Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Benefit Honorees

Willa Hutner 

Adrian Benepe and Edith Kean 

On March 6, Adrian Benepe and Edith Kean will receive the CIVITAS August Heckscher Award for Community Service. Both honorees share important attributes; they love parks and came to a city of parks in a state of disrepair. Both restored the places they love to a state nobody imagined possible. For both, parks are not only places of beauty; they have the power to create community. 

 Adrian Benepe became a City Park Ranger after college, and held a succession of positions with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, including wetlands restoration and conservation of monuments and historic house museums. He spent some years at the New York Botanical Garden and with the Municipal Art Society, and then returned to NYC Parks and Recreation as Manhattan Borough Commissioner. In 2002 Mayor Bloomberg appointed Adrian Commissioner of Parks and Recreation. In that office, he expanded the NYC park system with the addition of a restored Randall’s Island, the High Line, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, as well as setting up new standards for sustainable park design. He recently become Senior Vice President for City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land and he continues to run, walk, bicycle and cross-country ski in Central and Riverside Parks and throughout the city’s park system. 

Edie Kean started public gardening shortly after she received a landscape design degree from the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, by beautifying the Park Avenue Mall where she lived. When the Department of General Services set up GreenThumb to take over the cleaning up of abandoned buildings in low income neighborhoods in the late 1970s, she became its landscape designer. The city offered applicants lumber, posts, wire, topsoil, tools and plant material; Edie put the community’s dreams on paper. The abandoned properties became community centers: vegetable and flower gardens, clubhouses, and party sites. When the city moved to give the sites to developers, the environmental community rose up in opposition. They sued in court, and they won. Now many of these parks are under the aegis of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Edie has also been active on the Board of the Bronx Botanical Garden, and serves on the board of the Friends of Fort Tryon Park. When there is a greening community effort, she’s out there, drafting others to the cause, raising money, and moving others to action with her passion. 

Honorary Chairs Joan K. Davidson and Dan Brodsky
The 2013 Benefit’s honorary chairmen are Joan K. Davidson and Dan Brodsky. Joan is president of Furthermore grants in publishing, and president emeritus of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. She is on many boards in New York, and in 2008 was Chairman of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission. In recognition of her service to New York, Joan received CIVITAS’s August Heckscher award in 2011. Dan is the senior partner of the Brodsky Organization, which recently built the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College on East 119th Street. Dan is on many non-profit boards in New York, and is chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Community Board 11 Passes East Harlem Rezoning Recommendations 

On January 15, Community Board 11 (CB11) approved the rezoning recommendations developed by CIVITAS and others for East Harlem (Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues). The recommendations were developed to encourage the following goals in the community: affordable housing opportunities, economic development and job creation, new buildings that are contextual in scale with their surroundings, and revitalization of upper Park Avenue. The area addressed in the recommendations spans 115th to 132nd Streets and has not been rezoned in its entirety since 1961. CIVITAS and CB11’s zoning task force, chaired by Lashawn Henry, are partners in the initiative, and convened hundreds of East Harlem residents to discuss their visions for the future of their community. The zoning recommendations have been crafted to be fine-grained and site specific. They reflect the existing condition of a diverse section of East Harlem. Throughout the process, CIVITAS and CB11 have met with elected officials and government agencies including the Department of City Planning (DCP), Department of Transportation, MTA, and the NYC Economic Development Corporation. Through fundraising among its members and the support of the Greve Foundation and New York Community Trust, CIVITAS and CB11 were able to hire Insight Associates and George Janes Associates, professional planners, to develop the zoning recommendations. 

The next step for the rezoning recommendations is formal review, additional public outreach and adoption by the DCP. Our goal is for the rezoning of this vital area to take place during the current and next mayoral administrations. The complete recommendations are linked to civitasnyc. org. They include: R7-A (medium density, contextual) around 116th Street to allow for affordable housing incentives; C4-4L (commercial) to encourage commercial activity and guide urban design along part of Park Avenue; R6-A (lower density, contextual) was selected to protect the historic scale of upper Madison Avenue; an MX district to encourage a mix of light industry and housing along Park Avenue and C6-2 (commercial zoning) near the 125th Street corridor and Metro North rail station. 

