Viewed from the water, the coastline of Sunset Park, Brooklyn is a wall of brown and grey: concrete plants, garbage transfer stations, power turbines and a host of small industrial businesses, past and present. But for residents of the neighborhood, many of whom live across the street or even next door to such businesses, the colors to worry about are not just the drab, faded hues of industry. They are also the bright reds and oranges that mark Sunset Park on government storm surge maps.

According to data from the city's Office of Emergency Management, much of the neighborhood's industrial coastline—and waterfront industrial areas around the city—could be underwater in even a category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 to 95 miles per hour. Worse storms, consistent with the type that have hit the city periodically over the past two centuries, would bring worse flooding. Until this year, those who worried about such a deluge tended to speak of a Katrina-like scenario, referring to that hurricane's dispersal of pollutants throughout New Orleans' low-lying neighborhoods. With the earthquake and tsunami is Japan, there is now a more recent model.

New York City recently completed a long-term plan for its waterfront, called Vision 2020 and intended to frame zoning decisions, regulatory moves and budget choices affecting the waterfront for years to come. But as ambitious as it is, the plan hasn't resolved decades-old questions about how to reconcile competing desires for the city's 500-mile shoreline. If coastal flooding is inevitable—and history strongly suggests that it is, at least at some point—can a city that wants to use its coast for industry ever keep nearby residents safe?

Six industrial zones

The city's Vision 2020 plan follows previous planning efforts by aiming industrial development at six zones spread across four boroughs (though not Manhattan). These zones, termed Significant Maritime Industrial Areas, are in the lowland areas where industry has typically been in the city: the South Bronx, Staten Island's north shore, Newtown Creek between Brooklyn and Queens, and the Brooklyn zones of Red Hook, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park.

For around two decades, environmental justice activists representing those areas and the surrounding communities have objected to such designations, arguing that the lower regulatory threshold for new industrial development within the zones means problematic businesses are more likely to move there.

With the zones, known in technical shorthand as SMIAs, "You have a city policy that encourages clustering of polluting infrastructure," said Eddie Bautista, a former Bloomberg administration official who is now executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. The group supports industry in principle as a source of accessible jobs, Bautista said. Still, he added, "There's an overall city commitment to fair sharing by city neighborhoods, but the SMIA program seems to go against that."

On a recent drive through Sunset Park, home to the largest of the six industrial zones, Bautista and his wife, Elizabeth Yeampierre, navigated down Third Avenue under the Gowanus Expressway. Yeampierre, who is executive director of the United Puerto Rican Organization Sunset Park (UPROSE) and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency's environmental justice advisory council, pointed left, then right. To the left, on a hill rising up toward Greenwood Cemetery and the city park for which the neighborhood is named, were rows of houses, with stoops and vinyl siding. To the right, past businesses with names like Third Avenue Grinding Shop and BC Auto Rebuilder, were two blocks of warehouses and repair shops, then the network of city piers. Interspersed among it all, though not as numerous on the uphill side, were still more houses.

"In Sunset Park, the water would go up as far as Third Avenue," Bautista said, referring to the Office of Emergency Management projections for a category 2 or even an unlucky category 1 storm. "There are all kinds of chemicals and all kinds of materials being used on the waterfront that we aren't aware of. So when the water comes up, it turns the whole area into a giant brownfield."

The damage from such a flood, of course, would be widespread.

"There's this thinking that if the water's only coming up as far as Third Avenue, then everybody else is OK," Yeampierre said. "But what it means is that there'll be a blackout, that all of the things associated with industry will be underwater."

Watching for water

When the Vision 2020 plan came out on March 14, Bautista and Yeampierre—who had been in multiple meeting with city officials during its development—said it had taken important steps toward addressing their concerns. The plan, they noted, includes recommendations to study brownfield remediation and review the industrial uses allowed in SMIAs, with an eye toward controlling the discharge of pollutants into air and water.

With regard to flooding, the plan calls on city agencies, over the next two years, to "develop more accurate consideration of current flooding risks," to "study urban design implications of enhanced flood protection," and to "study best practices for increasing resilience to coastal flooding and storm surge."

In an emailed statement, Jovana Rizzo, a spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning said the plan seeks to reconcile many competing interests on the city's waterfront, but that industrial uses cannot benefit at a cost to public health. The department, she said, will be studying industrial zones and the way the city handles them—an undertaking that could lead to changes to zoning, building and other administrative codes to minimize industry's negative effects. Targeted zoning and narrower performance standards may be used to regulate industrial uses in areas outside the designated zones, she added.

Bautista called the language in the Vision 2020 plan and its short-term component, the Waterfront Action Agenda, good news. But, he added, "the devil is always in the details."

He emphasized, though, that environmental justice concerns are not necessarily in conflict with an industrialized waterfront.

"We need mixed-use, we need the robust manufacturing sector to be able to hire our community," he said, riding along the waterfront with Yeampierre. "So for us, it becomes the more complicated question of how do you make mixed-use work. Unlike environmentalists, who would like to turn this all into esplanades, environmental justice people know we need to work somewhere."