In Bridgeport, big plans for storm resilience, but no money

Bridgeport -- For a city that's staked its future on revitalizing the waterfront -- and been hammered by Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy and the recent blizzard -- Bridgeport has a lot of work to do.

And a lot of ideas. "We've got to find a way to fortify our city against these floods, and the most vulnerable are the poorest," said Mayor Bill Finch. In a recent interview, he talked about raising up seawalls, building dikes and even tidal gates that could open and close during extreme weather.

At the moment, though, there's no money for any of it.Federal Emergency Management Agency money in the state is meant for replacement -- not redesign, "even though it'll reduce exposure in the future," said David Kooris, the city's director of economic development. FEMA dollars meant for fortification are slow in coming: Bridgeport is still waiting to hear back on an application for $5 million to install a berm along Seaside Park, which was submitted after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

park damage

Bridgeport has been waiting for more than a year on an application for $5 million in FEMA funds to build a berm to fortify Seaside Park, which has been heavily damaged in recent storms. (Photo from city of Bridgeport)

"The federal government is going to have to be more flexible," Kooris said.

Connecticut applied for $3.2 billion in federal "supplemental assistance" after the superstorm with this in mind. The money would go mostly toward burying power lines but also toward hardening infrastructure like roads, bridges and sewer treatment plants, as well as adding generators. In Bridgeport, Kooris said he hopes it can be used to relocate basement water heaters and buy more generators.

But there's almost no chance at all that money will be awarded. So far, only $72 million for Connecticut has been announced.

What those funds -- which come in the form of Community Development Block Grants issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- will do is also unclear.

"If the Sandy relief dollars don't provide at least a starting point for these types of projects around the region," Kooris said, "then it will all have been for naught."

A waterfront reserved for parks, with a few exceptions

Although Bridgeport suffered considerable damage after Sandy, Finch considers the city lucky. Comparing damage to Fairfield Beach and Seaside Park, he said, "ours is minimal. A couple million dollars. They could have had a couple million dollars on the loss of one house out there."

He said that as the city rebuilds, and builds up its waterfront, he'll do things differently. Many of the waterfront properties the city is snapping up from industrial companies will be reserved for parkland. And new zoning changes will require setbacks, more porous surfaces, and other measures to limit stormwater runoff and protect from flooding.

"We don't want to be like the wealthy suburbs that are stupid enough to build luxury homes on sand spits, where hurricanes will wash people and homes away. We're not that dumb to do that," Finch said.

And yet attempts at waterfront development have been the most fervent at Steelpointe -- a 60-acre peninsula surrounded by the Pequonnock River and Long Island Sound -- where the city has fought for more than 30 years to attract glitzy hotels, apartments and retail to the empty lot of grass.

Last fall, the outdoor megastore Bass Pro Shops signed on as Steelpointe's first tenant, the only one to ever make a commitment on the peninsula.

The city always knew it was an expensive endeavor. Now, as Bridgeport recovers from the 12-foot storm surge that hit in late October during Superstorm Sandy, that endeavor is looking even more expensive.

Kooris said the expense isn't worth it for every waterfront property; but it is for Steelpointe. Just the roadwork to begin the project will cost about $14 million, mostly paid for by a federal grant.

"Steelpointe is a perfect example of a place in the core of a city that is in the process of revitalization, within walking distance of the Northeast Corridor. This is exactly the kind of place that it is worth adapting," he said.

The peninsula will be raised as much as 4 feet in certain areas using clean fill, at a cost of $4 million to $6 million. (The number had been lower, until new flood maps from FEMA came in and prompted a change of plans.) And the utilities will be underground, which has resulted in a tussle between Bridgeport and United Illuminating over who will pay.

The city wants UI to share the $3.5 million initial cost of burying power lines, while UI says it shouldn't have to pay anything. The fight delayed the start of the project last winter, and now Bridgeport has put $1.3 million in an escrow account so work can continue while the state mediates the dispute.

"If we lose, it's there, it just means that Steelpointe won't be built out as much," Finch said, "because the utilities took the money."

Bass Pro won't be moving into the most flood-prone area of the development. But whoever occupies that space will surely have to pay a premium for building so close to the water.

Dubbed by some as mayor of the country's "greenest" city, Finch acknowledged that his plans for Steelpointe aren't necessarily in sync with waterfront revitalization in the rest of town.

He calls Steelpointe a necessary exception -- along with another nearby waterfront site that was recently approved for extensive commercial development.

"You do have to have a tax base," he said. "If the whole city were a park, you know, you'd have pretty lousy schools."

Rebuilding and redesigning - in theory

Initial plans for immediate rebuilding after Sandy are constrained by FEMA dollars, which means, not much will change.

Portions of the public housing complex known as Marina Village, which flooded during Irene and Sandy, will be rebuilt as is, at the same locations. A pier offering access to Pleasure Beach -- an untapped island that Finch has his eye on as a tourist haven -- is also being rebuilt at a cost of $1.2 million, paid for by the feds, despite being battered two years in a row.

Finch defended both decisions with a shrug.

"Well, you don't have much choice with a pier. If you want to get to Pleasure Beach, you either have to have a bridge or you have to have a pier to dock your boat at." A pier, and the eventual plan for a water taxi to the beach, is still cheaper than a $40 million to $50 million bridge, he pointed out.

As for the public housing, Finch said, it would ideally be built somewhere else or the land would be raised. But that's a matter for the feds, he said.

"The federal government needs to come forward with rebuilding these housing projects, especially the ones that are in flood-prone areas."

Economic development director Kooris said he plans to bring in experts from as far as Holland to advise the city on rebuilding smarter. After being hit by major storms in the 1950s, Stamford embarked on a 10-year project to build a hurricane barrier; Kooris wants to do something similar in the long term.

"It would take time and take significant resources," he said. "But if the end result is the protection of the state's largest city ... located at the core of a regional transit system, we think that makes sense."

Without any promise of money for those plans, though, they remain a pipe dream for now.