State and municipal governments are taking steps to ensure the safety of their coastal communities by implementing more stringent design and building standards for new construction and redevelopment projects. They also are beginning to replace old infrastructure with flexible systems that can adapt to future conditions.
Evidence of climate change is already noticeable in low-lying areas of south Florida, notes John Englander, an oceanographer and author of High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis (Science Bookshelf, 2012). Higher monthly tides coincide with the moon’s elliptical orbit around the earth every 28 days. The seasonal April and October peak high tides—often called king tides—occur due to gravitational pull when the earth, moon, and sun are aligned. “Every 28 days, there’s saltwater in the streets of Miami,” Englander says. “This is a sign of what’s happening.”
William Hardin, a professor of real estate in the Department of Finance and Real Estate at Florida International University in Greater Miami, notes, “To get flood insurance, buildings have to be 12 feet [3.7 m] above sea level. Most everyone is looking at a slight rise in sea level and addressing it, adding a five- to seven-foot [1.5–2 m] component above the 12 feet FEMA requires, or 100-year floodplain. The real risk is the infrastructure,” he says, referring to storm drains, sewers, water lines, and underground electrical lines.
The south Florida market, which includes Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties, has 201 luxury condominium towers containing 28,100 units proposed or underway along the coast, as well as nine new luxury resort hotels, according to a recent Miami Herald report.
“People can feel much safer in newer buildings than older ones, in regard to hurricanes and rising tides,” says Lon Tabatchnick, president of Lojeta Group of Florida, which is developing a 349-key Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida. He says that’s because of new hurricane building standards for new construction, and renovation and redevelopment projects must be compliant as well.
Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, executive senior principal and president at Newport Beach, California–based Lifescapes International who designed the landscaping at the Margaritaville project, notes, for example, that all materials used in landscaping and outdoor recreational areas within 45 feet (14 m) of the sea line must be able to break away in a storm.
In addition, Brinkerhoff-Jacobs says that the local government requires a minimum of 60 percent of trees used to be native to Florida, including the pigeon palm and coco palm, which can withstand severe winds. The coco palm is Margaritaville’s signature tree, and about 150 of them are being planted to help define the project’s “island resort theme.”
As for Margaritaville’s vulnerability to sea-level rise, Tabatchnick says, “Our low point is eight feet [2.4 m] above sea level, so we’re not in danger here for the next 20 years. There’s been an effort by the city of Hollywood to restore beaches and sand dunes to eight feet above sea level, but if we don’t continue to our restore beaches and sand dunes, [rising sea level] will impact us.”
Local governments in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties recognize their vulnerability and formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact (SFRCC) in 2009 “to put the science all in one place,” says Erin Deady, an environmental lawyer based in West Palm Beach. She points to the establishment of the SFRCC and the development of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Action Plan as a model, which was adopted by local governments affiliated with the SFRCC. She notes that the SFRCC does technical studies and provides support to cities, and works to ensure that planning and building policies and standards are consistent throughout the region. Cities within the four-county area are also developing plans to address their own unique climate change situations.
Deady, for example, is helping Shane Laakso, city planner for the city of Islamorada, Village of Islands, a municipality with a population of 6,000 in the Florida Keys, develop a climate and sustainability plan that will be used to make decisions about investments in infrastructure to mitigate sea-level rise, flooding, severe winds, and emergency evacuation routes. Infrastructure improvement is a big safety issue for Islamorada because there is only one road in and out of the Florida Keys.
“The plan will address critical infrastructure impacted by climate change, sea-level rise, and increasing intensity of storms,” says Laakso, noting that last fall the city council decided to invest in raising water, drainage, and sewer systems. “We anticipate a three- to seven-inch [8–18 cm] sea-level rise, so we need to design infrastructure to accommodate [changing conditions] over the next 20 to 30 years,” he says.
For example, “If there is an extreme high tide, there is nowhere for the water to go. The local government could put a gate on the stormwater drain, so we can control rising water. But we have to identify vulnerable areas to plan for those effects,” Laakso adds, pointing out that the climate and sustainability plan will include this type of information.
