From Big Apple to Bloombergburg

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg completes his third term in a little over six months, but on Tuesday he revealed his intention to be with us for many more years to come.

Bloomberg’s plan for a $20 billion makeover of New York’s storm flood defenses will entail nothing less than a dramatic and permanent alteration of the cityscape. A 430-page report unveiled by the mayor in his speech at the Brooklyn Navy Yard sets forth 250 specific recommendations, including adaptable flood walls, fortifying the power grid, retrofitting older buildings at risk and much more.

The mayor is right that something must be done. The trauma of Hurricane Sandy forced all of us to realize that substantial and unavoidably costly improvements in the city’s storm-worthiness are absolutely necessary. And New York’s vulnerability to major storm damage is steadily rising, he warned. Sandy caused an estimated $19 billion in damage to the city. Expert projections based on current data say that if a comparable storm were to strike three decades from now, the cost could be $90 billion.

But there’s good news, too. Yes, $20 billion is a lot of dollars (enough to finance 20 presidential campaigns, until 2092 at going rates). But Michael Bloomberg can get it for you for only $5 billion!

That’s because about half of the estimated $20 billion would be covered by federal and city money already allocated in the capital budget, and an additional $5 billion would be covered by expected aid that Congress has already appropriated. Most of that money was allocated, through a variety of programs, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, according to the report.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that the taxpayers will be paying for it one way or another; but this future is pre-paid. And money already spent doesn’t hurt as much as money that has yet to be spent. What’s spent is spent.

But Bloomberg’s far-reaching plan goes even further: The official price tag does not include visions for further study also mentioned in the report. Notably, the multi-billion dollar construction of a so-called Seaport City, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan, modeled after Battery Park City, to protect Lower Manhattan.

“This plan is incredibly ambitious!” Bloomberg declared.

The same could be said about the mayor. Like any big-time politician, he wants to leave his mark on history. Some dedicate libraries to be filled with their official papers and memorabilia; others have statues made of themselves, or aircraft carriers named after them. Bloomberg wants a whole city in his image. Formerly the Big Apple; soon to be Bloombergburg. Or at least, as one New Yorker suggested this week, a Bloomberg Seaport City.

Not that he’s the first. Once upon a time, New York was transformed by a man named Robert Moses. Many of the bridges and highways that connect the city remain as monuments to his ambition, even if they were not always in the best interests of the people, especially those whose neighborhoods were removed to make way for the future.

To be sure, Bloomberg deserves credit for his far-sightedness. But we should be wary of his eagerness to get things going. During his remarks at the Navy Yard, he said, “This is urgent work, and it must begin now.”

With only 202 days left of his term, there is only so much that can be done. Indeed, the proposals contained in the report represent a respectable beginning. But there is much that has to be discussed and clarified before anything more concrete can be undertaken.

For example, the report seems to make no major recommendations for protecting the subways, which were put out of commission by the flooding. Perhaps it was included in a general discussion of infrastructure, but more needs to be said about it.

Then there is the ever-delicate question of who benefits. During the Bloomberg administration, much of the city’s waterfront has been revitalized, with large sums of public money spent on parks, esplanades and the infrastructure necessary for housing. It’s been a boon for developers who eagerly erected expensive rental and condominium towers from Battery Park City to Long Island City.

We have to think about who will benefit from a Seaport City and the other 250 recommendations. That should be for the next administration to thrash out, deliberately, without haste, to make sure that the public is the prime beneficiary.

It is worth pointing out, too, that at least some of the basis for the abovementioned prophecy of $90 billion of potential storm damage is the conviction (though Bloomberg was careful to admit that it’s not been proven) that climate change is the culprit. If we don’t act right away, the thinking goes, we’ll be inundated by more and worse Sandys.

Apocalypticism is always a useful handmaiden to the advocates of preparedness.

Let us be prepared; but spare us the dubious prophecies of doom.