Broken boards. Missing boards. Exposed nails.
Some parts of the historic Riegelmann Boardwalk are in such disrepair that the city has simply marked damaged boards with highlighted paint. In other areas, gaping holes make for dangerous walking hazards, leaving more questions than answers about a walkway that has served locals and tourists alike for decades.
The long-term fate of southern Brooklyn’s popular and historic boardwalk now rests in the hands of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which has spent recent months evaluating it for possible designation as a scenic landmark — a move that would curtail major alterations in the future by requiring changes to go through the LPC.
Some nearby boardwalks, such as the Rockaway Bordwalk, have been rebuilt with concrete in an apparent attempt to bolster resiliency in the face of strong storms. But is weather the main culprit in the breaking down of the boardwalk in Brooklyn? And is concrete the answer? Some locals in southern Brooklyn have flipped the script: it is the city, they say, that is responsible for the damage on the Riegelmann Boardwalk.
The Parks Department sends an assortment of vehicles — from large dump trucks to smaller vehicles — across the boardwalk with regularity, along with heavy NYPD vans. Coney Island News photos (scroll below) reveal the extensive damage on the boardwalk, and videos have shown visual evidence of boards being lifted from the surface when vehicles drive across.
“The fact is, heavy vehicles are the reason that the boardwalk is in terrible shape,” said Rob Burstein of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance. “Its not because of pedestrian foot traffic.”
The Department of Parks contended that it is “crucial” for them to access the boardwalk for maintenance, garbage pickup, and light fixture repairs, but they claim to “limit access to smaller vehicles and tires” since those are easier on the boardwalk. The NYPD did not respond to multiple inquiries regarding their repeated use of heavy vehicles on the boardwalk.
Residents fed up
City Councilmembers Mark Treyger and Chaim Deutsch have spent years prodding the city to address local concerns surrounding the boardwalk, and many local residents have also voiced their concerns to the local community board.
“They’ve complained many, many times,” said Community Board 13 District Manager Eddie Mark. “Now it’s just more of addressing how the Parks Department is going to get funding [to repair it]. One way, of course, is to get the landmarked status.”
But Burstein, who has spent years advocating for the preservation of the boardwalk through his work at the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance, noted a number of issues he has with the Department of Parks’ handling of the boardwalk: their heavy vehicles travel across the wooden platform at high speeds; there has been a lack of any true maintenance, which he said endangers the safety of visitors and those in the community; and they’ve blatantly disregarded overwhelming local opposition to the plan of using concrete and plastic instead of sustainable wood.
“The Parks Department’s policy is, at best, a matter of odious negligence of its mandated duty by a city agency that holds itself above accountability to the citizens and their elected representatives that they are supposed to serve,” he said.
Burstein is particularly concerned with the Parks Department’s intentions after a member of the Coney-Brighton Alliance spoke to an LPC representative following a boardwalk-related City Council hearing in 2016. He said the person in his group was informed by the LPC representative that the Department of Parks had been actively lobbying the LPC against landmarking the boardwalk.
“The LPC itself was not against it,” Burstein said. “They were asked by a sister city agency to not grant that status to the boardwalk.”
When asked about this, the LPC offered no comment and the Department of Parks rejected the lobbying claim but told Coney Island News they are “working closely with LPC to figure out what designation would work best.”
No matter what comes of the landmarking process, Burstein argues against the use of concrete or plastic as an alternative to the boardwalk, noting that environmentally-friendly rainforest wood would last longer and is accepted by The Rainforest Alliance’s Forest Stewardship Council.
“The idea of concrete on the boardwalk comes from a point of view that says, ‘hey whats easiest for us?’ — ‘us’ meaning the Parks Department — instead of looking at the way the boardwalk is used and enjoyed by the people.”
There is a range of opinions among local residents when it comes to the boardwalk’s future, but a shared concern exists about its current form and the hazards presented to those who walk, jog, or bike along the wooden boards.
“I’ve seen people stub their foot and fall many times,” said Ramesh Zanesh as he relaxed on a park bench along the boardwalk. “They need to do something about this.”
Matt Renaud, a Coney Island native, was walking along the boardwalk with his dog when he started reflecting on his childhood memories there and around Coney Island. He said he loves the preservation of the boardwalk, but feels torn about the way it should be handled in the future.
“At the same time, I do think it needs to be updated,” he said. “Concrete could be a better option.”
Then and now
The LPC told Coney Island News that a decision on the boardwalk’s future is forthcoming, marking the latest development following years of work by local residents, politicians, and activists. Local leaders have received widespread support from across the city, but have yet to woo the LPC.
Treyger gained overwhelming support from his colleagues in City Council last year when he introduced a resolution calling upon the LPC to designate the boardwalk as a scenic landmark. The resolution, which was approved in July of 2016, was co-sponsored by Deutsch. Three years ago, Treyger garnered 1,526 signatures on a petition entitled “Designate Historic Riegelmann Boardwalk as Scenic Landmark,” which was delivered to the LPC. And, in 2014, Treyger, with the assistance of Coney Island History Project’s Charles Denson, filed an application to landmark the boardwalk.
Mayor de Blasio announced at a Coney Island town hall in August that he asked the LPC to find ways to landmark the boardwalk. In the meantime, the LPC told Coney Island News that they are still conducting research and evaluating the boardwalk.