The Californian Approach
The California Natural Resources Agency has taken the lead in that state for developing a plan to manage the risks and protect against the future effects of climate change. Local governments have accepted predictions presented in reports from the state’s Climate Action Team and Climate Action Initiative and are in the process of adopting recommendations presented in the agency’s latest update to this plan, “Safeguarding California, Reducing Climate Risk,” which was released in July.
Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary research organization dedicated to advancing environmental protection solutions in California and globally, predict a 55-inch (140 cm) sea-level rise over the next 100 years for the entire California coast.
In the San Francisco Bay area, decommissioned military bases are being redeveloped to create new waterfront neighborhoods, with thousands of jobs, retail, and recreational amenities that will benefit adjacent communities.
The 878-acre (355 ha) Alameda Point project is redeveloping the Alameda Naval Air Station into a mixed-use development with 1,425 residential units, 5.5 million square feet (511,000 sq m) of commercial space, and 300 acres (121 ha) of peninsular land with ten miles (16 km) of trails for public recreational use.
Jennifer Ott, chief operating officer for Alameda Point, says the biggest issue discussed in selecting developers for this project is the standards they will be held to due to sea-level rise and their approach to meeting them.
“Everything must be designed to be adaptable—infrastructure and structures—beyond sea-level rise,” she stresses, noting that sea-level rise predictions by different sources vary, from 5 to 24 inches (13–61 cm) between 2030 and 2050 and 17 to 66 inches (43–168 cm) between 2050 and 2100.
Open space that is unprotected can become wetlands or a bay as the water rises, but developed areas must be protected by a levee, she explains. Ott notes that prior to development landfill will be brought in to create an 18-inch (46 cm) grade above sea level along the shoreline, and the Town Center and Waterfront District will be elevated 24 inches (61 cm) above the 100-year floodplain. The multipurpose levee, which will be added once development is completed, would have a raised berm or seawall, with a bay trail on top and open space on both ends.
The $1.5 billion Treasure-Yerba Buena Islands project, which is redeveloping the 450-acre (182 ha) Naval Station Treasure Island, will create 8,000 residential units, 240,000 square feet (22,300 sq m) of commercial space, two hotels with a total of 500 rooms, and 300 acres (120 ha) of parks and open space. It will get underway this fall.
Developer Wilson Meany is also taking a flexible approach to managing sea-level rise at this project, or what Kheay Loke, Wilson Meany senior development manager, calls an “adaptive management strategy” to deal with uncertain predictions about sea-level rise in the San Francisco Bay area.
Initially, the grade of the Treasure Island development site will be raised three feet (1 m) above the 100-year high tide on the interior when the developer breaks ground in the fall, says Loke, “so we can withstand 36 inches [91 cm] on top of the 100-year high watermark or baseline. This may not happen, but if it does, we will build a levee at the perimeter.”
Over the last three to five years, people have become more aware of climate change and the fact that the sea level is rising, notes Englander. “People in the development community are building more sustainably, at higher density, and designing for preparedness and change, making properties more resilient,” he says. But ongoing adaptation will be necessary as climate change progresses.
“Living greener and sustainably will slow it down, but can’t stop it,” Englander adds. “Even if there are no more carbon emissions, the oceans are already saturated [with CO2], and sea level will continue to rise.”
Looking at climate change issues over the next few decades, Hardin suggests that local governments focus on creative infrastructure strategies, like Alameda Point’s flexible approach and innovative ideas that are being explored at Islamorada.
He notes that while governments are making a great deal of effort to adapt coastal projects to meet climate change predictions 30, 40, 50, and 100 years into the future, it is hard for investors to conceive of a building’s economic life extending beyond 30 to 40 years. “What’s built today will be obsolete by the time water rises,” Hardin concludes.
Patricia Kirk is a freelance writer living in the Los Angeles area.