LETTER TO NYC DESIGN COMMISSIONERS

February 28, 2012

Public Design Commission of the City of New York
253 Broadway, 5th Floor
New York, NY  10007

Dear Commissioner,

Enclosed is a binder with research, letters, and photos we have gathered that together create a compelling argument for maintaining Coney Island’s wood boardwalk.  A recent New York Times article reported that, “some commission members said they would reluctantly embrace the synthetic wood-concrete compromise.”  Given that the Parks Department seems to have communicated privately with at least some Commission members, we respectfully request the same opportunity.  We wish to provide you with information that our experts have compiled that the Parks Department is either unaware of or has willfully ignored, thus denying you the opportunity to benefit from it in your decision-making process.  A decision of this magnitude should be based on a complete understanding of all the issues and available options.  This is especially true since the Commission’s decision will have profound and far reaching implications for all the citizens of New York City, but most especially for the communities which will be most affected by whatever action the Commission takes.

We are sharing this information with you so that you have adequate time to review it in advance of any hearing, to reflect on its merits and factor it into your decision.  Accordingly, we would like to schedule a meeting with you and the other Design Commissioners, at your earliest convenience, to present our research in person and to correct the numerous fallacies in the Parks Department’s arguments as reported in the Times article.  Additionally, we would like to invite you on a brief tour of Boardwalk sites, to show you completed work with design elements that are problematical, yet still repeated in the current Parks Department proposal.

To provide you with a brief overview, the Times articles describes three arguments that the Park Department proffers in support of replacing the majority of the boardwalk with either concrete or plastic.  None of these arguments, either standing alone or collectively, supports the Parks Department’s proposal.

Claim #1: There is no viable wood.  The Parks Department states that they have “investigated every option, from natural woods like Douglas fir and black locust to treated woods like Southern yellow pine.  They concluded that such hardwoods were neither durable enough nor, in the case of black locust, abundantly available.”

Reality: This is simply not true.  A study commissioned by the Parks Department in 2008 and conducted by the Columbia School of Engineering concluded that black locust wood was the best material to use in rebuilding and repairing the boardwalk.  (Tab 1).

Black locust wood is, in fact, readily available in large quantities.  (Tab 2). ***For more specific information (suppliers, treatment methods, other possible wood options, etc.), please see the attached Addendum #1 from Tim Keating, Director of Rainforest Relief.

Ocean City, Maryland recently repaired their boardwalk using treated #1 dense southern yellow pine for the decking.  Their substructure of concrete footings provides enough support for the passenger trams that run up and down their boardwalk daily, as well as car and fire engine parades. (Tabs 19, 20, 21).

Claim #2: Wood is more expensive.  The Parks Department contends that concrete and plastic are “cheaper than wood to build and maintain.”  Domenic Recchia claims that it costs “more than $1 million a year to maintain the wooden Boardwalk.”

Reality: The Parks Department spent millions of dollars on concrete sections which have already required significant repairs.  Numerous unsightly cracks have appeared and, in some places, whole chunks of concrete have crumbled away, both on the decking area and underneath in the substructure. (Tab 22 shows photos of some of this damage).  By contrast, in Ocean City, Maryland, City Engineer Terry McGean tested very small sections of various materials for a brief period to determine what was best for long-term use. (Tab 20 contains a photo of these test sections).

Concrete and plastic take maintenance, too.  In fact, the biggest cost differential between wood and concrete is in the installation, not the maintenance.  In Ocean City, McGean determined that over a 50-year period, the cost difference between wood and concrete was $1 million dollars ($16.7 million for all wood and $15.5 for wood with stamped concrete).  This amounts to an extra $24,000 per year for wood vs. concrete.  (Tabs, 18, 20).

From an aesthetic standpoint, concrete deteriorates much more quickly than wood, and is more difficult to repair, since there is no option of merely replacing one or two faulty boards.  The numerous chips, cracks and stains create “an unappealing, patchy look that downgrades the overall appearance of the boardwalk.” (Tabs 10, 11, 17, 22).

