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Landmarking Coney Island’s historic boardwalk may not protect its wooden boards, preservationists worry

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The boardwalk falls under the jurisdiction of a different agency, and some worry that future changes will be carried out unchecked

The proposal to landmark Coney Island’s historic boardwalk is gaining momentum, but preservationists are questioning whether such a designation will actually protect the boardwalk’s beloved wooden boards.

On Tuesday, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing for the proposed designation of the 2.7-mile boardwalk that stretches between West 37th Street to Brighton 15th Street. While the LPC has the power to determine whether the boardwalk is declared a landmark or not, it does not have much control over changes that could be carried out on the boardwalk after its designation.

How can that be? If designated, the Riegelmann Boardwalk, as it is officially known, will be one of New York City’s scenic landmarks. There are only ten of them in the city, Central Park, and Prospect Park being among them. Scenic landmark status is only accorded to city-owned land, and changes on such properties whether they be parks, open space, streetscapes, signage, or permanent structures falls under the jurisdiction of a different city agency—The Public Design Commission. According to city law, the LPC only plays an advisory role when it concerns changes on such properties.

Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a non-profit preservation group, voiced his concerns at Tuesday’s meeting. Without the LPC holding public hearings on proposed changes to a designated landmark, the public would have no say in future changes on the Coney Island boardwalk, he said.

The concerns echo those voiced by local residents and preservationists nearly a decade ago when the city began replacing some stretches of the boardwalk with concrete. The city’s logic is that the use of concrete prevents deforestation, is a cheaper material to use, and is more durable.

Both environmental groups and preservationists have countered by saying that hardwoods like black locust and white oak can be used instead of rainforest wood. Some locals say the newer sections have fared worse against the elements than the boardwalk.

In 2014, several local residents and elected officials including City Councilman Mark Treyger campaigned to prevent future changes to the boardwalk. He called for the LPC to begin the landmarking process back then, but the LPC rejected the request at the time. He was instrumental in getting a City Council resolution passed in 2016 that compelled the LPC to act.

So far, two sections of the boardwalk have been replaced by concrete entirely: between West 37th to West 33rd Streets, and between Ocean Parkway and Brighton 1st Street. In addition, the Steeplechase Pier now has recycled plastic lumber with a concrete base as does the section between Coney Island Avenue and Brighton 15th Street. The city did however use wooden decking while making changes on the sections between West 15th Street to Stillwell Avenue, and from Stillwell Avenue to West 10th Street.

The work began in phases in 2009, and was completed in May 2016. A spokesperson for the city’s Parks Department told Curbed that there are no current plans for future capital renovations on the boardwalk.

Still, the possibility looms, preservationists argue, and without its wooden boards it’s not really a boardwalk, said Robert Burstein, the president of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance, at Tuesday’s meeting. “The boardwalk should always be composed of wooden boards, and we need to protect what is essential,” he added.

The issue of jurisdiction was also a point of concern for some of the LPC Commissioners. If the Commission frequently weighed in on the addition or subtraction of structures like trellises and gazebos on buildings within a historic district, why could it not weigh in a boardwalk, which is also a built structure, Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron asked.

LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan explained that in those matters, the LPC was weighing in on projects on private properties, and an LPC staff member added that in the past the LPC had only played an advisory role when it concerned changes to structures on city-owned land like parks. In the end, the Commission staff decided to examine this law further and present more information to the Commissioners before they vote on the boardwalk on May 15.