Boardwalk Fix is Off in Rockaway

City Struggles to Win Acceptance Plan for Replacing Wooden Structure With One Made of Concrete
Wall Street Journal - by Josh Dawsey
October 15, 2013

Mayors in coastal towns in New York and New Jersey wielded giant scissors to snip oversize ribbons this spring to celebrate the restoration of boardwalks that were destroyed by super storm Sandy.  But not in the Rockaways, home to New York City's longest boardwalk. The city has struggled to win acceptance for its plan to replace the Queens neighborhood's 5.5-mile-long wooden boardwalk, which dates to the 1920s, with a structure made of concrete.

As other communities enjoy their rebuilt promenades, it is almost certain the Rockaways won't have a complete boardwalk by next summer.
  "We all miss the boardwalk terribly. You walk, you socialize, it's what brings everyone to the beach. What I'm hearing now is protection. We need the protection," said Dolores Orr, a Rockaways resident and chairwoman of the community board.

Almost one year after the storm, the Rockaways are still healing. Residents in the community of 125,000 people, which sits about 15 miles from Manhattan, have complained the process of repairing and rebuilding homes takes too much time. City officials say the area leads in applications for rebuilding and repair. Many are worried about increasing flood-insurance rates and are fighting with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Even so, while streetlights are still out in some sections of the Rockaways, they are on in most areas. Many of the restaurants closed since the storm have reopened. The beach attracted 3.3 million people this summer. That is lower than previous years, but higher than some feared.

City officials envision the new boardwalk as the centerpiece to a $200 million project to repair and reimagine Rockaway Beach. Next spring, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to add enough sand to widen the beach to 200 yards in some places, a width not seen since the 1970s. Dunes will stand 16 feet tall.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg directed that the new boardwalk be made of concrete, but some Rockaways residents say the mammoth new structure retains little of the charm and historic appeal of the old.  Most people prefer wood, Ms. Orr said.  Liam Kavanagh, first deputy commissioner for the parks department, said it was more important to build a boardwalk that will last 50 years or longer and withstand another storm.

Other Rockaways residents have clamored for a stout sea wall that would protect a vulnerable coastline from future storms.  City officials say such a wall would hurt the beach, in effect increasing the energy of the waves that strike the shore and triggering more intense erosion. A seawall could also go against recommendations from the Army Corps of Engineers, possibly jeopardizing future projects.

City officials said they understood the impassioned feelings that come with replacing the old boardwalk. In recent meetings, complaints have emerged in often tense exchanges, with some frustrated residents lobbing profanities at the city's representatives.  "Change is traumatic in the best of circumstances," said Mr. Kavanagh. "When you add something as catastrophic as Sandy, it probably exacerbates that response."

Some people who live in the Rockaways said the relationship between the city and the neighborhood was damaged this summer when residents felt they weren't consulted when the city decided to install modular beach bathrooms that many viewed as too modern-looking and out of character with the area. Some of the new bathrooms discolored in the weather, said residents and local officials. The city said the bathrooms' "discoloration" was cosmetic and would be removed by contractors.  "Right now, everyone is at a vulnerable point in the recovery," said Ms. Orr, the community board chairwoman. "And people need assurances the city will do what's best for them."

State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, whose district includes the Rockaways, said the peninsula's residents generally expected the boardwalk to be rebuilt by next summer.  Mr. Kavanagh, however, won't commit to a firm date. He said the city planned for construction to begin this winter and hoped to reopen the boardwalk for Summer 2015. "That is what we're shooting for, but I'm hedging," he said.

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