Advancing Community Resilience in Hunts Point, During and Post-Rebuild by Design
An interview with Angela Tovar of The POINT in Hunts Point, Bronx, NYC
By Nahal Ghoghaie, The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water
A Research Advisory Committee member contribution to Dispatches from the Challenge
Angela Tovar has worked as a community planner, advocate, and non-profit manager for over 10 years. She currently serves as the director of community development for The POINT CDC, a non-profit organization located in the South Bronx. In her current position, Angela oversees community partnerships, advocacy, and environmental justice efforts, including the development of a community-based climate resiliency plan, which was developed out of the Rebuild by Design Challenge.
About the Project:
The Hunts Point Lifelines proposal outlines four “Lifelines” that demonstrate a working waterfront that could be replicated in maritime industrial areas across the region.
The Lifelines project came in second place in the Rebuild Challenge, which won them $20 million for a “Hunts Point Resiliency” pilot project, grown out of the Lifelines proposal. The City of New York allocated an additional $25 million in funding, for a total of $45 million to be invested in the community, as a result of the Rebuild Challenge. After a year-long community engagement process, two priority categories were identified for feasibility studies: flood risk reduction and resilient energy. The City decided to pursue a pilot project to provide resilient power for critical backup generation at food distribution centers.
1. How did you learn about Rebuild by Design?
Answer: I was working as the Director of Policy and Research at Sustainable South Bronx (SSB) for four years when the Challenge was announced. SSB’s offices were located next door to THE POINT’s office, so I was following along with much interest from the beginning. With a history working in Hunts Point as a community advocate, I was eager to learn if it might be a design site, and started acquainting myself with the design teams. I wanted to see who the people were who were already chosen prior to my introduction to the Rebuild challenge. I was relieved to learn that, overall, the designers recognized it was a very top-down process, and acknowledged that it wasn’t a guaranteed project. Once the designers were moved to the second round, they began incorporating community engagement.
2. At what point did you decide to join the Rebuild challenge?
Answer: After learning the design teams were incorporating a significant community engagement component, I saw a place for myself in the process. Especially after learning that the Hunts Point was a selected community. I actually ended up joining the stakeholder team convened by Penn Olin, as they valued my background working for several years with the Hunts Point community. They understood that my insight would help them understand the social cohesion of the neighborhood, and which community members would be critical to the planning and design process. As a long-time organizer in the Hunts Point community, I understand that advancing capital projects and co-developing solutions with community members takes much time.
3. How were community members invited to the process?
Answer: There were various levels of stakeholder engagement. The Executive Director of The POINT at the time, Kelly Terry, was the main liaison for the community with Penn Olin. Kelly was instrumental in creating the stakeholder group.
In addition to working with The POINT, the design team also contracted a consultant with deep knowledge of the local business community through his work with the congressman’s office, Paul Lipson. He is currently aconsultant working with businesses in Hunts Point and neighboring communities on these sorts of multi-stakeholder processes. This aspect was incredibly effective and I would advise Resilient by Design teams to also think about how they can convene and organize support from the business communities in their locations as well.
Penn Olin was wonderful about meeting with groups one on one to understand their work and what they’re trying to advance, such as unemployment and the need for local jobs. This level of engagement helped the designers understand that developing a strong social resiliency component should be a top priority in the design process. This understanding is captured in the Lifelines project by emphasizing the importance of local community members stewarding some of the new spaces that were included in the design. Also, thinking about what materials could be grown and created right here in the neighborhood was a major enhancement to the local economy.
Penn Olin made the project accessible to people in a different way. Anyone who’s worked with EJ communities knows that there’s always a planning process happening, because it’s common for one program or another to come in and try to solve the community’s issues. It can often lead to a sense of fatigue for community members. It’s thus essential to meet people where they are and try to make the work more accessible.
One fun and successful event that the Penn Olin, The Point and Paul Lipson organized was a food fest, or “Slam Bake” that highlighted the importance of food to this community, as Hunts Point is home to the largest food distribution center in the country. Local restaurants competed and participants could vote. It was a fun party that attracted community members, and the design sketches were there as well. Some community members would approach the designs to learn more, and we were able to recruit more folks for our engagement meetings from there. Taking the conversation outside the same old public process and sharing in ways to make it accessible to the residents and business community will prove invaluable to the community engagement process.
