Opponents, who started a Save the Boardwalk website, call the plan “myopic stewardship.” They say they're not asking for tropical hardwoods. They want to see it restored with domestic wood like black locust or white oak. They wave signs that say “Boardwalk. Not sidewalk.” at rallies. And, as for the low-maintenance benefit of polymer planks, one resident pointed to money spent at Central Park and suggested that “maybe we should put in plastic grass and plastic trees.”
Passionate preservationists are trying for a second time to have the 42-block boardwalk designated a scenic city landmark and kept a wooden walkway. They say real wood looks better, feels better underfoot, and is part of the draw for millions of visitors needing an escape from the concrete-filled city.
One detractor is Steven Cymbrowitz, a New York state lawmaker who in 2009 helped direct a $10 million grant to fix the structure officially called the Riegelmann Boardwalk.
“This is an underhanded misuse of the money and the mayor [Bill De Blasio] knows it,” Cymbrowitz said in a statement in November, when the construction fence went up. “I will work to make sure that the millions of dollars I allocated are cut off. I fought hard for the boardwalk to be repaired, not to fund the elimination of the boardwalk as this community and all New Yorkers know it.”
Why not wood?
Defenders of the plan contend it is in keeping with the boardwalk that generations of New Yorkers and visitors know and love. The city will use a Tangent Technologies product called PolyForce, which is embossed with a wood grain, has a weathered appearance, comes with a 50-year warranty, and should last much longer.
“The new boardwalk will mirror the look and feel of a traditional boardwalk while adding critical strength and resilience, which will protect the Coney Island community and stand up to floods and hurricanes,” Ferguson said in an email.
The parks department website has a lot of information about surface material evaluations compiled by the staff, the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the Public Design Commission. They found domestic hardwoods cost $144 per square foot compared to $126 per square foot for recycled plastic lumber with a concrete carriage lane.
They also say the domestic hardwoods today are “new growth” subject to earlier decay. And, domestic hardwood isn't readily available in the quality, quantity and length needed for such a large-scale project. The original boardwalk used 3.6 million feet of timber.
PolyForce, which is made of HDPE with foaming agents in the base resin, is used by many cities and departments of transportations (DOTs) for applications like decks, boardwalks and bridge fenders. The DOTs are one of Tangent Technologies's biggest client bases, Alan Potts, the company's sales manager for structural marine projects, said in a telephone interview.
“The root-cause reason isn't just the durability,” he explained. “Or, that it doesn't rot or require maintenance or leach toxins into the water — all advantages over treated timber, which it has replaced. The main reason is that it will absorb energy from impacts much better than wood. A similar cross section of recycled plastic lumber will absorb 15 times the energy of a piece of wood. Whether it's in fendering for bridge pier protection or decking on a pier, when it's subjected to impacts as might be the case during a storm, it's going to fare very well.”
For government agencies on limited budgets, Potts said recycled plastic lumber is gaining popularity. As for its appearance, he said New Yorkers need only look at Steeplechase Pier, which juts out from the boardwalk, to get an idea of what the PolyForce part of the boardwalk will be like.
The pier, which extends far over the Atlantic Ocean, bore the brunt of Sandy with boards broken off and swept away. Tangent Technologies won the bid to provide the recycled plastic lumber for the city.
“It was a bit of a trial, putting one toe in the water for them,” Potts said. “They were looking for something durable and low maintenance. Overall, they were very happy with the material. We're now engaged with the boardwalk itself and it's really, I think, on the back of the success of Steeplechase Pier.”
The pair of projects in the Big Apple is far from the biggest Tangent Technologies has supplied.
“We did a bridge at San Francisco Bay that took 45 truckloads of material,” Potts said. “This is not a huge project for us but it is a significant one in that it is so close to the heart of the local community. It's one of our more high-profile projects at the moment.”
He has followed the debate from the sidelines, noting comments from bicyclists who prefer all concrete and complain about boardwalk fasteners tearing their tires; walkers, who like “the springiness” of boards; and “traditionalists,” who want hardboard like the way it has been since 1923.
“Different people want different things and they're all pretty vocal,” Potts said. “I think the city played a great role in diplomatically seeking input from the community and trying to appease everybody. They've come up with a hybrid design with a concrete center and on either side two sections of the traditional deck look.”
Potts said he hopes he's not naive but after a career in recycled plastic lumber, he has seen a lot of public hesitation about the material at the start of projects and then almost always gets compliments when they're done.
“I often revisit past installations,” Potts said. “I've gotten to know the country from projects we've done. I'll take pictures and strike up a conversation with people. I'm happy to get their opinions and the reaction is almost always we love this. I've been to Steeplechase Pier many times since it was finished and I've had nothing but positive feedback. I haven't honestly had anyone complain that it's plastic.”
This part of the boardwalk rebuild has a targeted completion date of May 2016.