Arverne by the Sea

Queens, New York
Mixed Use, Residential, Transit-oriented development
Coastal storms, Hurricanes, Sea-level rise, Storm surge

AFTER SUPERSTORM SANDY ROARED OVER THE ROCKAWAY PENINSULA of Queens, New York, in October 2012, Arverne by the Sea emerged with minimal water and wind damage and no fire damage, unlike most neighboring areas along Rockaway Beach. While the region suffered much devastation, the 120-acre master-planned and mixed-use community, located between the Arverne transit station and the Atlantic Ocean, survived intact and recovered quickly because of a number of resilience measures that were included in the project’s planning, design, and construction.

In 2000, joint-venture developers the Beechwood Organization of Jericho, New York, and the Benjamin Companies of Garden City, New York, had conceived Arverne by the Sea in response to a request for proposals issued by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development intended to provide high-quality housing, services, and community amenities in areas of urban blight. While preparing an environmental impact statement for the project in 2003, the two developers studied rising sea levels and hurricanes.

Arverne has withstood a substantial test of resilience against hurricanes and sea surge, and its ability to recover quickly has helped the overall market in the Rockaways.

Michael Dubb, Beechwood founding principal, had experienced Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992 and reminded his partners they had to be prepared for significant storms and sea surges, given they were building on the coast in the potential path of hurricanes.

“That’s primarily why we raised the grade and implemented the stormwater management system,” says Gerard Romski, the attorney and project executive for Arverne. “We certainly went beyond what was required.”

When Superstorm Sandy hit, about half of the community was built, with a Stop & Shop supermarket and nearly 1,000 residential units completed. Elements such as retail and restaurant spaces, a YMCA and community center, transit plaza, and parks were still under construction. The project, due to be completed in 2017, will encompass 2,296 residential units in several building types, including multifamily condominium buildings and two- and three-level townhouse buildings with two to five attached units.

The Arverne developers returned to the site in the early hours after the hurricane to discover that the resilience measures they had put in place, such as raising the buildings out of the floodplain, had protected the majority of the community from destruction. In fact, Arverne became a regional hub and disaster response center for the peninsula in Sandy’s aftermath.

Mitigating Risks

Arverne’s first line of defense against storm surge and flooding was the wide beach and dunes—which act as nature’s barriers on islands like the Rockaways— and the Rockaway boardwalk, which ran along the beachfront. As a first order of business, the developers and the city fortified the dunes along the entire oceanfront of the property. Behind the boardwalk and dunes, a new roadway provided storm and flood protection, including a large below-grade stormwater drainage system.

To add to the natural and built defenses along the waterfront, the developers trucked in more than a half-million cubic yards of tested fill dirt to raise most of the site three feet to nine feet above the 100-year floodplain. The streets were set at angles from the beach to reduce the wind’s impact on homes during storms. Utilities, such as electrical, were installed underground. The electrical infrastructure included accessible waterproof transformers. Storm drains were placed in front yards and backyards and connected to an underground drainage system that included on-site retention and large storm drains on each property and beneath the streets.

Homes were designed to be weather resistant. Foundations had deep wooden pilings and poured reinforced concrete slabs, with homes raised at least three feet above the street level. Double-glazed, low-emissivity, pressure-resistant windows were installed. Steel framing was added to the exterior walls, which were clad with durable fiber-cement HardiePlank lap siding, and wind-resistant shingles were installed on the roof. The developers also used highly durable exterior sealants around window frames to prevent water infiltration and high-quality DuPont Tyvek Home- Wrap to withstand the elements. In the new sections of Arverne, the developers are now using the lessons they learned from Sandy to build homes even tighter and higher above the floodplain.

The community lost power during the hurricane, “but because we put our electric underground, and in a waterproof vault, we got our power back faster than anyone,” notes Romski. “We were the only area on the peninsula with power for a week and a half following the storm, and the Stop & Shop was the only supermarket on the peninsula open for six months.” Arverne became the hub of recovery activity on the peninsula; the developers opened the transit center but delayed occupancy by retail tenants for a year to allow the city to use the space for a 5,500-square-foot emergency-response center.

Creating Value

As a public/private partnership, the Arverne developers were required to purchase the land from the city and build new public infrastructure, but they invested more than required in both infrastructure and other elements that provided resiliency—an estimated $100 million, or 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall project development cost, says Romski. The fiber-cement siding, for example, cost 20 percent to 25 percent more than typical vinyl siding. The partners think the investments in durable, high-quality construction helped the project withstand damage from Sandy, enhanced the community’s reputation, and have led to higher- than-market rental and for-sale prices.

Resilience measures helped avoid significant damage to units under construction, the cost of which likely would have outstripped the value covered by the project’s construction risk policy. Most homeowners are also saving the cost of flood insurance premiums because the Arverne homes have been built at a higher grade, avoiding the flood insurance requirement.

An unforeseen benefit of resilience efforts was an improved company brand and new business. Following Sandy, the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the developers to help get homeowners in other places on the peninsula back in their houses quickly through its Rapid Repairs program. As a homebuilder that survived Sandy, “We knew for our brand and for our community, we needed to get the community back on track,” says Romski. The developers have also become the redevelopment contractor for the borough of Queens under the NYC Build It Back program, which will build homes to replace homes that were destroyed or substantially damaged by Sandy to new more resilient standards. Arverne has withstood a substantial test of resilience against hurricanes and sea surge, and its ability to recover quickly has helped the overall market in the Rockaways. Besides the resilience features, says Romski, “it is really a testament of successful urban redevelopment. We’re very proud of it.”