CIVITAS Works to Improve Recycling Rates In Our Community 

CIVITAS Director Joanna Delson and President Felipe Ventegeat meet at PS/MS 57 with Marc Hendricks (Custodian), Glen Nison (DSNY Outreach Specialist), Jonathan Lee (Assistant Principal & Sustainability Coordinator). 
As part of its three-pronged program to significantly improve the rate of recycling in the Upper East Side and in East Harlem, CIVITAS is going back to school. Based on the principle that good habits learned early can have lifelong impacts, CIVITAS has arranged to work in partnership with two schools in East Harlem—PS/MS 007 at 120th Street and Lexington Avenue and PS/MS 57 at 115th Street and Third Avenue—to improve recycling practices at the schools themselves and to educate students on the importance of recycling at home. In November 2012, Joanna Delson, Janis Eltz and CIVITAS President Felipe Ventegeat met with the principals, sustainability coordinators and custodial staff of both schools to lay the groundwork for a continuing partnership. Responding to the school administrators’ specific requests, CIVITAS contacted the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and arranged for outreach specialists to come to the schools on January 14 to guide them in correct recycling procedures. One goal of the program will be to eliminate or substantially reduce the use of styrofoam containers as part of the lunch program. The next phase of the school recycling initiative will be to develop a curriculum with the sustainability coordinators, and to make a series of presentations to the children at assemblies and in the classroom. 

The other two prongs of the CIVITAS Recycling Initiative are: (a) extensive outreach to apartment building managers and neighborhood organizations, particularly on the Upper East Side, to promote participation in the DSNY’s Apartment Building Recycling Initiative (see article on p. 6); and, (b) to work with the NYC Housing Authority at one or more sites in East Harlem to facilitate improved recycling efforts through infrastructure changes and education of tenants. The recycling goals are daunting, but CIVITAS is prepared for the long haul. 

Save the Date: 

CIVITAS Executive Director Hunter Armstrong will speak about land use, zoning and community activism on May 14 at 6 pm at House of the Redeemer, 7 East 95th Street. A NYC landmark, the House was designed by acclaimed architect Grosvenor Atterbury and constructed for the Fabbri family between 1914-1916. 

Community News: 

On December 15 the Neighborhood Explorers Program at the Museum of the City of New York presented their ideas for the CIVITAS Esplanade exhibition. The students are enrolled at the East Harlem School on East 103rd Street.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hamby.

Joe Wood’s first prize designs from the CIVITAS Reimagining the Waterfront ideas competition will be on display at Syracuse University’s Lubin House in February 2013. Lubin House is a historic landmark mansion at 11 East 61st Street and is open to the public. Photo by Karli Cadel.

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

An Analysis of the 2003 East Harlem Rezoning

Michael J. Storm 

Almost a decade ago, in June of 2003, the New York City Council approved a proposal to rezone a significant portion of East Harlem. The event was a triumph for both CIVITAS and Community Board 11, which had been jointly working on the project since 2000. Since 2003, the rezoning has had a substantial effect on neighborhood growth and composition by controlling where and how much redevelopment occurs. The results have been a success for East Harlem. 

The Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College at 119th Street and Third Avenue was constructed in 2011 and is an example of the contextual zoning requirements proposed in 2003 by CIVITAS and CB11. 
Photo by Michael J. Storm. 

The transformation that has occurred in East Harlem is seen in the development that has taken place since 2003, much of which is located on Second and Third Avenues. CIVITAS’s research indicates that in less than a decade more than 45 new buildings have been constructed in the rezoned blocks. New development, such as the new Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College on East 119th Street, exemplifies the contextual zoning requirements that CIVITAS and CB11 proposed: height limits, a contextual street wall, and a mandatory setback above the height of surrounding buildings.

Starting with a neighborhood assessment, CB11 developed a rezoning proposal with the guidance of Richard Bass, a professional planner hired by CIVITAS. The area in consideration covered 40% of East Harlem: between East 98th and East 123rd streets, extending from slightly east of Lexington Avenue to the East River. Of primary concern to both CIVITAS and CB11 was the increase of new development in East Harlem that, if left unchecked, could drastically change the neighborhood’s built environment. 

While the development in East Harlem was beginning to grow, the existing zoning designation, called R7-2, gave developers the most area when they built tall towers surrounded by open space, similar to many public housing developments. Not only did these buildings disrupt the neighborhood’s low-rise character, they discouraged investment in building on smaller properties such as vacant lots. Construction under R7-2 also lacked a height limit, allowing developers to purchase air rights from surrounding buildings to build even higher. 