The Parks Department ignores the fact that people come from all over the world to see our Boardwalk, bringing tourism dollars to New York.  Mr. Benepe states that “economic considerations outweigh the historical importance of the wood.”  But wood’s historical significance has real economic value. (Tabs 415).  People come to Coney Island to experience its history and unique character, not to see a generic concrete and plastic sidewalk. (Tab 23 shows numerous comments to this effect from the over 2,000 tourists and locals who have signed our online petition).  Indeed, Ocean City, Maryland changed part of its boardwalk from concrete back to wood in the late 1990’s and experienced significant economic improvement as a direct result. (Tab 16).  More recently, in 2011, Ocean City considered creating a concrete lane for vehicles on their boardwalk, similar to what the Parks Department is proposing for Coney Island.  (Tab 20).  But they decided against this option when the results of their online poll showed overwhelming support for an all-wood boardwalk without any traffic lane.  Tourists and locals alike lauded their boardwalk as the city’s “heart and soul.” (Tab 17).

The Parks Department is relying on conflicting assumptions.  They claim that the Boardwalk is in enough disrepair to warrant a complete overhaul.  Yet they also claim that it costs $1 million per year to maintain it.  If they have been spending $1 million per year on maintenance, how is it that the boardwalk is so damaged?  And if they have not been doing proper maintenance, how can they possibly know how much that maintenance costs?  The fact is that the Parks Department has refused to allocate funds to properly maintain the boardwalk.  Instead, they have neglected the boardwalk for many years and now claim that the only solution is to destroy the whole thing and build a new one using borrowed capital funds.  It would be more cost-effective to repair the current structure and maintain it properly.

Claim #3: Concrete and plastic are sturdier and just as safe as wood. The Parks Department claims that “a 12-foot concrete section for emergency vehicles” is necessary.

Reality: This argument relies on two unwarranted suppositions.  First, the Parks Department premises its claim that heavy vehicles, such as police cars and sanitation trucks, need to use the boardwalk as a roadway.  A cursory review of New York City amply demonstrates that police patrols do not necessarily need to take place in heavy vehicles.  Lightweight golf cart vehicles, which are used in other New York City venues, should be considered here, as well as bicycles in warmer weather.  Similarly, trash collection can be accomplished using smaller vehicles.  Certainly, this has been done in other public spaces, such as Central Park. (Tabs 6, 7, 11).

Second, the Parks Department relies on the flawed premise that, even if heavy vehicles were to continue to use the Boardwalk, there is no way to construct a supportive structure utilizing wood.  Ocean City Maryland’s boardwalk, which accommodates daily tram traffic for its 8 million annual visitors, demonstrably proves otherwise (According to a November 7, 2011 press release at www.nyc.gov, Coney Island receives approximately 640,000 visitors in the summer season). Ocean City’s boardwalk is able to support this kind of enormous traffic because of its innovative, strong substructure. (Tabs 16, 19, 20, 21).

Moreover, the concrete and plastic sections that the Parks Department already installed have created real safety hazards that simply are not present when wood is used.  The concrete slabs do not allow for sufficient drainage of water.  Consequently sheets of ice build up on the concrete in the winter.  (Tab 22 contains a photo showing sheets of ice on the concrete section, but no ice on the wood section).  The plastic decking material fares no better.  (Tab 3).  The plastic is slippery year round, especially given the ocean mist.  ***For more specific information about the hazards of RPL, please see attached Addendum #1 from Tim Keating, Director of Rainforest Relief.

The Parks Department’s use of concrete slabs as a substructure over which wood is placed also creates safety risks.   The lack of drainage inherent in this design causes sand and other debris to build up.  The result is damaged wood and loose screws, both of which present hazards to pedestrians and bicyclists.  ***For more specific information regarding these design flaws and problematic previous applications, please refer to the attached Addendum #2, which contains email correspondence from Stuart K. Pertz, FAIA, Architect and Urban Designer.

Additionally, the concrete substructure creates a harsh and unforgiving surface for runners, pedestrians, and dancers, who all use the Boardwalk on a daily basis (Tabs 59, 11, 12, 13, 14).  Concrete also has been known to concentrate wave energy, increasing the risk of floods. (Tab 8).

If concrete and plastic were the only environmentally responsible, affordable, easily available, sturdy, and safe options for repairing a boardwalk, no city would choose to maintain a wood boardwalk.  But many communities across the country have found that wood boardwalks are, in fact, viable and beneficial.  For example, Long Beach, NY; Long Branch, NJ; Asbury Park, NJ; Point Pleasant, NJ; Seaside Heights, NJ; Atlantic City, NJ; Ventnor, NJ; Ocean City, NJ; North Wildwood, NJ; Wildwood, NJ; Bethany Beach, DE; Ocean City, MD; Myrtle Beach, SC; Miami Beach, FL; and Santa Monica, CA are some of the municipalities that have come to the reasoned conclusion that a wood boardwalk can and should be maintained.

