Monday, January 12, 2015

Furor As Parks Dept. Rejects Community Safety Concerns Over Coney Island/Brighton Beach Concrete Boardwalk Project

"The meeting was nothing more than a patronizing and disrespectful display of faux community involvement in decision making. Asking us what we think, even as they proceed to rip up the Boardwalk outside while we speak, is not only infuriating, but it speaks to a sadistic concept of community input into a project, something we had hoped for better of from this administration."   -  Rob Burstein, president of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance.

Flushing $ 10 million Down The Toilet. Despite elected officials and community requests to conduct an EIS the City recently began tearing up a five block section of Riegelmann Boardwalk boardwalk in between Brighton 15th St. and Coney Island Avenue as part of the $ 10 million dollar boardwalk-to-concrete sidewalk renovation project.  City construction crews began tearing up the boardwalk after several elected officials told the parks commissioner not to proceed before they had a chance to discuss the issue which they have been attempting to do since May.  This section of the boardwalk is in good condition. Thousands of square feet of the boardwalk has already been ripped out, infuriating members of the community.   

"This is about parks equity and fairness during a time when we hear much about a tale of two cities." - City Councilman Mark Treyger

(Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge


By Geoffrey Croft

Coney Island and Brighton Beach residents are furious that the city is proceeding with a Bloomberg-era, post Hurricane Sandy plan to convert the historic Riegelmann Boardwalk into a concrete roadway.

The design would install a ten-foot wide concrete "carriage lane" that will run through the middle of the boardwalk. The initial phase covers approximately five blocks between Brighton 15th Street and Coney Island Avenue. 

Critics charge that the new Parks Commissioner is ignoring safety concerns that have arisen after the destructive hurricane.

Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver (left), with Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey,  ignored the passionate pleas of several community activists and two city lawmakers who begged the city to stop the controversial plan to convert the wooden Coney Island boardwalk into a mix of concrete and recycled plastic.

Sound Planning? At a stakeholders meeting on December 30th, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver (left) pictured with Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey, rejected numerious pleas from community representatives including two city council members for the city to conduct an environmental review before proceeding with the Bloomberg-era $10 million concrete boardwalk plan. Critics charge that the new commissioner is ignoring safety concerns that have arisen after Hurricane Sandy.  "This guy is supposed to be a planner? There wasn't any planning here, the only thing I saw was bookkeeping.  We live here. This is a disgrace,"  said Ida Sanoff.

The hastily arranged meeting was held on December 30th, at the Shorefront Y,  a few yards away from the controversial boardwalk project, a day before the $ 10 million dollar allocation was set to expire.  

At a meeting Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver ignored the pleas of community activists and several elected officials who are pushing for the city to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement before proceeding with the $10 million plan.

When asked if the Parks Department was going to stop construction to allow the safety report, Commissioner Mitchell said, "no," stating they were not legally required to.

The business as usual stance did not please those in attendance.

"This was supposed to be a stakeholders meeting but they didn't give a damn about anything we had to say,"  Ida Sanoff, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Protective Association said, blasting the Commissioner. 

"Everything had been decided before they even walked into the room. It was a total farce. All they cared about was that concrete was the cheapest in the long run. I couldn't believe that they refused to look at what happens when a storm surge hits different surfaces. We even showed them photos of how the concrete slabs of the old Esplanade lifted up and became projectiles during Sandy, punching holes in the walls of a nearby apartment building. They barely looked at the pictures," she said. 

Highway Coming. Carving out space for the 10 feet wide concrete carriage lane which will run through the middle of the boardwalk.  The rest of the boardwalk will be made of recycled plastic lumber. 

City Councilman Mark Treyger was also among those seeking an environmental review.

“Without any independent analysis, I . . . cannot support this,” Treyger said. “We have not done the due diligence that the community deserves.”

