In Bridgeport, Big Plans For Storm Resilience -- But No Money

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Damage to Seaside Park in Bridgeport. The city wants to fortify the park, but hasn't yet gotten the $5 million it asked for from FEMA.
City of Bridgeport
Bridgeport Tries to Fortify Itself
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Bridgeport Tries to Fortify Itself

 Many of Bridgeport’s residents are complaining that city plows never made it to their streets after last week’s blizzard. But once the snow melts, the city will be left to deal with the promise of more storms and danger to its coastline. That will be a challenge, since mayor Bill Finch has staked economic development on bringing people back to the water.

A few months ago I commented on this radio station that nothing was happening on Bridgeport’s waterfront. That prompted an irate phone call from a guy named Chris German, who was just about to launch a community boating initiative downtown. He  took me to a dock right outside the city’s train station overlooking Bridgeport Harbor.

German describes where we are: “We are in the Bridgeport boat basin, which is an area located between the I-95 Bridge and the Stratford Avenue Bridge directly off of the Bridgeport train station in the heart of downtown Bridgeport.”

It’s actually a beautiful and peaceful spot. As we hop in a boat and head up the Pequonnock River, I see old, vacant industrial sites on either side of us. Some of them have been taken over by the city for revitalization. Some of them are still a work in progress. Bill Coleman is in charge of this whole effort. As we glide by he points out properties to me.

“Wherever we can, we pick up pieces of property," he says. "For example this piece here, this is an abandoned factory. And we’ve just acquired it by a foreclosure. This piece used to be the old train station. This is a five-acre piece that we own now.”  

That boat ride we took was before Superstorm Sandy. The damage to this part of the coast wasn’t so bad since there isn’t a lot on it. At least not yet.

“The real issue is fortification of the city. And it’s going to be expensive," says Bridgeport's mayor, Bill Finch.

Finch has been called the greenest mayor in America by some for initiatives like an eco-industrial park that includes a matress-recycling factory. The type of greening that protects his city from future storms is something else altgother.

“We have to raise up the seawalls, we probably have to build some dikes around Bridgeport overtime," he says.

None of that is cheap. Bridgeport actually has already asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to help build a berm along Seaside Park, expected to cost at least $5 million. That was 14 months ago, and it hasn’t heard back yet.  Finch said the city is getting $1.2 million to rebuild a pier on Pleasure Beach – even though it’s been hammered two years in a row by Irene and Sandy. His reasoning?

“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.”

And this is where the problem really lies. If reconnecting the city with the water is the main economic strategy to get Bridgeport’s blood flowing again, it’s just going to get more expensive. The mayor would point out that a pier is a lot cheaper to build than someone’s beachfront mansion. And a lot of waterfront properties in Bridgeport will have mandatory setbacks, porous surfaces, and all of those “green” features. Plus, a lot of the development will be for parkland. But major developments like Steel Pointe are an obvious exception.

The city's economic development director David Kooris says Steel Pointe is worth it. “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.”

The 60-acre peninsula that Bridgeport’s been trying to develop for 30 years finally got its first tenant last fall, the outdoor megastore Bass Pro Shops. All of that land is in a high-risk flood zone, so the plan is to bury the utilities underground, at a starting cost of around $4 million that Bridgeport is already fighting about with United Illuminating. The land will also be raised as much as 4 feet, which could cost as much as $6 million. Maybe someday, it’ll make more sense just not to build on places like this.

But for now, as Mayor Bill Finch puts it,“You do have to have a tax base. If the whole city were a park, you know, you’d have pretty lousy schools.”

Finch, Kooris, and Coleman told me all sort of ideas they have for making the city more resilient to storms. Take the boilers in the basements of public housing complexes and replace them with tankless water heaters in the attic. Raise up the public housing buildings that are currently on the water and have been flooded time and time again. Build tidal gates for Black Rock Harbor that can actually close during extreme situations. I

s there money for any of this? Not really. Most FEMA dollars go toward rebuilding things as they are, not redesigning them. David Kooris hopes that’ll change with the Congressional aid.

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

And it’s still not clear how much of that money will be available to Connecticut. Governor Malloy asked Congress for $3.2 billion in what’s called supplemental relief assistance. So far we’ve gotten about $70 million, and when all is said and done, we’ll be getting a small fraction of what we hoped for.

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