In addition to the information contained in the enclosed binder, there are a number of concerned and knowledgeable individuals who are willing to speak with you and whom you may contact directly:

Tim Keating, Rainforest Relief

Stuart K. Pertz, FAIA, Architect/Urban Designer

Terry McGean, City Engineer, Ocean City, MD

Jim Mathias, Maryland State Senator

Margaret Pillas, City Councilmember, Ocean City, MD

Mary Knight, City Councilmember, Ocean City, MD

We are happy to answer any questions you may have, and we respectfully reiterate our request for you to provide us with the same opportunities you have provided the Parks Department in terms of communicating our information to the Commission.  In order to schedule a meeting, please contact:

Rob Burstein                                                                         (718) 449-7017

President, Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance

Christianna Nelson                                                             (917) 751-0913

Chairwoman, Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance

Sincerely,

The Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance

ADDENDUM #1

STATEMENT FROM TIM KEATING

DIRECTOR OF RAINFOREST RELIEF

Parks Department Claims: There are no viable alternatives. Domestic woods are not practical. Black locust is not available.

There are numerous viable alternatives to tropical hardwoods for decking.

First, a little history. The vast majority of boardwalks in the United States, and likely all large coastal boardwalks, have traditionally used softwoods for decking (and most of the understructure). Domestic softwoods worked well for many years. That’s because the softwoods chosen were those that were inherently rot-resistant. The country’s first coastal boardwalk was laid down on the sand in Atlantic City in 1870. The City used Atlantic whitecedar, which was locally available and very rot-resistant. However, once the boardwalk grew in size as a large, raised, the quantities of Atlantic whitecedar in New Jersey were dwindling and the city also wanted a stronger wood. They shifted to old-growth heart pine from the south. Shortly thereafter, New York City began constructing the Reigelman Boardwalk. This was a large undertaking the City looked to the west for old-growth Douglas fir, a very rot-resistant wood (at least as old-growth) in the outdoors.

By the 1930s, Atlantic City’s engineer became convinced that softwoods treated with chemicals to make them more rot-resistant were the answer. They were less-expensive than old-growth woods from across the country. Thus, for the next 30 years, both AC and NYC used either old-growth softwoods or those treated with (toxic) chemicals. All the other ensuing coastal boardwalks, from New Jersey to Florida to California, followed suit.

Not once did it occur to any of these towns that the US might already have hardwoods that could be a better choice. Hardwoods were simply too expensive. Up-front costs vs. maintenance/replacement costs were not considered. That is, until Greenheart Durawoods, a small wood importing company in New Jersey, began to promote tropical hardwoods to New York City Parks Department.

Here was the argument that could have been made with domestic hardwoods all along: what costs you the most money? Replacing the boardwalk wood en masse. The longer you can put that off, the more you will save. So, in the late 1960s, Parks gave “bethabara” (what we now know as ipê) a try (even though it was very expensive up-front). The wood lasted about 20 years. Into it’s tenth year, Parks was convinced and began replacing the entire boardwalk with tropical hardwoods.

The tragedy in all this was that our own “teak”, black locust, a wood that had been used for two centuries for “tree nails” and occasionally hulls in wooden ships, for wagon wheel hubs and telegraph poles and fenceposts, a wood that could last a century in the ground without rotting, but which had fallen out of favor when metals and plastics became cheaper, had been forgotten.

As well, white oak, which the early colonists had used for doors, siding and roofing shingles, pilings and garden benches, was also forgotten. All because everyone believed that hardwoods were too expensive for the decking of large boardwalks and no mills believed that municipalities would ever pay that much.

All this to say that it is often cultural momentum and the market that determine what people buy, not what is the absolutely best material.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

(see attached for detailed information about the material) is available from numerous mills around the United States. Black locust is classified by the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Lab as “extremely durable” in the outdoors. It is known to last from 70 – 100 years in ground contact without treatment. Civil War barracks made with black locust roofing and siding are still standing today.

Rainforest Relief estimates that black locust will last far longer than tropical hardwoods for benches and boardwalk decking.

