Letter Reveals Lower Manhattan Shut Out of Fed Flood Funds

Superstorm Sandy flooding of a garage at 85 Broad St. and the letter from HUD to the city announcing the award of $176 million for flood protection funds. The letter, stamped Jan. 21, was publicly released on Feb. 18. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 22, 2016

(UPDATED FEB. 23 and 24)

It appeared to be great news for Lower Manhattan.

Last month, more than three years after the devastation by Superstorm Sandy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it was awarding the city $176 million for flood protection, a chunk of it for fortification projects south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Community Board 1.

But according to a letter to the city from HUD, only now being made public, the Community Board 1 area will receive no funding at all. A statement to the Trib from a HUD spokesman on Feb. 23 further confirmed the information.

The city won the award through the National Disaster Resiliency Competition, a competition among cities and states for part of a $1 billion pot of federal flood protection funds.

The city's application requested protection for two sections of coastline as part of a project named Lower Manhattan: Protect and Connect. One of the areas, called “Two Bridges,” runs from the Brooklyn Bridge north to Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side. The other, within Community Board 1, is known as “Manhattan Tip,” and runs south of the Brooklyn Bridge and includes the Seaport, the Battery and Battery Park City.

Several city housing projects are located in the Two Bridges area, which justified the award going solely to the Lower East Side, a HUD spokesman told the Trib in a statement. The Two Bridges portion was awarded because it protects New York City Housing Authority housing and other low- and moderate-income residential buildings, which aligns with HUD's mission, the spokesman, Charles McNally, said.

In its January announcement of grant winners, HUD seemed to indicate that the city’s award would go to projects both north and south of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a statement, praised “HUD’s commitment of $176 million for our Lower Manhattan: Protect and Connect integrated flood protection system.”

“The money would be used to help fortify a stretch of shoreline from Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side to the northern tip of Battery Park City,” the New York Times reported on Jan. 18, beneath a rendering of Lower Manhattan that showed a green line that looped around the island, indicating where berms and floodwalls might be built.

But on Thursday, Community Board 1 Chair Catherine McVay Hughes, for the first time, saw the letter from HUD that informed the city of its grant.

The neighborhoods of CB1 were not mentioned.

“When I was reading that document I kept going through and I realized, ‘Hey wait, we’re not included,” McVay Hughes said in a telephone interview. “It was a false spinning of the facts.”

The letter, date stamped Jan. 21, came to light on Feb. 18 following a monthly meeting of Manhattan community board chairs in which McVay Hughes said she had complained that funds for flood protection for Lower Manhattan had been left out of the mayor’s preliminary budget. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who hosted the meeting, made an inquiry to the city agency charged with coastal resiliency and received a copy of the letter.

McVay Hughes said she had received a call on Feb. 8 from a city official who told her that the city was trying to clarify where the award money could be spent. Another $100 million in city funding for Lower Manhattan, announced to great fanfare last April, also was in question, she said she was told.

At a Feb. 16 meeting of CB1’s Seaport Committee—two days before the release of the letter—Michael Shaikh, deputy director for external affairs in the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency, repeated that the city was trying to find out where the money could go.

“HUD hasn’t given us very much clarity on this award except that you’ve won $176 million for the project,” he told the committee. “They’re going to tell us over the coming weeks, hopefully not months, how this can be spent. That’s all that we know at this moment.

(In a statement to the Trib following the original posting of this story, Shaikh emphasized that there was confusion over the funding because HUDs guidance had been “vague and imprecise.” For the past month, Shaikh said, “the administration has been actively seeking clarity from HUD and, as we sought this clarity, we have been keeping elected officials and community partners abreast of these conversations.”)

McVay Hughes and CB1 are now turning their attention to the $100 million grant from the city for Lower Manhattan flood protection. That money was meant to demonstrate in its competition for the HUD award that the city was making a major investment in protecting Downtown.

In a resolution, the Seaport Committee called on the city to earmark all of that money for the CB1 area.

“We’re asking that if the HUD money is not flexible then at least the $100 million should be unrestricted funds that should be spent all south of Brooklyn Bridge,” said McVay Hughes, who for years has been a leading advocate for storm protection funding for Lower Manhattan.

Shaikh, the city flood resiliency official, said, “we don’t know” where the $100 million can be spent. “We have to talk to HUD.”

It will cost an estimated $234 million to fortify the Lower Manhattan coastline, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the north end of Battery Park City. So far, the city is contributing $8 million to a project that would protect The Battery, and the city and state have committed $6.75 million towards the preliminary design and environmental review of a protection system for the rest of Lower Manhattan, according to CB1.

It is unknown where the rest of the money will come from. We are committed to fighting to fund that gap, Shaikh said

In his statement to the Trib, the HUD spokesman said there is not enough money to cover the city's entire flood protection proposal but HUD supports the city's ongoing efforts to identify additional funding to complete this important resilience project.

Shaikh assured the Seaport Committee that, regardless of where HUD wants its award money to be spent, the city is going ahead with an 18-month process that will lead to a preliminary design for flood protections for both coastlines—above and below the Brooklyn Bridge.

“There will be a design for the entire scope of the project,” he said.

But its the lack of flood protection today that scares us,” replied the committees chair, Marco Pasanella, whose Seaport wine store was under seven feet of water from Superstorm Sandy. “Nothing has changed for almost four years from Sandy, he said. We are no better prepared.”