The Miles at 121st Street and Lexington illustrates the effect of the R7-2 Zoning incentives. The 32-story building sits along Lexington Avenue, stretching from 121st street to 122nd street. Behind the slab building is a barren open space occupying about half of the city block. Across the street, similar buildings on smaller lots are set back from the street. There are only two residential entrances on the street, not counting the Miles, and no storefronts. While the tall buildings allow for open space at the base, the open space is barren and the lack of buildings fronting 121st Street leaves the street itself abandoned—it is uninteresting at best and unsafe at worst. 

The new contextual zoning requirements are identical to the Quality Housing program that was available before the 2003 rezoning with one crucial difference: Quality Housing was an optional addition to traditional zoning regulations whereas under contextual zoning, it is a requirement. An additional attribute of the recent rezoning has been the location of new developments on small vacant lots, a result of choices made in building density, known as floor area ratio (FAR), by CB11 and CIVITAS during the rezoning process. 

The limit on density along the side streets discourages redevelopment of existing buildings, retaining housing stock for the community and preserving the scale and residential character of the side streets. “When you look at the math [the FAR of the 2003 rezoning] there is not enough incentive to knock down an existing building” said Richard Bass of the rezoning. 

Increasing the FAR was a tool in the rezoning for redevelopment but only applied to the major avenues, which were up-zoned significantly. Increasing the density along avenues created a large amount of new development at higher density that would not have occurred under the conditions of R7-2, and “it is probably where the rezoning had its greatest impact,” according to CIVITAS Director Mark Alexander, “the avenues can hold it.” 

As CIVITAS continues to work with CB11 on rezoning other areas of East Harlem, the successes of the 2003 rezoning will continue to inform our engagement with the zoning process. 

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Soft Edges- Hard Lessons

Signe Nielsen 

Recent events have demonstrated that regardless of one’s point of view on the topic of global warming, we are experiencing more frequent and destructive storms. In 2011 Irene caused massive flooding as a result of rainfall and in 2012 Sandy demonstrated the vulnerability of our shorelines to storm surge and high tides. The future of sea level rise, though uncertain in terms of its rapidity, will further threaten our coastlines. New York City must begin to make some significant changes to become more resilient to these forces of nature.
Hunts Point Landing two days after Superstorm Sandy hit. Photo courtesy of Signe Nielsen.

Solutions to flood mitigation will take enormous political will and civic support. Indeed there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Barrier islands created by natural sand deposits such as the Rockaways are very different from the bedrock of Manhattan. However, much of Manhattan’s shoreline once contained mud flats, tidal marshes and sandy beaches. Decades of landfill have now artificially elevated thousands of acres using seawalls to retain their new contours. Given the density of people, buildings and infrastructure that surround the edges of Manhattan, multiple strategies will be required to recalibrate our past and future relationship to our estuarine reality. 

Many people, including designers, have begun to explore both theoretical and built examples of ways to mitigate the damaging effects of water. Premised on the notion that resilient and ecologically productive natural edges are formed as a gradual gradient from river bottom to land surface, several new public waterfronts exemplify this “soft edge” approach. These newly contoured shorelines are intended to reduce the damaging impact of wave energy creating a gentle transition from land to water which is then planted in combination with boulders or similar wave attenuating materials. Soft edges, however, presume that water will flow in and out and that the plants and rocks can withstand the effects of salinity, tidal action and even forceful waves. They are not designed to stop flooding but rather buffer the damaging effects of storm surges. 
Reef balls at Hunts Point Landing. A reef ball is made from concrete and imitates the habitat conditions preferred by mussels when set within the intertidal zone. Photo courtesy of Signe Nielsen. 

Under current regulations promulgated by an alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies, soft edges cannot project out into the rivers; rather, they need to be created by carving into the land. The extent to which a soft edge penetrates landward is a function of the bathymetry, or topography of the river bed. The steeper the shoreline drops off, the greater the soft edge must cut landward. At the present time, this approach is only viable where the real estate is otherwise unoccupied by residents, critical infrastructure, or water-dependent industry. 