But there are challenges to obtaining black locust for decking currently:

•   Black locust should be kiln dried for this application. Few mills kiln dry and when they do, it is in small quantities. Kiln drying adds to the turn-around time.

•   Black locust is currently considered a specialty wood and thus few mills keep substantial quantities of air-dried lumber in stock.

•   The vast majority of the black locust available in the US is as “standing timber”, that is, the trees have yet to be cut. Turnaround time from the time of a large order to the time it is kiln-dried and delivered is 8 – 10 weeks (about as long to cut and ship custom ipê sizes from Brazil).

•   Mills do not typically sell black locust for 2×4” decking. The most common use of black locust is for fenceposts.

•   Because black locust is a much smaller tree than giant, old-growth tropical trees such as ipê or cumaru, the yield of long boards is much less. Parks typically orders boards in 20-foot lengths (trimming 6 – 9 inches from each end of the board to accommodate the angle). An optimum length for black locust would be 10 feet, thus necessitating a seam atop a joist on installation. This could add a small percentage to the installation time.

•   The most efficient grade in which to order black locust is called “sound tight knot”. This means that any knots in the wood are sound (they will never fall out) and tight (small). But it also means that there will be some visible knots. Parks has utilized clear, old-growth wood for many decades, so this would have a slightly different aesthetic.

These challenges can be met in two ways:

•   Parks could order black locust from a single vendor, who could consolidate quantities from a number of mills and oversee the drying. If Parks were to provide a Letter of Understanding stating that they would buy a certain quantity of black locust if it were to meet a certain grade and quality, at a specified time in the near future, this would likely be enough for that vendor to invest in consolidating the inventory to meet the requirement. First order delivery would take place within three months, with subsequent orders being available for delivery much more quickly.  In the Northeast, Armster Reclaimed Lumber has been consolidating black locust for the last year. Klaas Armster can be reached at 203/214-9705.

•   Parks could order small quantities of black locust from numerous vendors and stockpile material on a rotating basis, building up standing inventory for larger projects.

None of these challenges would pertain to the next two alternatives.


White Oak
(Quercus alba)

This is the third most-commonly cut hardwood in the US. Availability is not an issue. Indeed, road work crews use white oak for numerous applications, including soil barriers when they’re drilling in the streets of New York.

White oak is classified as “very durable” by the Forest Products Lab and has been used extensively in the outdoors for centuries. The use for exterior doors and outdoor furniture is still common and in the past, pilings and docks where often made of white oak. It was a common material for wooden sailing ships. The British Navy relied on European oak, white oak’s European cousin, to build their ships, until Britain ‘discovered’ teak in India.

Rainforest Relief estimates that white oak will last as long as tropical hardwoods for benches and boardwalk decking.

White oak is available in long lengths and high grades (such as FAS) from literally hundreds of large and small mills across the eastern US. It is a relatively inexpensive hardwood due to its widespread availability.

Thermory

Thermory is (typically) northern white ash (Fraxinus alba) that has been thermally-modified to perform extremely well in the outdoors. Not only is it as durable as tropical hardwoods, it is likely more stable. The thermal modification involves heating the wood to very high temperatures in a kiln. These high temperatures can be achieved without the wood igniting by introducing steam. The higher temperatures drive out the sugars, which are the edible component of wood that makes it attractive to microorganisms that would normally consume the wood. It also makes the wood less hydrophilic, that is, it takes on moisture less easily. It is the combination of moisture in the wood (combined with freeze-thaw action) and microorganisms that deteriorate a wood in the outdoors.

Thermory is now available in the US in large quantities (turnaround would be a 6 – 8 weeks for large orders), in high grades and in long lengths. Contact Kevin DeMars, Thermory US: 585/591-2333.

Relative Costs

Most of the materials that are alternatives to tropical hardwoods for outdoor applications cost roughly the same as tropical hardwoods on a per-board-foot basis. The exception is white oak. As stated above, we estimate that white oak will last as long as tropical hardwoods have for the Boardwalk but would cost substantially less. Thus, cost concerns come down to factors other than up-front purchase with durability being the main factor.