4. If you had one piece of advice to share with community partners as they engage in the RbD process, what would it be?
Answer: Understanding that when you invest in this process, you’re resurfacing a lot of old ideas as potential solutions and with the help of the design teams, you’re arriving at new ideas. While it is a competition, think beyond the Rebuild context. It would be a shame to spend this much time on a process and to create so many wonderful solutions to have it go nowhere. These wonderful ideas can really help vulnerable communities throughout the region. If you begin with the long term sustainability in mind, then you can carry it forward regardless of the competition’s outcomes.
Even though Hunts Point did receive substantial funding, it was critical for us at The Point to create a parallel campaign. We started the South Bronx community Resiliency Agenda, with a goal to make sure that plans for Hunts Point Lifelines are realized and prioritized moving forward. The agenda primarily focuses on advancing a community preparedness plan for the neighborhood. This is something we can work on in the interim while advocating for projects to come online. The agenda also ensures that we make climate change a priority so we can advocate for the overall long term sustainability of our neighborhood.
By the nature of the process, the Hunts Point project brought together community members from various industries and communities who previously would have never wanted to speak with each other, let alone, work together. The very nature of the engagement process was for all the stakeholders to build a coalition, and now the community is in the process of maintaining this coalition.
The South Bronx Community Resiliency Agenda urged the city to respond and make a commitment to maintain the same level of engagement with stakeholders as it had during the challenge.
We know that a lot of the ideas and solutions are already on the ground. We were fortunate that our design teams also recognized this.
5. If you had one piece of advice to share with design teams as they advance in the RbD process, what would it be?
Answer: Since it’s so early on in the process, I would encourage design teams to be cognizant that there might already be solutions on the ground. Research who is already organizing in these communities and the outcomes of the existing planning processes on which they have already engaged community members. This could be very meaningful, as it’s easier to partner with groups on the ground when you’re actually interested in listening to them instead of coming in with grandiose ideas that might not resonate with the communities.
It’s important to communicate to the community that because this is a competition, this may or may not amount to anything. It’s important for them to be prepared.
One way to help them prepare for project sustainability, is to work with communities on advancing a parallel campaign to make sure they can realize their design and advance their work with their elected officials.
Acknowledge that there’s a certain level of expertise as stakeholders and residents of a community. Not to undermine the technical expertise of design teams, but the people who work and live in these communities are experts as well.
6. Is there anything you wish would have been done differently with the process?
Answer: The $20 million was used for an energy pilot project, which wasn’t quite the vision that the Lifelines project outlined. The community was hoping for a flood mitigation process as a priority. The energy resilience project, which is what received the funding, is also very important, but wasn’t exactly what the community was imagining through the Rebuild program.
The outcome of this process does not really reflect “Hunts Point Lifeline Plan,” which is a hard pill for community to swallow because we invested the time and energy. As EJ advocates, we feel we have our own solutions for how to prepare for climate change. It’s not what we expected, but that doesn’t mean we’re not any less invested. We stay hands-on and are trying to shape and guide the city with a very strong hand and move a little bit more towards the potential to expand and list the ideas that were created through the lifelines process.
That said, we are grateful for the $45 million invested here, and we will ensure the money spent will reflect community priorities as much as possible.
7. Are there any resources you would like to share with the Resilient by Design teams and community partners?
Answer: Yes. We were successful at getting the city to embrace a set of implementation principles, which were co-developed with the city’s own advisory working group. The principles are intended to make sure the city is putting systems in place that ensure the city’s commitment to deep stakeholder participation, that they will be transparent and keep the community aware of planning steps well in advance, ensures that the city is invested in local procurement, and it makes sure that labor is found locally.
Because the development process has not started yet, we haven’t seen the principles carried out, but the city did publicly embrace them. So, only time will tell. (Angela provided The Guiding Principles for Implementation document, for reference).
7. Is there any way that you think Rebuild or the design teams could help with this effort?
Answer: On the design end, we still have a great relationship and they are still invested in our work. We have a planning board of stakeholders, designed after the model from Rebuild, and one of our original designers still advises us, and works with neighboring communities and how they can take some of our lessons and move forward. Ellen Neises is helping on her own time as an advisory board member.
When the process ends, consider how you can still be valuable to a community. Just because the competition ends, it doesn’t make the work any less important.
One other thing that Rebuild can do, as process moves forward, is to consider what their role is in terms of advocacy. The design team might not receive the final implementation funding, so it’s important to think about their role as advocates and how they can engage in the process after the Rebuild project to ensure that wonderful progressive ideas don’t get lost.
I want to thank Angela and The POINT for all of their inspiring work and powerful stories, which you can view at the project’s website: https://medium.com/hunts-point-resiliency