As yet unbuilt ideas include creating artificial reefs, wave-attenuating bridges and filling in parts of the rivers to create new salt marshes. While there is hard scientific evidence to support these concepts, there is also concern that they may do permanent harm to existing habitat, jeopardize the shipping industry, and fail to provide adequate flood protection against future, more violent and frequent storms. 
Some of the soft edge public shorelines that have been built recently are Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hunts Point Landing and Riverside South Park. Others that have existed for a long time include the gently sloping stone-lined edge along Fort Washington Park and Manhattan’s only remaining natural wetland in Inwood Hill Park. I visited each of these sites within a week after Superstorm Sandy and was surprised to see how unscathed they were. In the case of Hunts Point Landing in the South Bronx, a park I designed and completed just two months before the storm, the only damage was to the fixed furnishings which were either knocked off their footings or dislodged by floatables carried by the rushing tide. The grasses in the intertidal wetland remained firmly rooted and the boulder wave attenuation edge did not move. Even more surprising was that the oyster “reef balls” which we placed at the base of the tidal wetland remained unharmed. We have also conducted soil tests within the planted areas that we had not expected to receive saline flood water and the results did not show elevated salt levels. I will only feel confident that our plant palette was successfully resilient until this spring when I can observe how well they reemerge from winter dormancy. While I was not the designer of the other parks mentioned, my observation is that they too withstood record high saline water inundation with minimal damage, most of which was as a result of water-borne debris. 

Signe Nielsen is a Principal with Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, and has been practicing as a landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. She is the president of the NYC Public Design Commission. 

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

Monday, February 18, 2013

Preparing for Future Major Storms

James T.B. Tripp

The FDR Drive at 81st Street flooded during Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Gothamist

Sandy hit New York City, Long Island, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut with a Katrina-type ferocity for which this region was not well prepared. Its effects were felt over a 1000-mile wide area. Its storm surge was over 14 feet in many coastal areas, higher than most forecasts and 3-4 feet higher than any former surge. Coastal flooding in Staten Island, the Rockaways and lower Manhattan was profound, with destruction of and damage to coastal buildings and public infrastructure, prolonged power outages and scores of deaths. New York City is obviously vulnerable to storm surge since it alone has some 550 miles of waterfront. Two of its five boroughs are separate islands, and two others,  Brooklyn and Queens are part of Long Island. Coastal New Jersey and Long Island have extensively built-up barrier islands and lowlying coastal mainland communities. Large portions of Manhattan are built on low-lying fill. This includes areas around East 96th Street that were marshy up until the end of the 19th century; flooding due to Sandy reached almost to Second Avenue on East 96th Street.
The East 63rd Street pedestrian bridge on the East River Esplanade as Superstorm Sandy moved in on October 29. Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Sea level is rising, and could go up at least one foot during the next 20-30 years even without the collapse of any major ice sheet. The International Panel on Climate Change that uses a range of climate models predicts intensification of storms surge that could exceed Sandy’s by 3 or more feet? Given global warming, it is important that New York City, New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut use available federal, state, local and private resources to make this region and its coastal areas as resilient as possible to future storms. In addition, these three states should accelerate actions, jointly preferably, to reduce their CO2 emissions and thus their contributions to global warming. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and some New York City agencies, such as its Department of Environmental Protection, have done extensive planning for this new warmer world. The Mayor foresightedly ordered evacuations of low-lying areas in the City during both Irene in 2011 and Sandy.  

The pre-Sandy CIVITAS East River Esplanade ideas competition produced designs that incorporated ways to moderate storm surges. This concern was also seen in the leading competitive designs that the Museum of Modern Art showed in its “Rising Currents” exhibition. Wetlands and oyster reefs can moderate storm surge, but will have only a modest effect on a 14-17 foot surge. In some places flood walls might be considered, but they can be unsightly and serve to redirect rather than absorb flood waters. 
An underground transformer in front of Metropolitan Hospital at First Avenue and East 96th Street flooded with salt water, causing a lot of steam. The hospital was equipped with generators and continued to operate. Photo by Sune Engel Rasmussen, published by The Uptowner
While it is tempting to think that large-scale storm surge barriers located somewhere in Long Island Sound and New York City’s Lower Harbor can control nature’s future fury, the City and the three States would be ill-advised to plan and act on the assumption that such barriers would be built any time soon, although they may be wise to establish a process for thinking about the basic parameters of such barriers for the mid-century and not simply depend on the Army Corps of Engineers. They are complex and very expensive engineering works with major environmental consequences. They also redirect rather than eliminate storm surge so that coastal areas upstream of the barriers will experience higher flood elevations than would otherwise be the case. 

