NYC Parks wants a second chance. Or is it a third? For some, the trouble began back in January. That’s when Parks came before a packed community board meeting and said it had a design team in place and would soon get to work to build boardwalk “islands.” The announcement struck some as an ominous sign that Parks – and City Hall – were doing it their way, and their way only. Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski said the goal was to open the beaches by Memorial Day. As for community input? That would have to come later, if at all.
With no community input, Parks and the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) selected McLaren Engineering as the design team for the quick rebuild. From that decision was born the controversial lifeguard and comfort stacontinued tions that now hover over the beach, rusting and seemingly held together by duct tape. Their current condition is not the only sore point with locals. The design, itself, was ridiculed by many and the units were called a variety of derisive names. To be fair, some people liked them well enough— though probably not as much as City Hall people who seemed uniformly thrilled with the design. It seems their affection for the design has clogged their hearing because there is little evidence they know the design has rankled many locals.
The present condition and the design of the units aren’t the only issues generating controversy.
When the boardwalk islands were opened to much fanfare, it became immediately obvious to resident bike riders that the design team hired by Parks did not include any sort of path for bikes. If anything, the design, with its shade structures, created a bottleneck in front of the concession stands. A Parks supervisor said, “Oops” when shown the problem. Later, the same supervisor said landscape architects could figure out where to put a bike lane. But the question remained – didn’t the design team Parks hired know about bike lanes?
The question provoked a comment by a bystander: if the design firm didn’t consider something as basic as a bike lane, maybe a different design team was needed.
And there’s more that continues to irk residents. Most recently, new parking lots for lifeguards were being constructed near the concession stands. New design plans, some say, should have given preference to recreation options, not lifeguard parking. Playgrounds could be used all year, it is argued. Lifeguard parking lots are used from Memorial Day to Labor Day, hardly a use that allows for the most public enjoyment.
For some, it’s not so much about individual design flaws. They place blame on the process and the City’s hasty selection of McLaren in the first place. Maribel Araujo who operates Caracas Rockaway, the concession at Beach 106th Street said, “This is what happens when you commission design jobs to people that have never been in the place they are designing for.”
The concern now is that Parks is set to make the same mistake. Civic and online groups are making it plain: they don’t want Parks getting a second chance at selecting a design team. And there are options. According to someone involved in the process, several top design teams have made proposals to design the boardwalk. As it stands, Parks and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will select one of those. The public will not be permitted to see or consider other design proposals. And that is what some find unacceptable.
For others, this is merely the latest example of Parks’ obstinance. The familiar refrain of “Parks doesn’t listen” is more than a catch phrase to community activist, Joe Hartigan. He has proof. In a series of emails beginning in August 2012, two months before Sandy, Hartigan alerted Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski and thensupervisor Josh Laird (now Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor/Philadelphia) that the boardwalk was not secure. Hartigan wrote: “My main concern is for new damage to the boardwalk that has been repaired at a cost of over 2 million dollars (after Hurricane Irene). At present time the large wood joists that support the boardwalk decking are not strapped or bolted to the concrete supports. If moderate size surf were to arrive in Rockaway with just a passing storm, large sections of the boardwalk will be lost again. It is my hope that someone at the Parks Department will take action to protect the boardwalk or someone should be held accountable.”
His warning resulted in no apparent action. Miles of boardwalk remained unfastened as Sandy struck. Long stretches of boardwalk were shattered or floated away. Hartigan’s 2012 emails also serve as reminders that the boardwalk was not fully repaired 14 months after Hurricane Irene. Holes and gaps in the boards were still evident on October 29th, 2012. That summer, Rockaway residents recall seeing a one man crew replacing a single board at a time. Parks said one cause for the delay was that they were waiting for wood from Brazil to replace missing boards. Waiting for wood became a moot point as Sandy washed away the boardwalk which, as Hartigan pointed out, had never been properly strapped down. “They didn’t listen then. They don’t listen now,” he says.
“Now” means Parks and EDC are set to choose a single design firm without community input. John Cori, cofounder of Friends of Rockaway Beach, is furious. “Parks has proven they’re incompetent. Parks should not be allowed to choose the design team. It’s the worst kind of déjà vu I have ever seen. We cannot allow these people, who will be gone in a few months, to determine Rockaway’s future.”
Cori is considering taking his grievances to the steps of City Hall. He likely won’t be alone.
A number of mayoral candidates issued statements supporting the idea that the decision to choose a design team should only be made after Rockaway residents get a look at what all applicants proposed.
Mayoral candidate Joe Lhota was the first to call for the Mayor to put a hold on the decision. “In this day and age, decisions regarding public facilities must always include community input. I believe in participatory government and there must be more transparency. The Rockaway community must have a say.”
Sal Albanese did not hold back. “After 12 years, haven’t these guys learned anything? You can’t just ram projects through without even asking what Rockaway residents want! The bathrooms in the sky are bad enough. The Mayor, or at least his people, should be on the peninsula hearing ideas from the people who live there before making another blunder.”
Anthony Weiner also weighed in: “If there has been a unifying theme to the city’s actions post-Sandy, it is that they have constantly been without sufficient community input. Decisions being made today offer a rare chance to attempt to gain consensus on the future of that singular Rockaway icon - the boardwalk. I hope the city slows this down and lets the voice of its citizens be heard. ”
Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu was emphatic: “City Hall must change course immediately and not only be transparent with the various proposals, but must also seriously consider input from Rockaway residents about the boardwalk.”
Bill De Blasio was also on board. He said “Rockaway residents absolutely deserve to have a say in the boardwalk rebuilding process and as Mayor would prioritize community input going forward.”
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder has been pushing Parks to change its position in online posts and press releases. “We deserve to be a part of the process. I strongly urge the Parks Department to make sure our local residents are included in the process of rebuilding and have some say in the final designs for the new boardwalk that will be around for many years to come.” Councilman Eric Ulrich wrote an op-ed for The Wave in which he writes: “The City of New York must put into action a true and transparent community review process that engages people and builds support for the final outcome. The model used for Participatory Budgeting might be a good place to start.”
There is some urgency in the call to Parks and EDC to include Rockaway in its decision to select a design firm. The RFP process closed on August 16th. One of the benchmarks listed in the RFP is that the contract between the selected design firm and the City will commence on September 1st, indicating that a winning firm will be chosen imminently.
Parks would only comment through a spokesperson: “Parks, EDC, and the design team (selected through this RFP) will discuss design options for a boardwalk and shoreline protection with the Rockaway community next month. A final design will come after analysis of the site with this team and input from the community.”
As for having a say in choosing the design team, Rockaway is on the outside looking in.