A May 19, 2014 letter sent to the Mayor by Council Members,  Deutsch,  Levine,  Rose and Treyger called for a moratorium on concrete slab boardwalk construction and asked for careful consideration of public safety as well as aesthetic and community concerns. The letter also noted that there was anecdotal evidence that concrete installed as part of a previous “pilot project” may have exacerbated storm surge damage during Hurricane Sandy.

The devastating storm in 2012 displaced millions of cubic feet of sand in Brighton Beach/Coney Island and the floodwaters extended all the way into Gravesend, over a mile and a half away.

Critics of the Parks Department plan point out that the area with wooden boardwalk fared much better during the storm than concrete sections. Several feet of sand covered streets adjacent to the concrete sections while mere inches ended up on streets next to local sections. Even the height of the floodwater that went into local buildings was dramatically different if they were near a concrete section as compared to a wooden section.

The meeting got off to an ominous start when Assemblyman Stephen Cymbrowitz,  who funded the $ 10 million dollar project,  described the purpose of the gathering in his opening remarks.  

Cymbrowitz stated that a decision had been made at a previous meeting (December 11) to continue the discussion regarding which materials were going to be used and to give the Parks Department an opportunity to present their proposal to community stakeholders, "so that we can have a dialogue about it."

"And then at the end of that presentation and dialogue we can at least make a decision as to the direction we go," he said.

The stakeholders are intimately aware of the proposal since they have been battling it for years and were involved with the lawsuit to stop it. Cymbrowitz also failed to mention that the Parks Commissioner had already written to six elected officials including Cymbrowitz and Council members Deutsch and Treyger on November 26th and informed them that a work order had been issued for the contractor to begin.  

The Assemblyman also failed to mention that he had already made a deal with the Parks Department. This information would not be revealed until the very last minutes of the meeting.

"He mentioned that there was to be a dialogue, but it was obvious that there was no way that the so called stakeholders actually did have a stake in any of this," Mrs. Sanoff said.

The stakeholders are well aware of the city's plan to install a concrete roadway through the boardwalk. Proponents packed a Public Design Commission hearing in 2012. Their concerns have been ignored.

After Cymbrowitz the Parks Department presented their case.  

Before turning it over to the agency's Chief of Architecture and Engineering, Kevin Quinn, Commissioner Silver said the presentation would explain the rational regarding the decisions they made in choosing the boardwalk materials. 

"This administration is committed to building a new boardwalk that is enjoyable, long lasting,  environmentally sound and provides the best protection for Brighton Beach residences and businesses," Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said.

"We are now dealing with a very different reality post Superstorm Sandy," he said.

"The question is, what's next.  What is the best design solution that maintains the look and feel of the traditional boardwalk that you love while ensuring resilience and protection for this community,"  Silver stated. 

"It was basically, '“we’re telling you what we are going to do,"' said Mrs. Sanoff.

The Parks Department passed out a handout, a single, double-side piece of paper - a review of materials and cost comparison which did not impress the attendees. 

Kevin Quinn went through his powerpoint presentation but the familiar details did little to assuage the community's opposition.

"They don't care. All they care about is spending the money," said Ms. Sanoff.

She noted that the Parks Department presentation did not address storm surge damage or the safety of local residents who were eyewitnesses to how the concrete slab had exacerbated the storm’s impacts. 

Ida Sanoff, executive director of the Natural Resources Protective Association,  addressing the crowd at the Shorefront Y. 

These concerns had previously been brought to the attention of the Mayor and the parks commissioner but they were dismissed. During the meeting the parks department once again attempted to dismiss such concerns, stating that they had reviewed post-storm aerial photos that they claimed demonstrated that sand inundating wasn't any worse in areas with concrete sections versus those with wood.

Ida scoffed at their conclusion. 

"They had aerial photos that showed that there was no difference in how far inland the sand came. But what their photos did NOT show was the DEPTH of the sand. That is what matters," she said in a statement. 

"We had inches on my block and 8-10 FEET a block away at Ocean Pkwy near the concrete."

