City officials are planning to replace the full length of Coney Island’s hardwood boardwalk with recycled plastic decking, the latest expansion of a sustainability initiative that has set off backlash among local residents.
In a brief press release last week, the de Blasio administration announced that $114 million has been set aside for a phased reconstruction of the famed 2.7-mile boardwalk. As part of the overhaul, the Parks Department later confirmed to WNYC/Gothamist, all of the boardwalk’s classic wood planks are set to be replaced with synthetic material.
“The tentative plan is to reconstruct the entirety of the boardwalk by installing new concrete structural elements, new recycled plastic lumber decking, as well as topside railings and furnishings,” said Meghan Lalor, a spokesperson for the Parks Department.
The scope and design of the project are still being worked out, Lalor added, and decisions about materials have not yet been finalized. But the prospect of a full tear-down of the wood planks has enraged some residents, who likened the move to the desecration of a historic site.
The project would also mark the city’s most ambitious step to date in fulfilling a pledge, made by both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, to reduce the use of tropical hardwoods.
The city’s reliance on the rainforest-sourced timber — also found on benches, the Brooklyn Bridge promenade and subway track ties — has made New York one of the world's leading consumers of endangered hardwood, according to a 2008 report prepared by Bloomberg’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.
Past attempts to install plastic and concrete in smaller sections of the Coney Island boardwalk have inspired fierce protests from some Brooklynites.
Among those past opponents is Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who will have ultimate say over the Coney Island redesign. At a pro-wood rally in 2015, the Brooklyn Borough President vowed to fight any attempt to overhaul the boardwalk.
”The song is under the boardwalk,” he told the crowd. “It is not under the concrete.”
An Adams spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry about whether he stood by the 2015 comments.
The Coney Island boardwalk’s planks are sourced from a Brazilian tree known as ipê, a heavily-durable and rot-resistant wood whose extraction has contributed to the deforestation of the Amazon. The price of ipê has also increased significantly in recent years.
Defenders of a hardwood boardwalk see the Parks Department's position as economic and practical. Coney Island Council Member Mark Treyger said he has requested the de Blasio administration identify other hardwoods, either domestically or sustainably sourced from South America, but was brushed off.
“The de Blasio administration has said that no supply exists, but we found out later that was not the case,” Treyger said. “I don't think it's contradictory to push for resiliency and the historic nature of the boardwalk.”
When the privately-funded High Line stopped using ipê in 2011, they switched to another tropical wood, a reclaimed teak from the industrial buildings of southeast Asia. By comparison, the sections of the Rockaway boardwalk that were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy were rebuilt with recycled plastic and concrete.
In a presentation about removing a section of wood on the Brighton Beach stretch, the Parks Department said they had evaluated the costs and life cycle of various domestic and tropical hardwoods, before concluding that each had “significant drawbacks” compared to plastic and textured concrete.
While concrete is the cheapest and most durable, the recycled plastic was found to "provide similar aesthetic standards to wood with a much higher life cycle than the wood options,” the agency noted.
Rob Burstein, a Brighton Beach resident who has organized rallies and petitions to keep the boardwalk wood, disagrees. He said that the recycled plastic material is slippery when wet, hard on the soles of runners, and turns a “sallow greyish color” over time.
“Our fight for a real wood boardwalk is something that’s not only important for aesthetics, it’s important for the way people use the boardwalk,” Burstein said.
There is also a prevailing sense among some Coney Island locals that the city’s lax oversight of the People’s Playground would not be tolerated at a more affluent destination.
Residents have complained for years of dilapidated stretches of the boardwalk, with nails sticking out, boards missing, and sections wobbling — in part because of the heavy Parks Department vehicles that frequently drive over the pathway, according to Treyger. Until earlier this year, the agency did not have a full-time carpenter dedicated to the boardwalk.
While the new funding is aimed at improving those conditions, the looming removal of wood has only exacerbated the frustrations of some residents with the parks department's stewardship.
“There’s always been the feeling out here that we’re the uncared for step child of the city,” said Burstein. “Otherwise, the boardwalk would not be in this current state of disrepair to begin with.”