank on Broadway and 111th.

But change, even in its most radical stages, has always been an integral part of New York City. Before Columbia moved its campus to Morningside Heights, for instance, this area was the site of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Now, it is an area teeming with research, opportunities, and business, a vital resource to the neighborhood and to the greater New York City area.

Similarly, the Manhattanville expansion will be a future resource to students, and Seaport City will be a resource to Lower Manhattan, both in terms of protection and economic opportunity.