The Parks Department had no response.

"They didn't say a word," Mrs. Sanoff noted.

"Nor did they say a word when we showed them the first building in Manhattan Beach (an apartment house) with holes punched in the foundation from the concrete slab remnants of the old Esplanade," destroyed in 1960 during Hurricane Donna. 

Activists were unpleased to learn of Silver's refusal to budge during Tuesday's meeting at the Shorefront Y.
Rainforest Relief's Tim Keating -  flanked by Ida Sanoff, City Council member Chiam Deutsch and Rob Burnstein - makes a point at the contentious meeting. (Photo: Reuven Blau/NY Daily News)   

The city has sought to frame this as a sustainability and cost saving measure but critics aren't buying it.

Tim Keating, director Rainforest Relief called the current design, "a mistake."  

He said he was pleased that Parks Department continue to say that tropical hardwoods are “off the table”  but argued that the entire boardwalk not just the surface should use recycled plastic.

He commented that the boardwalk should be rebuilt utilizing an open-air understructure made from recycled plastic lumber I-beams which would allow sand and water to fall through. Keating argued this design would last longer than concrete or steel, is carbon-positive in their production, and believes can support the loads Parks requires for the boardwalk. 

"As usual they seem unwilling to seriously explore alternatives to the design to which they seem wedded: a concrete slab atop the pilecaps, onto which the decking will be fastened," Tim Keating said.

"The current idea is problematic and will lead to numerous other maintenance problems which I believe will ultimately cost Parks more than the other maintenance issues they seem to believe the concrete will solve.”

An opportunity to build a sustainable, durable, safe Boardwalk is being missed by Parks. The meeting seemed like one more round of Parks opening up the floor to dissent, only to have pre-decided that they would continue as is," he said.

Residents are livid. 

"The meeting was nothing more than a patronizing and disrespectful display of faux community involvement in decision making," said Rob Burstein, president of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance.

"Asking us what we think, even as they proceed to rip up the Boardwalk outside while we speak, is not only infuriating, but it speaks to a sadistic concept of community input into a project, something we had hoped for better of from this administration."  

In July 2012,  various grassroots organizations and Coney Island and Brighton Beach residents including Burstein,  filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn seeking to prevent the Parks Department from destroying the historic Coney Island Boardwalk and replacing it with a plastic and concrete structure.

The suit also sought to compel the city to conduct an environmental review which they have refused.  Plaintiffs also noted that the suit was filed pre Hurricane Sandy.

The suit was eventually dismissed.

Selling Out The Community. After repeatedly assuring the public he would withhold funding he allocated after December 31st unless the Parks Department changed its plans, New York State Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz changed his mind behind closed doors. He quietly made a deal with the De blasio administration which allows the city to proceed with its concrete plan without any restrictions. This was revealed at the meeting held a day before the money was set to expire.

In 2008, NY State Assemblymen Steven Cymbrowitz and Alec Brook-Krasny secured $10 million in capital funding to repair the Riegelmann Boardwalk.  Instead of repairing the boardwalk the Assembly members allowed the Parks Department to highjack the funds in place of maintenance dollars.

On November 4,  2014,  Assembly Member Cymbrowitz issued a little seen press release stating his intent to not extend the NYS Dormitory Authority contract with the NYC Parks Department and to withhold funds if the project continues with a concrete and/or composite plastic boardwalk.

"As you may be aware,  the proposed use and safety of concrete has been strongly criticized and the City has not performed any environmental or other studies for it,  including an Environmental Impact Statement," stated a November 17, 2014 letter sent to Mayor De blasio and signed by seven elected officials including Cymbrowitz.

"We stand together in opposition of this project.  Under no terms should the money allocated by the State Assembly Members be used for this boardwalk project,  under the current circumstances," it read. 

"One thing this money was not supposed to do was destroy the Boardwalk as we know it," Cymbrowitz wrote to constituents last month.

