Economic Reality Demands Changes to Coney Island Boardwalk

Friday, March 09, 2012
For more than a century, New Yorkers for Parks has made adequate and equitable distribution of parks and open spaces throughout New York City, and the resources to support them, its paramount goal.
With that mission in mind, we’ll deliver testimony next week at a Public Design Commission hearing that supports a proposed Parks Department pilot program that would replace five blocks of tropical hardwood along the historic Coney Island Boardwalk with a recycled plastic-concrete surface.
If the program is adapted, it’s sure to stir controversy, especially among local advocates in southern Brooklyn. Their sentiment is not unwarranted. The Coney Island Boardwalk is an 89-year-old landmark, and the Coney Island summertime experience is woven into the cultural fabric of the city. But given the state of the Parks Department’s budget – and when all options for a new boardwalk are considered – the pilot program makes the most sense for right now. In our testimony, we’ll take a closer look at why.
First, it’s important to keep in mind that unlike many capital-intensive City agencies, the Parks Department has no consistent discretionary Mayoral budget and is thus completely reliant on City Council and Borough President discretionary funds for capital improvement projects like the Boardwalk. Large-scale influxes like the state grant that will fund the section under current discussion are infrequent and undependable.
Over the past decade, the Parks Department has received an average annual allocation of approximately $1 million for upkeep and reconstruction of boardwalks, and we have no reason to believe that this amount will change in the foreseeable future. One million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it must be divided between the boardwalks in Coney Island, the Rockaways and Staten Island. To put that amount into additional perspective, the total cost of replacing the Coney Island Boardwalk, taking every potential material into consideration, is between $84 and $128 million. So, at a rate of somewhere less than $1 million per year, it will take between 84 and 128 years, at a minimum, to replace the Boardwalk. This reality highlights the importance of choosing a material with a long lifespan. Whatever material is selected must have substantial durability over time and in the face of Coney Island’s oceanfront conditions in order to maintain its structural integrity during the inevitably long periods between replacement.

Monday's testimony will briefly address the four materials that are primarly being considered as options for the Boardwalk: tropical hardwood, southern yellow pine, black locust, and the recycled plastic-concrete hybrid.
Tropical hardwood has been used on the Boardwalk since 1923, and it has proven to be the most decay-resistant wood available. However, its cost is high; its lifespan is shorter than some other materials available on today’s market; and, most importantly, City agencies are under a mayoral mandate to drastically reduce the amount of rainforest woods that they use. For these reasons, tropical hardwood is no longer an option for the Coney Island Boardwalk.
In an effort to preserve the Boardwalk's historic character, a number of advocates have proposed the use of locally harvested woods, specifically southern yellow pine and black locust. While southern yellow pine is one of the least expensive options under consideration, it is a soft wood estimated to last just five to eight years of heavy visitor traffic and oceanfront conditions. This short life expectancy, considered alongside the economic reality that it would be replaced on a cycle of at least 97 years, means that a southern yellow pine boardwalk would be in a state of severe decay for approximately 89 years of its approximately 97-year life. This would mean significant closures of the Boardwalk for decades, impacting residents and visitors of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, stifling local businesses, and slowing economic growth and vitality across the peninsula.
Black locust, while a durable and long-lasting wood, is currently unavailable in the quantity, grade, and size specifications that the boardwalk demands. For this reason, it's not a viable option for the Boardwalk.
Finally, the recycled plastic and concrete hybrid proposal. This option is also costly. At $112 per square foot, it will take more than 100 years to complete the full Boardwalk – assuming that funding for boardwalks maintains its current pattern. The critical advantage of this option, though, is its significantly longer lifespan: between 40 and 60 years. This type of durability is far more safe and sustainable than southern yellow pine.
While far from perfect, the recycled plastic and concrete option would create not only a far more long-lasting and cost-efficient boardwalk, but also one resulting in fewer durability-related closures over time. Also, it strikes a balance between cost-efficiency and aesthetics: the recycled plastic isn’t wood, but looks a lot like it. It’s worth remembering that the Department is making every effort to maintain the Boardwalk’s appearance by avoiding the far cheaper, yet less attractive, all-concrete route.
It’s also worth remembering that this is a 5-block pilot project subject to the grim reality of the Parks Department’s current capital project budget. Perhaps in the future, a cost effective, durable local wood will become available. But the locally harvested wood options currently under discussion simply aren't feasible. The Parks Department’s proposed recycled plastic and concrete solution best ensures the long-term sustainability and durability of the Coney Island Boardwalk.

