Riva Pointe is a beautiful place to live. Strolling down the row of condominiums lined with benches, flowering shrubs and ornate lamp posts, the noise of the street fades away almost immediately. Coming out from between the buildings, all you can see is the Manhattan skyline, bafflingly serene and so close you feel like you could reach out across the Hudson and touch it.
“Surrounded by water on three sides, it joins the ranks of luxury homes found in world-class, waterfront cities such as Hong Kong, Sydney, and Venice,” gushes a local realtor on her website.
Donald Stitzenberg, 72, a retired Merck executive, has lived here since 1995 and can’t think of anything that would convince him to move. In his opinion, though, Riva Pointe should never have been built and nothing like it should ever be attempted again.
That’s because Riva Pointe, built in 1989 on an old pier in Weehawken, New Jersey, juts 1,000 feet out into the Hudson. During Superstorm Sandy, it was made that much more exclusive by a rapidly rising river that cut it off from the mainland, stranding the residents on an dangerously secluded island.
“About an hour into our island experience, my neighbor’s elderly mother suffered what they feared was a heart attack,” recounted Stitzenberg. “They called 911, but there was no way for emergency vehicles to reach us. The Weehawken police had to find an inflatable pontoon boat to rescue this woman and carry her out through chest-high water to the raft in order to get her to the hospital. Thankfully, she survived the ordeal, but can you imagine what would have happened if there had been a fire at Riva Pointe? I can’t. Or at least I won’t.”
Now, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, as coastal communities are still in the rebuilding process, Governor Chris Christie has a bill on his desk, S2680, that would give the green light to development on piers — all of which are now classified as high-hazard V-zone areas, according to FEMA’s new post-Sandy flood insurance maps.
V Zones are in the 100-year floodplain and subject to high velocity winds and wave action of three feet or more. According to FEMA, they have a 26 percent chance of flooding within the course of a thirty-year mortgage. Residential buildings including hotels and motels are prohibited in high hazard flood zones outside of Atlantic City in accordance with New Jersey Department of Environment’s Coastal Management Rules. In addition, buildings on piers have always been considered to be in floodways by the very nature of the fact that they are in the river, and thus ineligible for coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program.
“If FEMA won’t insure it, why in the world should politicians be encouraging it?” asks Stitzenberg.
S2680 and its twin bill in the Assembly, A3933, flew through the New Jersey legislature, along with other Sandy-related bills lumped together as “mitigation” and “rebuilding,” with resounding bipartisan support. The bill would “permit development on piers in coastal high hazard areas in certain urban municipalities. This encompasses all the cities along the Jersey side of the Hudson, from Bayonne up to Fort Lee.
According to one of the bill’s main sponsors, Sen Nicholas J. Sacco (D-Hudson), it was intended to help a “handful” of developers who have plans “ready-to-go” on “five or six” piers along the Hudson who now cannot apply for a permit to build with all of the waterfront newly designated as V Zones.
“When I first heard about this bill, I thought it was just ludicrous,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “But its more than that, it’s dangerous. Condos on the waterfront will always sell. The more water the better. It’s dangerous for the people who will live there, it’s dangerous for the first responders who will have to try and haul them out when the inevitable happens and in the end, the taxpayer is going to have to pay when infrastructure to these places is damaged.”
Before Sandy, FEMA and its contractors were already working on a multi-year study of the Jersey coast to update the flood insurance maps that were over thirty-years old. Then the storm hit. After the flood waters had receded, FEMA released new advisory maps so that New Jersey would not rebuild to the standards set in 1983. The advisory maps vastly extended the V Zones along the Hudson river, considered the areas on the coastal floodplain subject to the highest risk.
“NJAFM strongly suggests that permitting more high risk development is not an appropriate response to New Jerseys flood history, now the third state in the nation with [National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)] claim dollars paid at over $5 billion including Hurricane Sandy,” the letter states. “The NJAFM is greatly concerned that this legislation may very well result in noncompliant rebuilding, jeopardizing the eligibility of every New Jersey community to remain in the NFIP.”
According to John Miller of NJAFM, this last point should not be taken lightly.
“We are aware of a letter sent by FEMA in 2005 and a follow-up letter in 2006, in response to the state publicly saying it wouldn’t enforce something from the NFIP,” explained Miller. “FEMA District 2 wrote a letter to the State Attorney General saying that they were very concerned about this and could suspend the entire state from NFIP.”
What is perhaps more likely is that individual communities that decide to build on piers would be suspended from the program.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, has been outspoken against S2680, insisting that her city be allowed to opt out. In the end, an amendment was included in the bill which requires municipalities to pass an ordinance to opt in. Hoboken clearly will not pass such an ordinance under Zimmer, but Weehawken, North Bergen and Edgewater — all along the Hudson — are expected to sign up for new pier development. North Bergen’s mayor, Nicholas J. Sacco is one of the two senators who sponsored the bill.
“We commend Zimmer for taking a stand on this issue,” said Tittel. “But we know that she won’t always be Mayor. Leadership changes and so could Hoboken’s attitude towards pier development. The millions of dollars of tax revenue that just one luxury condominium development could pour into a city, could make sensible planning for the future seem less attractive.”
In fact, the Barry Brother developers have had their eyes on a derelict pier on the Northern end of Hoboken’s waterfront for years. Supposed to be restored as public open space, the Barry Brothers’ Monarch Project would put up two 11-story condominium towers.
In Weehawken, where public officials have supported S2680, there is an interesting site on a pier right across the marina from Riva Pointe. Currently a three-story office building of blue glass and aluminum with decorative porthole windows, it looks like a futuristic boat at dock. Known innocuously as 1500 Harbor Boulevard, it is owned by the same developer that built Riva Pointe, Hartz Mountain Industries Inc. According to multiple local groups Hartz has plans to turn it into condos, which would all be for naught if the Governor vetoes S2680.
Helen Manogue, President of the Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy, is concerned that although the bill is only supposed to apply to “existing” piers this may end up being a much more broad definition than it seems.
“It might seem straightforward,” said Manogue. “Either there is a pier or there isn’t. But in reality, there are dozens of old piers where there are just pilings sticking out of the water, which could be counted as existing piers. How much of a pier needs to be left for it to exist? What if it was never built, but appears on old maps? This bill could open up way more than a couple of piers.”
Stitzenberg estimates that about 40 out of 245 residents at Riva Pointe hold private flood insurance through companies such as Lloyds of London. But with the new FEMA maps vastly expanding the V Zones, Stitzenberg says he has witnessed the private flood insurance market drying up.
“We’ve had buyers walk away at Riva Pointe,” said Stitzenberg. “They just can’t get the $250,000 of flood insurance they would need for a thirty-year mortgage.”
Whether or not the pier development bill becomes law, experts warn that this legislation is just one especially egregious example of reckless development along the waterfront in the face of a changing climate. There are at least eight residential development projects underway on or near the waterfront in Hoboken and Weehawken.
“It’s like driving down the highway at 80 miles an hour looking in your rear view mirror,” said Tittel.
Stitzenberg isn’t worried for himself; he’s up on the third and fourth floors and is betting that another Sandy won’t happen in his lifetime.
He will concede though that his million dollar view wasn’t nearly as nice when all of lower Manhattan went dark last fall.
Andrew Breiner contributed the graphics for this post.