"That's why I'm outraged by the city's decision to rebuild the Boardwalk out of concrete and plastic, effectively turning our Boardwalk into a sidewalk. To repurpose the money and change the scope of the project is an underhanded misuse of funds by this administration, and it's something I won't tolerate."

By not pulling the funding and standing with the community Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz is allowing construction to proceed.

"Unfortunately, the city has chosen instead to fast-track the destruction of our iconic landmark and has been unwilling to listen to the people of our communities."

He went on say the contract for the $ 10 million dollars in funds allocated was set to expire on December 31, 2014 he has repeatedly said he would not extend unless the parks department changed its plans.

"I am committed to doing everything in my power to block the extension of the contract and rescind the money that was allocated," he wrote.

Apparently not. After being asked several times about the status of the contract during the December 30th meeting Cymbrowitz admitted that he had made a deal with the De blasio administration to allow the funds to be released,  on a month-to-month basis, this after repeatedly saying he would block them after December 31st.

The deal allows the city to proceed with its plan without any restrictions.
"Continue the discussion, the dialogue,  that's a joke," said Arlene Brenner who has lived in the area for 58 years. 

"Who do they think they're kidding.  They are destroying the boardwalk as we speak.  They're doing exactly what they want, not what we want.  We were steamrolled over before they even walked into the door. 

Who is advising them so poorly. The existing concrete is falling apart.   How is that saving money?  They ignored the photographs, the ignored the evidence.  They just ignored everything we had to say.  What was the purpose of coming out here," she said.

Quid Pro Quo? 

Residents are wondering what Cymbrowitz is getting out of this. Cymbrowitz is relying on the administration to spend several million dollars to relocate a comfort station project in front of the luxury Oceana Condominiums complex that remains partially built.

As a result of his lobbying efforts the City is now spending more than $100,000 to review the plans. The Final EIS was supposed to be released in June, but there is no word on when it will actually be released. Since it was only a targeted EIS, no one can understand what is taking so long and Parks refuses to release any info.

Just how dedicated was Cymbrowitz to using the capital funds for the Brighton Beach Boardwalk renovations.  On May 22, the lawmaker suggested that they be used instead to remove the pilings for the comfort station that had already been placed in the sand in front of  the Oceana complex.

Rob Burstein, a staunch critic of the plan blasted Cymbrowitz and Brook-Krasny's actions, calling it a, "textbook example of slimy political double talk and double dealing."

"It's bad enough to be sold out by the city, but being sold out by ones own elected representatives represents a new low point," said Burstein.

"Not only is it disingenuous, it serves to sabotage our efforts, and those of Councilmen Treyger and Deutsch who have been steadfast in their opposition to this plan."

Burstein points out that if Assemblyman Cymbrowitz and Brook-Krasny had kept to their word and not sold out the community the Parks Department would have been forced to stop, and "we would be in a position to have meaningful conversations leading to a better and more desirable plan."

"What I am most surprised at is the behavior of Assemblyman Stephen Cymbrowitz and Alec Brook-Krasny," Ida Sanoff said afterwards.

"They know what happened here during Sandy. You would think they would stand up and ask, no, demand, that safety should be paramount, but all they did was side with the Parks Department. Cymbrowitz is fighting against the installation of elevated comfort stations in front of the luxury Oceana condos, that have been specifically designed to conform to FEMA guidelines. But he doesn't care about exposing tens of thousands of other people and their homes to exacerbated storm surge damage."

Steve Diamond has lived in the area since 1963 and was livid.  

"They completely ignored what the community was saying, it's all about spending the money," Mr. Diamond said.

They community has no say what-so-ever. They laughed at us.  They'll do it piece by piece until the entire boardwalk has a roadway. They'll leave a few blocks of wood around the amusement area just for show. 

We asked them to so an EIS. They didn't want to do anything they could have stymied their plans. They have to spend that money, that's the most important thing to them.  It's very frustrating."  

