As a developer, NJ Transit and Hoboken city officials try to reach an agreement on how to redevelop the agency's sprawling rail yards there, the need for flood protection has become a central piece of the discussion. But those prospects also are clouded by uncertainty over how new federal flood regulations would impact future development.
The Mile Square City was among the hardest hit in late October when Hurricane Sandy filled the streets with floodwaters, trapping many residents in their homes and crippling its busy transportation terminal. Since then, developer LCOR Inc. and NJ Transit have been mulling components for their proposed 2.9 million-square-foot, mixed-use project that would offer protection and resiliency in future storms.
"We looked at all of the infrastructure planning that we had done previously for the project, and took a thoughtful step back," said Brent Jenkins, development director for LCOR. Planners are considering "how a weather-related event would affect our development, and then how the development itself … would affect Hoboken" during such an event.
He said the firm and the agency have discussed ideas such as a physical barrier along the length of the project, which would stretch west to east along the southern edge of Hoboken, parallel to Observer Highway. Other concepts include building features that collect storm water and divert it to the Hudson River, rather than the city sewer system, along with placing key building infrastructure out of flood-prone areas.
LCOR and NJ Transit presented the ideas and offered updates to residents at a meeting Thursday night in Hoboken.
But the city may have other concerns before it can consider how to flood-proof the proposed development. Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who noted that LCOR and NJ Transit have not yet submitted revised plans, said she is fixed on regulations being crafted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would impose new elevation levels and other requirements that "would have a serious impact on all future development."
A main concern was that the proposed elevations are not geared toward urban areas, said Zimmer, who is lobbying for new guidelines that would "protect the city from flooding, while also protecting the character of our city." She said "the result of that conversation will then set the framework for what happens with the future redevelopment plans."
"I'm literally advocating at every level of government to try and make sure that we take an urban approach to those FEMA regulations," Zimmer said, later adding, "We're not going to be able to move forward until we figure out what those regulations are going to be."
Meanwhile, the need for flood protection ties into the central area of debate for the rail yards project — its size. LCOR and NJ Transit's proposed development, which would feature a series of office and residential high-rises spread over eight sites, is about 1 million square feet larger than the city's own proposal, and the governing body has balked at the idea of a project that is any larger.
Jenkins said the project needs to be about 3 million square feet in order to produce enough revenue to support the storm protection and infrastructure upgrades.
"You just can't afford to do that with 2 million square feet," he said. "Those things are a fixed cost. The only way to pay for that fixed cost is to develop enough square footage so that it pays for those things without burdening the city."
Zimmer said she "would be happy" to review the revised proposal once it's submitted.