The Design Commission hearing today on the Coney Island Boardwalk was like a surreal play where the denouement is known from the start. The Parks Department was given unlimited time to present its case, which included: a history of the decking for the boardwalk; a lecture on global warming (which included a photo of Mayor Bloomberg and a reference to his “strong position of leadership”); a cursory review of a few boardwalks; a long list of woods the Parks Department had supposedly explored to their fullest potential but found not to work for one reason or another (with no mention of companies, dates, specs, prices, or other factual details); and a litany of excuses as to why their previous pilot projects are now falling apart. They showed renderings of their proposal–essentially, a concrete sidewalk flanked by plastic boards. Finally, they gave a list of three qualities essential for the materials used on the boardwalk:
3. Slip Resistance.
Then, they proceeded to ignore every piece of evidence that the community and its experts presented, which proved that there are other available options which would, in fact, perform much better in these three areas. Because so many people showed up to protest the Parks Department’s ill-conceived plan, the Design Commission cut the amount of time that people were allowed to speak from three minutes down to two minutes. When people protested, they were told that they could be evicted without a hearing. Only the Parks Department and the Design Commission were allowed to ask or answer questions. Members of the community had to present their case, piece by piece, two minutes at a time.
Despite these significant unilateral limitations, we presented compelling information, which spoke to the three issues the Parks Department mentioned. In total, 48 people testified at the hearing, with 45 testifying against the plan and the three who testified for it all having relationships with the city. Mike Caruso traveled all the way from West Virginia just to attend the hearing and speak about black locust wood, a rainforest wood alternative with longevity similar to ipe. This wood expert was only allowed two minutes to share his information. The Parks Department spent a lot of time wringing their hands that there is no black locust wood available when there was an expert in the room who said he has this wood available and would be willing to work with them on providing it to their specifications. When Commissioner Byron Kim suggested pursuing this, the other Commissioners ignored this suggestion and moved on.
Tim Keating, from Rainforest Relief, who is largely responsible for convincing the city to limit the use of rainforest wood, presented a good case for using RPL in the understructure, since it provides enough strength and support for vehicles, has good longevity, is readily available, and eliminates the need for any concrete on the Boardwalk. Architect and Urban Designer Stuart Pertz spoke about how the concrete slabs in the substructure do not allow for proper drainage, causing sand to “fill the spaces between the sleepers and the plastic lumber boards with no place to go – and although the top layer may be swept with armies of temporary workers at enormous expense, the sand caught remains, with the beer and the waste that continually accumulates.”
Todd Dobrin from Friends of the Boardwalk brought twenty large photos showing damage to the concrete portions of the boardwalk installed by the Parks Department less than two years ago. These photos showed evidence of numerous cracks, spawls, patches and stains on this brand new concrete surface. Yet concrete is a key part of the current proposal, in both the decking and the substructure. Numerous people spoke about sheets of ice building up on the concrete sections of the boardwalk, creating safety hazards.
The most bizarre portion of the hearing was the questioning section. By this time, only six of the ten Commissioners remained in the room. (Three Commissioners were not present at all and halfway through the hearing, Commissioner Alice Aycock left the meeting, kissing fellow Design Commissioners goodbye in the middle of someone’s testimony. Two Design Commission members took lengthy bathroom breaks while people were speaking, but we were not allowed to stop the testimony to wait for them.) During questioning, members of the community were not allowed to speak at all, as the Parks Department fielded questions and suggestions from the Design Commission. Design Comissioners Otis Pratt Pearsall and James Stewart Polshek suggested that the concrete traffic lane be moved to one side of the Boardwalk, as if that would somehow hide the concrete. Design Commissioner Signe Nielsen suggested that the Parks Department grow their own wood in vacant lots so that future wood sourcing would not be a problem. Several of the most intelligent questions were never fully answered or explored. For example, Commissioner Byron Kim asked several questions about the concrete strip down the center of the boardwalk. He wondered why, if this is a pilot program testing a new material, they couldn’t use RPL for the whole decking to see how it fared. The Parks Department answered that they had found that RPL was too slippery for vehicles. Kim pointed out that he had seen numerous photos of ice building up on concrete sections of the boardwalk, yet the Parks Department was proposing concrete for the vehicle lane. “Isn’t ice more slippery?” he asked. The Parks Department replied that most emergencies happen in the summer. And the Design Commission left it at that.
The whole process felt like a sham. It seemed to afford us an opportunity to speak, but without allowing us to present our research in a serious way. Design Commissioner Signe Nielsen tried to smooth things over, stating that the Design Commissioners had read our 50+ pages of research materials and that the Design Commission members were all New Yorkers and “not aliens.” But none of the people making this decision that affects an entire community actually lives in that community. The Community Board voted against this proposal 21 to 7. Thousands of people from the community have signed petitions advocating an all wood boardwalk. The community has spoken, but the administration is not listening.
This is actually a very simple issue that the city is trying to make complicated. The city refuses to take care of this world-renowned Boardwalk, and now they’ve come up with a plan that will be even more expensive in the long run, while at the same time, diminishing its integrity. The Parks Department has now presented four “pilot projects” that each fundamentally change the nature and character of the boardwalk. In spite of the many problems that have arisen in these pilot project areas, the Parks Department is moving forward with another similar plan. How many of these failed pilot projects will they be allowed to complete? Whether our Boardwalk is destroyed piece by piece or in one fell swoop, the loss is immeasurable.
The fight goes on to save other parts of the Boardwalk. Please write to the Mayor’s office and tell New York City that you don’t want to see any more of the historic Coney Island Boardwalk destroyed. Please also sign the online petition, if you haven’t already, and continue to circulate it to friends.