Concrete Replacing Boardwalks

The concrete issue began to gain traction in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy ravished the Eastern seaboard causing billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses.

The storm uprooted most of Rockaway Beach's 5.5 miles of boardwalk in Queens.  Surprisingly however, the boardwalk itself was not fastened to the concrete piers which remained in place.

For years government officials have attempted to portray the concrete installed in Rockaway as having escaped unscathed during the storm as opposed to the wood. 

Held Up Extremely Well? Despite government claims, the concrete slabs on the former boardwalk in Rockaway Beach which were installed prior to the storm were also tossed around during Hurricane Sandy. Parks Department spokeswoman Vickie Karp said it was, "undeniable that the concrete sections of the boardwalk held up extremely well.”   

"I guess this settles the issue of wooden boardwalks versus concrete boardwalks," an ignorant Mayor Bloomberg famously said while visting Rockaway in 2012.  "There will be no more wooden boardwalks in Rockaway or anywhere else," the Mayor proclaimed.

Apparently city officials "forgot" to tell the misinformed Mayor that none of the wooden boards were fastened to boardwalk's concrete foundation or that blocks of the newly installed concrete sidewalk which replaced the boardwalk didn't fair much better either where jetties did not exist.

Parks Department spokeswoman Vickie Karp said it was, "undeniable that the concrete sections of the boardwalk held up extremely well.” 

Critics of the way the government has handled various issues in the Rockaways over the years point out that the severe damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the boardwalk and to homes due to flooding were exacerbated by a number of preventable factors.

Advocates have been pushing to build jetties and replenish the beach which had severely eroded before the recent hurricane. They also point out that the boardwalk itself was not fastened to the concrete piers which not only remained in place but survived virtually unscathed.  

Attendees at the stakeholders meeting at the Y said comparing the Riegelmann boardwalk situation to Rockaway or Staten Island was apples to oranges.   They explained that the boardwalk in Queens and in Staten Island are separated for the most part from buildings, a wide vegetated buffer and multi lane roadways. In Brighton Beach those buffers do not exist. 

"The wave hits the concrete full force and then there are buildings right behind. At 201 Brighton 1 Rd the terraces are literally ON the boardwalk!" Mrs. Sanoff said in a statement.

"The boardwalk is a globally recognized iconic structure that draws millions of visitors each year,"  said City Councilman Mark Treyger.

"Unfortunately, it has also suffered decades of neglect and the city administration is moving forward with a flawed plan to demolish pieces of the historic structure and replace it with a concrete lane. We may not have the hundreds of millions of dollars in conservancy money as other parks do, but our history matters just as much as theirs. No one would ever suggest converting the natural grass of Central Park to fake grass in order to cut down maintenance costs, but why is it ok to replace a historic boardwalk with a sidewalk in the name of cost-savings? This issue runs deeper than wood versus fake wood versus concrete. This is about parks equity and fairness during a time when we hear much about a tale of two cities. We will continue to mobilize people and make the case that our iconic structure, its role in southern Brooklyn's development, and its legacy matter regardless of the median income that surrounds it. "

"The new Parks Commissioner is supposed to be a planner," scoffed Mrs. Sanoff.

"Planning addresses public safety concerns. There wasn't any planning here, the only thing I saw was bookkeeping.  We live here. They completely ignored what we had to say and what we want. No different than Bloomberg.

This is a disgrace."

Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver rejected the community's pleas to perform an Environmental Impact Statement. 

 (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

Read/View More:

CBS - January 13, 2015 - By Elise Finch 

Brooklyn Daily - January 8, 2015 -  By Vanessa Ogle

New York Daily News - December 30,  2014 - By Reuven Blau      

A Walk In The Park - December 1, 2012 

A Walk In The Park -  October 24, 2011 

A Walk In The Park - October 4, 2011

A Walk In The Park - June 14, 2011 

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