Finding Ways to Preserve Natural Areas in a Complex City

Friday, February 24, 2012
New York is a city of extreme contrasts and diversity – and not just because of its population. There are contrasts in geography and landscape, too.
Less than a mile from one of the world’s busiest airports, JFK, Atlantic Ridley sea turtles, peregrine falcons, and more than 100 species of fish live unencumbered by development in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It’s the only national wildlife refuge accessible by subway – the A train – and a significant segment of New York City’s natural areas, which, according to a 2004 study conducted by New Yorkers for Parks and NYC Audubon, comprise more than 12,000 acres.
Yet many wetland areas, which help improve water quality, control flooding, moderate storm surges and provide a habitat for wildlife, are vulnerable to threats from development and pollution. Much has already been lost. Now, steps are being taken to preserve the still-sizable amount of wetlands that remain.
Last month, the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning & Sustainability submitted the Draft New York City Wetlands Strategy to the City Council. The report examines all threats to the City’s diverse array of wetlands – from marshes in Queens to woodland streams in Staten Island to Bronx park ponds – and proposes policies to address those threats.
Right now, the City’s waterfront and waterways are governed by a complex array of several City, State and Federal agencies. The report, however, offers ideas for making wetlands protection – and enforcement of those protections – simpler and more comprehensive.
One of the proposals within the report is to increase wetlands acquisition by the Department of Parks & Recreation. NY4P strongly supports this initiative, as mapping the City’s wetlands as parkland is the strongest mechanism for preservation, and wetlands currently under the jurisdiction of other City agencies should be transferred to the Parks Department as soon as possible. Until these land transfers are complete, a temporary protective development hold should be applied to each site.
Further, it’s worth noting that there’s a need to protect all natural areas, not just wetlands, from development. Through its Forever Wild program, the Parks Department has identified 51 natural areas that provide New York City with multiple environmental and ecological benefits. Many of these sites are under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction, but not all of them. In addition to wetlands, all Forever Wild sites should be transferred to the Parks Department for long-term preservation and care.
Because we believe Parks is the most appropriate agency to manage, restore and maintain the City’s wetlands and natural areas, and because we live in an era of strained public budgets, it’s also paramount to identify a funding source to help the Department in those efforts. That’s why we support the City’s proposed creation of a Natural Areas Conservancy. Parks’ Natural Resources Group (NRG) is responsible for more than 10,000 acres of natural areas within New York City Parks. Since the start of the City’s hiring freeze in 2008, the staff of this small department of 35 has been roughly reduced by half. The creation of a conservancy empowered to raise outside funding, though, would help ensure that NRG has the resources it needs to protect the Parks Department’s growing inventory of wetlands.
That inventory is what helps provide those contrasts and diversity in New York City. There’s Times Square and there’s the Brother Islands. There’s Atlantic Avenue and there’s the Staten Island Greenbelt. There’s JFK Airport and those turtles under its landing path. New York City’s natural areas and wetlands are vulnerable, in large part, because of their close proximity to contrasting environments.
The proposed land acquisition and conservatory creation policies would go a long way toward simplifying the bureaucratic governance of those vulnerable areas – and providing the best-equipped agency with the tools it needs to keep those areas protected.

NY4P Urges More Comprehensive Tracking of Crime in Parks

Friday, February 10, 2012
Try as some might, it’s nearly impossible to draw conclusions from the NYPD’s park crime statistics.

That’s because the Department only tracks statistics for the city’s 30 largest parks. There are 2,152 in the system. And that’s despite a Local Law 114, enacted in 2005, which mandated that the Department begin, and gradually increase, the tracking of crime data in parks. New Yorkers for Parks has closely followed the issue of safety in parks for decades and played a central role in advocating for the Local Law 114.

The Department should clearly be following that law, and that was the basis of our testimony at a New York City Council hearing last week, held jointly by the committees on Public Safety and Parks & Recreation.

Many New Yorkers are surprised to learn that until five years ago, crimes in parks weren't reported as occurring in a park; instead, the NYPD tracked them to the nearest street address. Responding to a strong advocacy campaign by NY4P and other groups, the City Council, with strong leadership from Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., and Mayor Bloomberg, passed Local Law 114, mandating that the seven major felony crime complaints be tracked in City parks. This legislation marked a first step toward increasing transparency, accountability and public awareness about crimes in parks.

The legislation allowed for a phased implementation, beginning with the city's 20 largest parks. In 2008, the tracking requirement was expanded to 30 parks, and the law called for it to expand to the 100 largest parks one year later, the 200 largest parks two years later, and all parks measuring one acre or greater three years later. The reality has fallen short in two important respects.