Clearly, structural recycled plastic lumber is the most durable material. This is, without a doubt, the best material with which to build the understructure of the Boardwalk. At this time, however, Rainforest Relief is not recommending this material for the decking of the Coney Island/Brighton Beach Boardwalk. As yet, no SRPL manufacturer has shown that the surface embossing will hold up over time and thus not become slippery. This is a major concern for a boardwalk as heavily-trafficked as NYC’s. This has been (and will be) exacerbated by the installation of concrete slab directly beneath the decking material. This configuration traps sand atop the Boardwalk. With vehicles, wind and shoes, the sand will scour the deck, wearing down the top surface over time.

Other than SRPL, black locust is by far the most durable non-tropical wood material available. Any additional costs to installing black locust would be far outweighed by its longevity. Black locust could last for 70 years on the Boardwalk.

Thermory™ comes with a 20-year warranty.

White oak should last at least as long as the last round of ipê, which was only 13 – 17 years.

ADDENDUM #2

EMAIL CORRESPONDENCE, DATED FEBRUARY 21, 2012

FROM STUART K. PERTZ, FAIA, ARCHITECT/URBAN DESIGNER

 

My stand is complicated.  I’ve worked with Parks and Adrian for a number of years helping to devise and transition management change at the Design and Construction Department at Olmsted and developed an enormous affection for him and the team.  And although I know some of their foibles, they are one of the best agencies in the City.

But just in case, let me start at the beginning.  (And my apologies if you know all this already.)

The boardwalk used to sit 10-14 feet above the beach with kiosks and public conveniences beneath it.  The Corps of Engineers “replenished” the sand on the beach after a storm in 1992 that flooded a good deal of Coney Island, raising the level of the beach almost to the level of the Boardwalk.  In so doing, the contractors inadvertently covered the facilities plumbing and rendered them useless, leading Parks to cover them up with sand entirely.  Then, in what became unused caves under the Boardwalk, a significantly damaging fire resulted, perhaps caused by vagrants, causing political pressure to be brought on Parks who without considering or understanding the consequences, filled in up to the Boardwalk with more sand.

The beach is now at the level of the Boardwalk.  Before the filling, sand fell through the boards, as did the rain. Now, sand blows constantly over and across it, often burying ten or twenty feet of the walkway.  The wood structure, constantly wet and unable to dry, responded poorly to the change.

Today, Parks is faced with dealing with what seem to be three mutually dependent decisions:

-to change or not to change the sand level

-how to detail the structure and walkway, and

-if to use wood or not

The sand level

A trench along the seaward edge of the Boardwalk and a minimally accessible few feet of leeway beneath the boards might have been (and still be) helpful.  Maintaining the trench may not be more effort than constantly sweeping the Boardwalk.  More importantly perhaps, the structure could be open, allowing sand and rain to pass through.

The design details

Parks decided to use planking – at first with exposed aggregate as a surface.  It was not thought out and as a surface is not a good idea.

Having reconsidered, Parks is now building, in another stretch, wood boards on sleepers on concrete planking, with an exposed concrete runway down the middle.  I assume this is still their intent, but with simulated wood.  (I know the wood has been retained along the amusement area, I am not certain of how it relates to the new proposal.)

Given the present configuration, the sand fills between the sleepers and around the boards and cannot fall through the planking or wash away, retaining the smell of beer and waste, retaining

water so that it will be icy in winter and subjecting it to expanding ice between the sleepers that would push the boards up and down, loosening the screws and endangering pedestrians (vehicles now safely on the runway) with the resulting maintenance headache.

Wood or not.

I am not an expert on wood, but I’ve been told that other communities use black locust and that its availability is a matter of planning.

I do not have the numbers, but conversations with other communities suggest that the cost over the project life is much the same, and worth it.

There are real financial advantages, in fact, for the City to preserve the character of the Boardwalk – it is not just nostalgia.  Maintaining the quality and character of its historic heritage could (and in time most likely will) increase the taxable real estate values along one of the most remarkable city beaches in the world.  The new zoning for the area was designed for just that.

Perhaps the synthetic wood will look good and feel good.  Perhaps the concrete runway will (like wood) not crack, chip, spall or discolor with tire tracks, garbage bin rust and gum.   Perhaps Parks will consider and solve the problems of the entrapped sand gone foul, and even the blown sand from the beach. And hopefully, we will not be left with wood at the amusements, exposed concrete, wood and synthetic wood inconsistently from place to place to place from Brighton to Seagate.

At this point, my sense, as I said, is that the height of the sand, too speedy research and a single option experiment built Parks into a corner that only the Commission’s “No” could get them to think their way out of.

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