The Rockaways occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of many New Yorkers. For years, generations of working class families have retreated every summer to the narrow peninsula at the southern edge of Queens, where the city meets the Atlantic Ocean. In recent decades, as the urban perimeter expanded, the Rockaways' year-round population has boomed, with winterized bungalows in Breezy Point, suburban-style colonials and Tudors in Belle Harbor, and tall brick housing projects in Far Rockaway.
As you might expect of a barrier beach, the area was epically damaged by the surge when Superstorm Sandy came ashore. The boardwalk was destroyed, houses were flooded, a fire broke out, apartment-dwellers lost power for weeks, and some families were displaced for months on end.
Meanwhile, there is a pre-existing tabula rasa in the Rockaways: Arverne, a 50 block stretch cleared for urban renewal in 1964 by Robert Moses but never redeveloped. Seven years ago, the New York City government set about planning a mixed-use, 308 acre development. Arverne East, a component that would consist of 1,600 housing units, parkland and sand dunes. However, it was halted by the credit crisis. Other schemes, including disaster housing, were also considered but never executed.
So, with resiliency after Sandy on their minds, the developers and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) sponsored a competition, beginning this spring, for how it should be designed to withstand future storms: For a Resilient Rockaway (FAR ROC). After an open phase I held this spring, four finalists were chosen: Ennead Architects (New York), Lateral Office (Toronto), Seeding Office (London), and White Arkitekter (Stockholm).
See all the FAR ROC finalist entries in Project Gallery.
This week, White Arkitekter’s proposal, "Small Means & Great Ends,” was chosen as the FAR ROC winner. White Arkitekter worked with architects in two New York firms, Arup and Gensler. The NYC HPD praised the winning entry for “a series of small, affordable, and smart interventions that center on three strategies: reduce and control damage; provide access in the event of a storm; and ensure quick recovery... moving beyond resilience and becoming ‘antifragile.’”
The proposal’s project book describes the approach as “Scandinavian and Dutch.” The designers would connect to the surrounding street grid, but interrupt it with two long, narrow diagonal parks, “similar to Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris, although in planted form.” Most of the project is a variation on what one already finds on the Rockaways: low-rise, dense housing and boardwalks along the beach. But this vernacular has been adapted for the post-Sandy era to withstand hurricanes. “The road adjacent to the boardwalk is broken every other block by lowered landscape pockets that connect to the dune landscape and function as swales,” the designers write. “A bicycle path and the boardwalk lay continuously along the entire site. The ‘kinked’ form of the boardwalk helps dissipate forces from a possible storm surge and provides a diverse and unique experience of the shoreline.”
All of the finalists took similar approaches to the central challenge of allowing constant access to the beach and views of the sea while also fortifying the natural storm surge protection. Seeding Office proposed, “raised access to the buildings and primary services, permeable surfaces and detention ponds,” and a boardwalk that would gradually rise and drop on steps. Lateral Office would create basins to collect storm water. All the proposals sought to correct the historical mistake of positioning a hard development edge against the waterfront. Much like the entries in 2010's "Rising Currents" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, all of the entries here sought to work with the environment instead of against it.
Accolades aside, the winning design may not actually be built. As Curbed explains, “The firm will receive $30,000 and the opportunity to meet with developers to ‘discuss its ideas for the possible production, design and construction of the site.’ In other words, this design might not get built, but we may see elements of it in play once Arverne East is developed.” But history has shown that New York would ignore the FAR ROC ideas for reimagining the Rockaways’ infrastructure at its own peril.