Last summer, the city began replacing the wooden boards on two short stretches of boardwalk with concrete strips as a pilot project for a more extensive overhaul of the structure, which extends for two and a half miles along the Brooklyn shoreline.
The change is part of a move away from the tropical hardwoods like ipe (pronounced EE-pay) that have long been used by the city for benches, piers and walkways. The woods are tough enough to withstand a fleet of garbage trucks, but their sources in the Amazon rain forest are being depleted. Under pressure from environmental groups like Rainforest Relief, the city has since 2008 been trying to stop using them, and concrete has become the material of choice for boardwalks.
Officials at the Department of Parks and Recreation have promised that the section of several blocks of the Coney Island Boardwalk along the historic amusement area will remain hardwood. But everything else is vulnerable to conversion to concrete.
The officials say other solutions have drawbacks. North American hardwoods are not as sturdy or long-lasting. Concrete, already used for at least one mile of the five-mile Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, so far seems the cheapest, most durable alternative. Concrete, parks officials say, costs $95 a square foot, compared with $127 for hardwood.
Negligence. For decades the City has refused to allocate adequate funds to maintain the historic boardwalk. Each year multiple lawsuits are filed against the city for injuries as a result. The City is using borrowed capital funds to deal with a lack of maintenance funds which has resulted in the use of concrete.
“It is an oxymoron,” Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, conceded in an interview last year when the pilot project was being considered. “But boardwalk has become eponymous, in the way Kleenex is for paper tissue. It is a generic term for an elevated oceanfront walkway, and other communities use concrete.”
That stance has ignited fierce opposition in Brooklyn for more than a year. Now, with the pilot projects complete and the city proceeding to the full-blown replacement, Community Board 13, whose views are only advisory, has spurned a plan for the next stage: five blocks at the Boardwalk’s eastern edge, from Brighton 15th Street to Coney Island Avenue, to be financed with $7.5 million in state money.
About three weeks ago, the community board voted 21 to 7 against the latest compromise: running a 12-foot-wide concrete lane down the middle of the 50-foot-wide boardwalk to accommodate the wear and tear of garbage trucks and police cars. The remaining sides would be built out of planks made of recycled plastic that cost about $110 a square foot and last for years.
That plan was supported by Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, who until then had pushed exclusively for wooden boards. Kevin Jeffrey, the borough parks commissioner, said a decision on how to proceed would be reached in two or three weeks.
Robert Burstein, 56, a schoolteacher who daily takes five-mile runs on the Boardwalk, said people flocked to it because they “want respite from concrete; we have concrete all around us.” A lifelong resident of the Coney Island-Brighton Beach area, he contends that concrete is tough on runners’ knees and other joints and “that’s going to cause injuries, whereas wood is a much more giving surface.”
He and an ad-hoc group have gathered over 1,000 signatures opposing any concrete sections. Mr. Burstein and Rainforest Relief’s director, Tim Keating, argue that other hardwoods, like black locust and white oak, can be used instead of rain-forest wood and that lumber mills could produce the required boards at a reasonable price if the city’s order was large enough.
Mr. Jeffrey said that North American hardwood his agency had tested began to splinter in two or three years. Its use would repeat a current problem on the Boardwalk — aging boards warp and become dangerous, with people tripping or getting splinters. He acknowledged critics’ complaints that boards made of plastic are often slippery, but said they could be given more traction with a grainy coating. They also have the same amount of give as hardwood slats, he said.
The pilot projects replaced wooden boards with concrete along two blocks near Ocean Parkway and four blocks along the wider western end of Coney Island. They used $15 million in federal economic stimulus funds as well as city money.
Preferring the wooden boards, Mr. Burstein said the parks department should relieve the strain on the Boardwalk by putting the heaviest vehicles — garbage trucks — on the beach itself. In his vision, trucks fitted with mechanical arms would ply the beach twice a day, picking up the 450 litter baskets by extending the arms over the Boardwalk’s railing.
In interviews on the Boardwalk on a recent sunny afternoon, natural wood was lauded for its sensual appeal. Lou Powsner, 90, a longtime member of the community board who for decades owned a men’s clothing store on nearby Mermaid Avenue, recalled the smells when he visited the new boardwalk with his parents in the 1920s.
“What I remember is the smell of fresh wood and the salt air, and it was magnificent,” Mr. Powsner said.
He also remembered that the Coney Island Boardwalk — officially known as the Riegelmann Boardwalk for the borough president who built it as a way of offering the public greater access to the beach — withstood storms like Hurricane Donna in 1960 relatively unscathed, while a concrete esplanade in nearby Manhattan Beach was mangled.
But concrete had its advocates, like Mila Ivanova. Ms. Ivanova, a Ukrainian immigrant from Odessa on the Black Sea who also walks the Boardwalk every day, said: “It’s very good — wood — but it’s old. It is shaking. Sometimes nails come up and you fall. Personally, I like everything new.”
Ruby Schultz, a zestful septuagenarian, said she liked the feel of real wooden boards yielding under her feet, a relief from the hard pavement of city streets.
Ms. Schultz, a retired elementary-school teacher, accused the parks department of failing to maintain the wooden boardwalk so people would say: “Enough with the broken boards! Put the concrete down!”
Such suspicions were echoed in a way by Geoffrey Croft, founder of NYC Parks Advocates, a private group, who said the underlying problem was the city did not budget enough money for repairs, finding it politically more palatable to use borrowed capital funds for rebuilding.
“We’re borrowing for maintenance,” Mr. Croft said.
He, too, would like to keep the Boardwalk wood and not concrete.
“A boardwalk is a boardwalk,” he said. “A sidewalk is a sidewalk.”
A Walk In The Park - June 14, 2011