Most significantly, no expansion of reporting has taken place since 2008, and the NYPD is still tracking crime in only 30 City parks. But NYPD Governmental Affairs officer Susan Petito testified that the Department lacks the technological capacity to handle such a task.

With such a limited sampling, it’s difficult to accurately analyze crime trends and patterns in parks or draw meaningful conclusions about resource deployment or other safety initiatives.    

Another issue: the City doesn’t make the data publicly available. New Yorkers for Parks’ website – currently under construction – is one of the only places providing the public with the crime data collected on the 30 parks.

Reporting crimes in all large parks is in everyone’s best interest: it will help New Yorkers better understand the reality – or perhaps fallacy – of perceived safety concerns about parks, both generally and specifically, and could lead to a more informed and efficient distribution of police resources.

At the hearing, NY4P and other park advocates urged the Council to work with the NYPD to identify the technological issues hindering the full implementation of this mandate, to develop and release a plan and timeline for overcoming these constraints, and to work closely with the NYPD to ensure that the full program is implemented within that revised timeframe.

Another issue that arose was the lack of Parks Department Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers stationed throughout the park system. While these officers are empowered to issue summonses for quality of life offenses and generally keep the peace, the force is woefully understaffed; there were just 150 PEP officers throughout the five boroughs in 2011 – more than half of which were stationed in Manhattan. Budget cuts at the Department have made it difficult to maintain anywhere near an adequate number of officers.

But William Bayer, a retired 30-year veteran of the NYPD, suggested that the PEP force be run by the NYPD, and not Parks. The NYPD, he said, is far more capable not only of training and overseeing such a force, but also of paying for it. It’s certainly a recommendation worthy of exploration by the Council.

The bulk of the hearing, though, focused on better tracking of crime numbers in parks. And our conclusion on the state of such crimes, was, unfortunately, the same as the Council’s: inconclusive.

NY4P Joins Participatory Budgeting Process

Friday, January 13, 2012
Four New York City Council Members are giving New Yorkers more of a say in the City's legislative priorities.
Beginning last fall, Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams signed on to the Participatory Budgeting process, a growing national movement in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. Each member allocated $1 million of capital discretionary funds to the project, and oversaw the formation of delegate committees for issues such as housing, education, open space and transportation. The community meetings began last fall.
New Yorkers for Parks serves on the project’s steering committee and recently attended the Parks & Recreation delegate meeting for District 8. The meeting, also attended by Parks Department officials, was reflective of how the Participatory Budgeting process is meant to work—through feedback and collaboration with government officials.
The group identified specific improvements needed in three local parks, and Parks Department representatives offered helpful suggestions for each site. In Poor Richard’s Playground, Parks said it would soon invest $200,000 to fix the worn safety surfacing, so Participatory Budgeting funds were not needed. Because the available funds would only cover a portion of the cost of new play equipment in Blake Hobbes Playground, Parks suggested that the community seek supplemental funds from a local nonprofit to help meet the shortfall. As for the outdated dog run in Thomas Jefferson Park, Parks urged the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Park Dog Association to build a constituency to advocate for Parks Department capital funds for a new dog run.
Similar meetings have taken place over the past several months IN the other three participating districts. When this spring’s budget discussion arrives, New Yorkers will have had a more direct say in how public money is spent than ever before.

NY4P Report Spurs Community Action in Central Harlem

Friday, December 16, 2011
When members of the Harlem-based Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association (MMPCIA) opened NY4P’s Report Card on Large Parks in early November, they quickly noticed that their neighborhood park, Marcus Garvey, had scored lower than any other in Manhattan.

“We were shocked to see it score a D,” said Laurent Delly, Vice President of the MMPCIA. “The Report Card really was a wake-up call and has helped us be a lot more proactive in addressing issues in the park.”

While the 30-year-old community organization had focused mostly on housing and economic development issues, its attention quickly turned to the park that is, as Delly said, at the heart of the community. The 20-acre space opened in 1840 as Mount Morris Park and was renamed in 1973. It hosts the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, among other events.

After reading the Report Card, MMPCIA quickly got in touch with the Marcus Garvey Alliance and organized a series of leaf and trash cleanups in November. They met with New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Manhattan Borough Commissioner William Castro. And they have solidified a group of neighborhood volunteers who are devoted to improving the park.

Since the Report Card’s research was finished, several of the benches have been fixed and the amphitheater has been renovated, but there’s still much work to be done. Weed growth and worn playground equipment – along with new lamppost installation and refurbishment of the park’s iconic Harlem Fire Watchtower – are all issues MMPCIA is determined to address – both through building the fledgling volunteer network and working with the Parks Department and elected officials.

“”We want to get an A next time, so we’re fighting vigorously for it,” Delly said.