One solution to mitigating the effect of storm surges lies in designing, or retrofitting, public infrastructure and buildings to accommodate episodic major floods. New York City and other coastal areas will have to think about where they want storm surge waters to go in low-lying areas, as well as where they don’t want the waters to go. Public assets such as the subways, railroads, highways, hospitals, water and wastewater, communication and electric utility systems, and private high-rise commercial and residential buildings will have to be flood proofed. Investments to radically improve the energy efficiency of high-rise and individual buildings, coupled with back-up decentralized solar, wind or other power sources that can function independently of the central power grid, all part of the “smart grid” of the future, should be aggressively promoted. 

Individual structures outside of densely populated urban areas in New York City, Long Island, coastal New Jersey and Connecticut should be elevated to a new storm surge standard. In such areas, man-made sand dunes may play a useful role so long as they are properly sited where natural processes would place natural dunes, not right along the beachfront. Federal, state and local response programs should provide funds to buy out private properties in vulnerable areas as an option to the owners who otherwise would face high building-elevation and insurance costs or whose rebuilt structures would impede wise siting of any man-made dunes. Building codes will have to be revised to incorporate flood and energy resiliency measures. Insurance companies need to fine-tune their assessments of storm and flood risks associated with individual assets and structures, depending on what resiliency measures the owners adopt. As former Governor Pataki proposed, the electric utilities should gradually put power lines underground in areas with the density to justify such action. 

Taking these kinds of measures in the many different kinds of settings found in the tri-state region will cost tens of billions of dollars. Electric utility, MTA, water and wastewater, and communication system rates will inevitably rise to finance these measures. The federal government may come through with billions of dollars in emergency appropriation to help cover the cost of post-Sandy clean-up, damage compensation, and perhaps even future accommodation measures. New York City and the three states in our region should use these resources wisely to assure future resiliency to future storms powered by global warming. If we plan and prepare well now, we and other coastal areas of the country may not have to seek comparable federal assistance in the years ahead. 

James T.B. Tripp is Senior Counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund and Executive Vice President of CIVITAS. For more information on the CIVITAS Reimagining the Waterfront project visit:

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

Friday, February 15, 2013

Upcoming Waterfront Events In Our Community and News

Upcoming Waterfront Events In Our Community

Join Trees New York and the Hunter College graduate urban planning studio Greening The Gap for a community visioning session for the East Harlem Waterfront.

Thursday, February 28 from 7-9 pm 
Johnson Community Center at James Weldon Johnson Houses
1820 Lexington Avenue (north of 112th Street)

Also, you can win a $100 prize if you live or work in East Harlem and complete this survey to share your opinion about the East Harlem waterfront:

CIVITAS In The News 

On January 15, Community Board 11 (CB11) approved the rezoning recommendations for East Harlem developed by CIVITAS and CB11’s Landmarks, Land Use & Planning Committee.  The study area for the rezoning includes Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues between 115th and 132nd Streets.

This important step for the rezoning is in DNAInfo: East Harlem Zoning Plan Envisions Commercial Corridor, Affordable Housing

For more on the East Harlem Rezoning visit

Community News

New research finds that many of the Upper East Side's Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) are underutilized public plazas and that lack of signage and awareness about public access keep users away.  Read more in DNAInfo: UES 'Open Spaces' Often Shut Out Public, Study Finds

Which NYC Neighborhoods Produce The Most Trash? Not East Harlem!According to Gothamist, East Harlem Community Board 11 residents generated on average 43.5 pounds of waste per month (versus 70-75 lbs. for the Upper East Side and 130 lbs. for the average American). Read the full article in Gothamist: Which NYC Neighborhoods Produce The Most Trash?

Other Community Events

From Garbage to Gardens with Neighborhood ExplorersSaturday, February 16, 2013 from 2 - 4 pmMuseum of the City of New York1220 Fifth AvenueNew York, NY 10029Join Neighborhod Explorers from Lehman Village Community Center to learn about their work to reduce trash in their neighborhood. Hands-on activities will teach workshop participants how compost transforms garbage into gardens and how they can start greening their own neighborhoods!For more information, visit: