Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Concrete Coney Island Boardwalk Plan Approved Over Strong Community Objections In "Sham" Hearing

There is nothing more frusterating than watching a process that is outside of your control.
It was standing room only at the Public Design Commission hearing on the reconstruction of the Coney Island boardwalk. Critics of the controversial plan said they wanted to be heard as well as listened to but that was not to be. The Mayoral appointed commission as expected voted unanimously to approve the Parks Department's plan to use concrete on the historic boardwalk instead of wood. Forty-five members of the public testified against the Parks Department plan and vs. three in favor. At one point it appeared one of the commissioners - Byron Kim - was making some headway, but in the end he too was ignored.
(Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)


By Geoffrey Croft

In a nearly four- hour, and at times contensious meeting, the City's Public Design Commission unanimously approved the Parks Department's controversial plan to use concrete on the historic boardwalk in Coney Island. The plan was approved over the objections of the near unanimous members of the public who attended the proceedings.

Due to the city's refusal to allocate adequate funding to maintain the iconic Coney Island boardwalk the city is proposed installing a 12 foot wide concrete sidewalk down the middle flanked on each side by plastic composite planks. The test area will run from Coney Island Avenue to Brighton 15th Street.

The issue has received a considerable amount of attention.

Critics including Brooklyn residents, environmentalists, and preservation advocates filled the room to capacity.

To divert attention away from the lack of maintenance funding issue the Parks Department is contending the reason for the switch to plastic is to accommodate emergency vehicles, a use, critics point out the wooden boardwalk has accommodated for close to a century.

Landscape architect Alex Hart, assistant deputy chief of design for the NYC Parks Dept., presented the proposal to six commissioners while dozens of Brooklyn residents, environmentalists, preservations, and advocates looked on, filling the room to capasity.

He and other Park officials stated they have had trouble finding a reliable supply and acceptable quality of more environmentally friendly hardwood.

Alex Hart, assistant deputy chief of design for the Parks Dept., presents the agency's controversial proposal to the Public Design Commission on reconstruction of Coney Island's boardwalk.

"We would greatly prefer to use wood on this surface but there is nothing out there right now that will work for us," said Hart.

The city also claims that concrete is the most cost-effective solution.

Operating under the Parks Department's standard 'we have the capital funds but we have to spend it immediately before we lose it' policy the agency lobbies local elected officials, community boards and agencies for support in order to receive the necessary approvals.

City Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. Chair of the City Council Finance Committee did his part. He testified in favor of the plan repeatedly saying it "has to move forward."

"It doesn't make people happy," he said of his support to loud hisses and boos from the crowd.

He acknowledged the condition of the boardwalk was due to not having adequate expense funding. The expense money, "couldn't be there, " he said. Mr. Recha, who represents the Coney Island district did not say why the money could not be there or mention how much money he allocates annually for boardwalk maintenance. He did state however he'd rather see funds be spent on other services.

He testified (erroneously) that if the boardwalk was wood it would cost one million dollars a year to maintain. (A figure he also cited to the NY Times a few week earlier.) After his testimony he was informed that the million dollar figure he cited was actually the amount in funding the parks department receives for boardwalks at three locations not just Coney Island. When asked for a comment on the misstated figure afterwards he said to shut off the tape recorder and he ran away.

After the nearly hour long presentation critics got their turn. Loud boos rang out when it was announced the public would only get two minutes to speak.

At one point Jackie Snyder, Executive Director of the Commission told a staff member to call DCAS security. A uniformed officer stayed throughout the remainder of the hearing keeping an eye on the crowd. (When the meeting was over the officer aggressively cleared out the hallway where community members were doing interviews.)

Speaker after speaker testified against the plan, pleading with the commission to reject it. They also implored the Parks Department to perform due diligence and explore alternatives.

The numerous contradictions were also noteworthy:

Critics repeatedly poked holes in the agency's claims. They pointed out the hundreds of cracks already found in the newly installed concrete, and that concrete collects sand and water and ices up during the Winter which creates unsafe conditions. They also testified that the concrete is blinding and boiling hot in the Summer. The public also questioned the financial sense of the Parks Department continuing to build projects through trial and error at the taxpayers expense and using capital funds - borrowed money - instead of simply maintaining the wooden boards.

"City officials have insisted on the need for a concrete section because they say the recycled-plastic lumber could become too slippery when wet to accommodate emergency vehicles. But throughout the hearing, speakers from the public castigated concrete, some holding up pictures that showed experimental concrete sections of the Coney Island Boardwalk that were cracked, chipped or covered in ice," wrote the New York Times.

Friends of the Boardwalk's Todd Dobrin displayed a ten foot wide panel with numerous photographs showing the boardwalk in various states of decay including the Parks Department's previous work on their Coney Island/Brighten Beach "pilot" construction projects recently which were approved by the Commission.

"It creates an esthetic and maintenance nightmare, " said Rob Burstein, president of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance of the proposed Parks plan.

Tim Keating, of Rainforest Relief has been trying to get the city to stop using rainforest wood for fifteen years and discounted much of what Park officials stated. He suggested using black locust wood for the boardwalk slabs over recycled plastic supports.

"This could be used to maintain an open air boardwalk without concrete slabs that would allow sand and rain and snow to fall through," he testified.

"The concrete is blinding in summer. And hot," said Coney Island/Brighten Beach resident Arlene Brenner.

"Concrete in place of wooden planks does not make a boardwalk it make a sidewalk which is a very different new York environment," a woman testified. A sentiment shared by many.

All told 45 members of the public testified against the Parks Department plan, including representatives from many groups.

Three testified in favor of the plan: the chair of CB 13 - Eddie Mark, the administration's go-to-guy when they need public support for issues the community is against, (The CB overwhelming voted against the plan (21- 7). Fresh Meadows Queens resident Gene Ridder, and Parks Department partner New Yorkers For Parks. The group, now headed by a former HUD official, was repeatedly singled out and criticized by various members of the public during the hearing.

After hours of public testimony the Commission then began asking questions of the parks department.

In what some thought was a ray of hope a few members began questioning aspects of the plan, but that hope quickly dissipated. They suggested that Parks remove two feet of concrete - from 12 feet to 10. And in another misguided thread commissioners challenged the Parks Department to relocate the concrete swath now set to run through the middle of the boardwalk away from the beach closer to the land.

Commission member James Polshek called the design “silly, ” adding that it reduces the beauty of the boardwalk by cutting a cement path through its center. He proposed moving the cement section to the edge of the boardwalk along street side so the area “continues to resemble a boardwalk.”

But it was commissioner Byron Kim who raised the only real points that addressed the public's concerns. He repeatedly challenged the validity of the Parks Department's claims that they could find no other alternative woods that meet the quantity or quality they agency requires.

Two separate suppliers gave testimony they could supply sustainable wood,
one coming all the way from West Virginia.

The Parks Department could provide no specific information on the depth of its research into this area or for many of its other claims, nor did commissioners ask them to.

Mr. Kim also suggested that since this was a pilot program why doesn't the Parks Department test different woods.

In a back and forth between commissioner Kim and the Parks Department the agency admitted that the concrete recently installed had created public safety issues including icing up during the Winter.

In a somewhat surreal moment, Signe Nelsen, the acting president of the Commission said in the future the Parks Department should consider planting their own trees grow their lumber.

Ms. Nelsen also praised the Parks Department for what she described as a quick response in addressing the agency discontinuing using rain forest wood. A comment Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief took particular offense at.

"It took the Parks Department fifteen years after we first notified them to finally decide to renovate the boardwalk without using tropical wood," he said.

In the end, as expected the Mayoral appointed commission ignored the nearly unanimous public testimony against the plan. They also ignored the lone commissioner who suggested testing alternative woods.

Instead of tabling the plan and requiring the Parks Department to perform due diligence, the commission fell in line with the administration and approved it with several non-binding stipulations. They asked the Parks Department to look into the feasibility of moving the concrete section to the land side of the boardwalk, removing two feet of concrete, and exploring alternative wood.

The not binding recommendations means that the Parks Department can proceed without incorporating any of the suggestions.

Critics were not pleased.

“They changed their story every time, ” Todd Dobrin said of the Park Department.

“First they said it was for the emergency vehicle, and we showed they could go on the wood. Then it was about slippage, and we said, ‘What about the snow and ice, which can’t drain off the concrete?’ Then they come up with cost. We said, ‘What about paying to remove all the ice and snow and to maintain the concrete?’ Then they said they couldn’t find the supplies, so we brought in three different suppliers.”

"It's disheartening to be subjected to the whims and decisions of the Parks Department and the Design Commission, " Rob Burstein, president of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance said after the vote. "There is no serious exploration of the material provided."

"What good is the Design Commission when a nearly unanimous public testified against the plan and they approve it anyways," said Natural Resources Protective Association Chairperson and Brighten Beach resident Ida Sanoff. "It's a disgrace."

"It was a sham," said Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief of the meeting. "It was predetermined and in places seemed rehearsed. There was nothing that was said that could have prevented the outcome.

The saddest part for me is how poorly the boardwalk is being engineered. New York City missed a golden opportunity to create a truly sustainable boardwalk and a model that could be emulated in towns and cities across the country. In no way have they accomplished that."

Read/View More:

New York Times - March 13, 2012 - By Lisa W. Foderaro and Liz Robbins

NY 1 - March 13, 2012 - By Jeanine Ramirez

John Gambling Show - March 13, 2012

New York Post - March 12, 2012 - By Rich Calder

New York Daily News - March 12, 2012 - By Erin Durkin

WNYC - March 12, 2012 - By Denise Blostein

New York Observer - March 12, 2012 - By Matt Chaban

WABC News - March 12, 2012- By Tim Fliesher

1010 WINS - March 12, 2012 - Sonia Rincon

Brooklyn Daily - March 12, 2012 - By Daniel Bush

USA Today - March 12, 2012

The Brooklyn Blog - March 12, 2012 - By Rich Calder

The Wall Street Journal - March 12, 2012 - By Luara Kusisto

A Walk In The Park - October 24, 2011

A Walk In The Park - October 4, 2011

A Walk In The Park - July 2, 2011

A Walk In The Park - June 14, 2011

A Walk In The Park - March 24, 2011

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