Circle June 2022 on your calendars. That’s the month state officials say construction is projected to be completed on new infrastructure designed to prevent flooding in Hoboken.
Exactly which structures and systems Hobokenites should expect to see on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy has yet to be determined, though past statements by the city and state suggest flood barriers like levees or sea walls will be emphasized.
Why such a long wait? Put simply, the $230 million grant that will fund the project comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the federal government does not give away its money lightly.
“We spent the past year organizing and interpreting HUD regulations and rules,” said Dave Rosenblatt, director of Flood Hazard Risk Reduction Measures at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), which will receive and spend the grant. “HUD is very generous, but also very strict with money.”
Rosenblatt and others spoke at a kickoff meeting for NJDEP’s anti-flood efforts in Hoboken at Stevens Institute of Technology this past Tuesday.
As required by federal law, NJDEP will spend the next 18 months preparing an exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that considers the environmental costs and benefits of a range of options for addressing flooding, including doing nothing at all. In tandem, it will conduct a feasibility study that looks at the price and constructability associated with each option.
By the time these studies are complete, Rosenblatt said, NJDEP will have settled on what it wants to build in Hoboken – its “preferred alternative,” in officialese – though reaching a final design will take another two years. Construction will follow, hopefully coming to a close some time in 2022.
“We’ve got a very challenging timeline to execute.” – John Boulé
Residents question timeline
The timeline laid out for the Rebuild by Design project left some residents unsatisfied, especially considering the ever-present threat of flooding in western Hoboken due to heavy rain. Just three weeks ago, streets and some houses in northwest Hoboken were flooded when the sewers backed up due to a rainstorm at high tide.
“I understand the funding was first approved a year ago,” said one resident. “We’re a year further, and now we’re looking at two years as the soonest to get anything done or even started…You’re going to lose a lot of good residents between now and then.” Mayor Dawn Zimmer said the city has its own projects that should be done sooner that will help to alleviate some of the flooding in the northwest. In particular, the city will provide the funding for a flood pump to be built by the North Hudson Sewerage Authority, which will hopefully be complete by October 2016.
As for Rebuild by Design, state officials labored to emphasize that a seven-year turnaround on $230 million of infrastructure investment is actually rather aggressive in the world of federal funding.
If the project had instead been undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers, said John Boulé, a senior vice president at state contractor Dewberry, “You’d have to go through Congress to get authorized…and then separately you have to get every single year funding for that project and you get it in dribs and drabs and it can take decades to get a project built.”
“We’ve got a very challenging timeline to execute,” said Boulé, “but in the end, you’re going to get something significant built, and you’re going to get it built in a much faster timeline than you would in a standard civil works timeframe.”
Under federal law, HUD must obligate all of the $230 million to New Jersey by September 2017, and the state must spend all of the funds within two years of their obligation, or else apply for an extension.
In Dewberry, the firm picked to lead the feasibility and environmental study phase, state and local officials believe they have found a firm well-prepared to take on the task.
“We have over 2,000 people at our firm,” said Boulé, who served previously as the commander of the New York District for the Army Corps of Engineers. “300 of them are within a 45-minute drive, depending on traffic, from where we’re sitting…and we’re going to use lots of expertise from those folks.”
Dewberry has worked on other Rebuild By Design projects, including a Red Hook, Brooklyn-based plan that was a finalist last year, and has also conducted feasibility studies for flood mitigation projects on Staten Island.
Among the nine subcontractors selected by Dewberry to help complete its work are a number of familiar names. Boswell Engineering will reprise its role as the city’s waterfront engineer, and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) will pick up where it left off as the lead firm behind Hoboken’s Rebuild by Design proposal.
“We’re thrilled to be continuing as part of the team into the feasibility stage,” said OMA Associate Laura Baird. Thanks to its prior knowledge of the area, she added, her firm should be able to identify and develop possible benefits like new open space that could be realized as part of the project.
Though construction on the Rebuild by Design project is projected to take three and a half years in total, Baird said there would likely be some “quick wins,” smaller pieces that could be built first and begin addressing flooding while the larger pieces were being completed.
Even the selection of Dewberry was made with expedience at least partially in mind. Because the firm has an active contract with New Jersey Transit, NJDEP was able to procure their services without going through a full bidding process.
Still, some at Tuesday’s meeting thought the Rebuild by Design project might even be moving too fast.
“For my family, if we were going to try to find a new apartment or a new place to live, that would take two years for the five of us to figure that out,” said resident Carter Craft, “so I really feel like it’s a tremendous challenge for us as a city…to figure out our flooding problem in just the span of 18 months.”
Craft asked if the next public meeting on the Rebuild by Design project could be pushed back until after August so more members of the public would be in town.
Public process promised
Craft’s desire for robust public input into what ultimately gets built in Hoboken was shared by many of the residents and local officials present at Tuesday’s meeting. Though much of the delicate waltz over the grant money will take place within the alphabet soup of state and federal bureaucracies, state officials promised that local residents would be heard and addressed.
In addition to a raft of scheduled public meetings, the city of Hoboken has organized a 37-member Citizens Advisory Group (CAG) to gather information and advocate for resident concerns that will regularly meet with NJDEP.
Co-chaired by City Council President Ravi Bhalla, Craft, and LaTrenda Ross, the group is a veritable who’s who of civically engaged Hobokenites, including Hoboken Historical Museum Director Bob Foster, Hoboken Chamber of Commerce President Richard Mackiewicz, Fund for a Better Waterfront Executive Director Ron Hine, and American Legion Post 107 Commander John Carey.
In addition to the CAG, residents can stay informed of the Rebuild by Design project by signing up to be on an email listserv at www.state.nj.us/dep/floodhazard/rbd-hudsonriver.htm.
“We want everyone to have a voice in this,” said Zimmer.
She and Boulé repeatedly emphasized building a consensus. But all the talk of consensus gave Richard Weinstein, a Hoboken resident and former environmental lawyer, pause. He asked whether funding would be made available for the CAG to hire its own consultants.
Zimmer said she would consider the suggestion, but was unsure as to whether it would aid the process. “You don’t want to get in a situation where the Citizens Advisory Group is hiring their own professionals and going against the [state’s] professionals,” she said.
Without their own consultants, warned Weinstein, the CAG would be unable to give constructive feedback to the state or question any of their recommendations concerning engineering or design.
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com..