Battle of the Boardwalk: Concrete or Wood?

Home Brooklyn Life Battle of the Boardwalk: Concrete or Wood?

The iconic planks of Coney Island and Brighton Beach are due for a makeover, and not everyone is pleased.

Hundreds stroll on the Coney Island boardwalk on a recent weekday afternoon.
(Photo: Mike Walker/The Brooklyn Ink)

Despite a cool evening rain, Dionne Rose and Jason Zanora decided to walk out to the Coney Island Boardwalk after their last day of school at nearby Lincoln High School in June. They hid from the growing downpour in a gazebo outside the newly revived Luna Park amusement rides, where they talked about the city government’s proposal to renovate the 88-year-old boardwalk with concrete.

Rose, 19, of Williamsburg, looked concerned when she heard about the plan to place a strip of concrete in the center of the boardwalk. “It would take away from the attractiveness of the boardwalk,” Rose said, “that exciting feeling of going to the beach.”

Zanora had a different take on the hybrid concrete/plastic-wood boardwalk, which the city said costs less money than wood. “If it means more money for the city,” he put it, “then that’s a good thing.”

The two friends’ debate — tradition and aesthetics versus cost and convenient maintenance — is being played out on a larger stage as the city moves forward with its $30 million plan to renovate the iconic boardwalk, the setting for The Drifters’ song “Under the Boardwalk” and almost universally understood shorthand for a beachfront amusement park. In 2010, Travel and Leisure magazine named Coney Island the best beach boardwalk in the United States.

The city has proposed renovating the eastern stretch of the boardwalk in Brighton Beach from Coney Island Avenue to Brighton 15th Street with recycled plastic designed to look like wood and a 12-foot-wide concrete strip in the center. The westernmost portion of the boardwalk from West 37th Street to West 33rd Street in Coney Island has already been redone in all concrete, as has a section of the boardwalk between Ocean Avenue and Brighton 1st Street. The amusement district between West 15th and West 10th streets — home of the amusement parks and the Cyclone roller coaster — would remain all wood in the city’s plan.

Parks Department spokeswoman Meghan Lalor said Mayor Michael Bloomberg directed all city agencies in 2007 to reduce the use of tropical hardwoods in public projects because of concerns about deforestation. However, Lalor said that a concrete boardwalk offers benefits beyond environmental conservation.

“Concrete is more resilient than wood to weather conditions, lasts longer, requires less maintenance and holds up better to pedestrian traffic and emergency vehicle traffic,” Lalor said.

Coney Island resident Todd Dobrin is president of Friends of the Boardwalk, a community group formed in t he late 1990s to help clean up the boardwalk. Dobrin said he disagreed that concrete is more resilient than wood. Plus, he added, it looks awful.

“This is like an outdoor patio in someone’s backyard,” Dobrin exclaimed as he walked the all-concrete stretch of the boardwalk at Ocean Parkway. He pointed out dozens of hairline cracks in the sand-colored, textured concrete. That concrete is not even a year old yet, he said.

Dobrin said that Brooklyn Borough President Edward Riegelmann had the right idea when he drove the first stake into the ground to build Coney Island’s wood boardwalk on Sept. 21, 1921.“There’s no proof that concrete lasts longer than a boardwalk,” Dobrin says. “Salt water is not concrete’s friend. This wood boardwalk has lasted for 90 years. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Friends of the Boardwalk helped rally members on the local Community Board to reject the city’s boardwalk renovation plan by a 21 to 7 vote in May. Since the board’s vote is only advisory, the Parks Department will make the final decision over the renovation. Lalor declined to say when that decision would be made.

According to the Parks Department, the cost of renovating the boardwalk with textured concrete is $90 per square foot. The concrete center strip with recycled plastic decking is $114 per square foot. Wood bumps the price up even higher, to $120 per square foot for concrete with wood decking and $140 per square foot for all wood.

Dobrin disputed those figures and said that the real reason the city wants to use concrete is because so many city vehicles drive on the boardwalk.

However, State Assembly member Alec Brook-Krasny, who supports the Parks Department plan, said the length of the boardwalk — about two-and-a-half miles from Coney Island to Brighton Beach — makes concrete necessary.

“It’s a long stretch of Boardwalk from Brighton to Coney Island, and we have to have a part of the boardwalk for emergency vehicles,” Brook-Krasny said. “To say otherwise wouldn’t be practical. The reason I’m supporting it is that we really have to think about the fiscal implications. Wood is very bad environmentally and fiscally.”

It’s not the first time the city government has proposed changes to the character of the boardwalk, according to Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger. After a strong nor’easter in December 1992 swept the ocean all the way to Surf Avenue, city officials filled in the space under the boardwalk with tons of sand. The sand-filled boardwalk served as a bulwark against storm-stirred tides and also prevented homeless people from camping underneath, where their fires would sometimes damage the wooden planks.

“You can’t go ‘under the boardwalk’ anymore,” Schweiger said.

The wood-vs.-concrete arguments sound familiar to Donna Abbott, communications manager for Ocean City, Md., a municipality that recently undertook a controversial renovation plan for its three-mile boardwalk.

“You have to look at cost and making sure you get the best project at the best price, but the strong ties people have with a boardwalk make this a complex issue,” Abbott said.

According to Abbott, Ocean City’s mayor and city council looked at three options for the boardwalk: a traditional wood boardwalk, a wood surface with a “wood-stamped” concrete center lane, and a wood surface with a plain concrete center lane.

After a public hearing at which traditionalists came out strongly in favor of an all-wood boardwalk and the publication of online poll on the city’s website that got similar results, city officials voted to build the traditional all-wood boardwalk with North American yellow pine instead of tropical hardwood.

Ocean City, Md., city engineer Terry McGean said the all-wood boardwalk will end up costing about $1.5 million more than concrete: $500,000 in initial costs and another $1 million over the 50-year life of the project because the boards will need to be replaced every 10 years while concrete requires less maintenance. McGean said concrete supports under the boardwalk will allow the all-pine boardwalk to carry emergency vehicles, and that Ocean City’s fire chief demanded the boardwalk be strong enough to carry the city’s largest fire truck.

McGean said he understands both sides of the concrete-versus-wood argument. “As an engineer, concrete makes more sense,” he said. “But I’ve learned that politics is just as real as gravity.”

For Dobrin, the Coney Island boardwalk renovation is not just an engineering problem. He said the romance and history of the boardwalk create a powerful argument for a concrete-free boardwalk even if it does cost more than concrete.

“What’s more important, Times Square pedestrian plazas or the world-famous Riegelmann’s Boardwalk?” Dobrin said. “Imagine Las Vegas without gambling, that’s Coney Island without a boardwalk.”

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