Racing The Clock In Rockaways
By Lisa Foderro
In mid-March, a waterline still marked the wall in the basement of the Robert Moses-era parks building at Beach 97th Street in Rockaway Beach, Queens. It was Hurricane Sandy’s calling card, a vestige of the wall of seawater that broke down doors and gushed through the interior, destroying mechanical equipment and soaking Sheetrock, more than four months earlier.
After the storm, seven-mile-long Rockaway Beach lay in tatters. The storm surge lifted more than half of the 5.5-mile boardwalk off its concrete stanchions. It sucked more than a million cubic yards of sand from the beach. It wrecked playgrounds, skate parks, handball courts, lifeguard stations and bathrooms. And it left the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation with a seemingly impossible deadline: preparing the beach to open by Memorial Day weekend.
Restoring the beach may seem trivial when the hurricane did so much damage on the Rockaway Peninsula, taking lives, damaging houses and destroying 126 homes in Breezy Point in a conflagration the night of the storm.
And yet the beach remains an engine of commerce, and a symbol of New York’s determination to bounce back.
The beauty of this area led to the proliferation of summer resorts in the 1830s, amusement parks in the 1890s and permanent neighborhoods in the 1930s, and was more recently discovered by Brooklynites in undersized straw fedoras.
“It’s our one true oceanfront beach, and it bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy,” said Liam Kavanagh, first deputy parks commissioner. “We’re cramming two years of restoration work into four months.”
A small army of electricians, stone masons, carpenters, designers, landscape architects and engineers has worked seven days a week, often in double and triple shifts, to deliver the Rockaways on time.
The boardwalk is a longer-term project; it is still uncertain when and how it will be rebuilt. But city officials decided to take the three major parks buildings — at Beach 86th, Beach 97th and Beach 106th Streets — and create “islands,” or main entry points to the beach, with renovated concessions, updated bathrooms and roomy new plazas under sleek shade structures.
The three brick buildings, dating to the late 1930s, were gutted by the storm surge but are otherwise structurally sound. Over the course of two months this spring, we tracked the progress at one of them. Could Beach 97th Street be ready in time?
March 20: Fighting the Tide
Early on, parks officials decided to move the utilities to the second level, determined to avoid similar damage from the next monster storm.
So on a nippy afternoon on the first day of spring, contractors stand in muddy puddles and remove sodden electrical panels. Outside, power-washing equipment drowns out the pounding of the waves as workers spray off old paint from the brick facade. On the ocean side, carpenters outline a new plaza that will soon extend from the back of the building, replacing the wooden boardwalk that was summarily torn from its pilings.
On the building’s second level, where a foodie revolution in beach fare had begun two summers ago (thanks, in part, to the concessionaire Rockaway Beach Club), blackboards scrawled with pastel chalk advertise last season’s crab rolls and sangria.
Outside, the beach is a shadow of its former self. The Army Corps of Engineers expects to start beach replenishment in early summer, but in the meantime, construction crews have only a thin strip of sand on which to work. Waves crash feet away. “We’re fighting the tide,” says Dorothy Lewandowski, the department’s Queens borough commissioner.
But will people come? The storm destroyed almost four miles of subway track, and the A train is still not running to the Rockaways.
April 25: A Plaza Takes Shape
The scaffolding that shrouded the beach center in March is gone, revealing the freshly scrubbed exterior. But the biggest advance is around back, by the ocean. The plaza is covered in newly poured concrete, and the stairs that will someday deposit visitors on the beach are framed out. Makeshift railings — crooked pieces of raw lumber — encircle the plaza. Slowly, the vision of beachgoers mingling in the salt spray is coming into focus.
Inside, electrical cords snake across the floor as workers dodge one another in the dimly lighted hallways. A saw buzzes nearby. In the concession area, the original green tile that encases the sinuous counter is being cleaned. New Frisbee-size skylights have been added, one of the few new flourishes that parks officials allowed.
Outside, the absence of the boardwalk is a ghostly reminder of Hurricane Sandy. Immediately after the storm, the pilings that had supported the boardwalk stuck up like a row of jagged teeth. Now the gaps between the stanchions are filling in with piles of sand, softening the outline and providing a bulwark against the next storm. A copse of even taller pilings stands near the beach building. They were recently driven deep into the sand — a process so loud that it shook residents’ houses — and will support two elevated lifeguard stations that are due to arrive in mid-May.
May 8: Benches at the Ready
A wide stripe of concrete, mixed with blue and green tumbled glass, now bisects the plaza. It is the midsection of a long ramp that will lead visitors up to the plaza from Shore Front Parkway, the main oceanfront artery through the Rockaways, then down to the beach. In the sun, flecks of glass catch the light, pointing the way to the shimmering ocean. Some of the temporary railing has been replaced with an aluminum balustrade, whose modern design features slats that alternate direction from one section to the next.
The plaza still awaits lampposts, seating and shade structures, but their locations are clearly delineated. In one corner, rows of benches are lined up, ready for deployment. Ms. Lewandowski points out that the new benches are replicas of those from the 1964 World’s Fair. The major difference is the material. The new benches are made from recycled plastic lumber.
Inside, electrical conduits and gas and water lines have been moved out of harm’s way. “We’re trying to recognize the reality that we’re kind of in a new age,” said George Kroenert, a parks official who is helping oversee the Rockaway reconstruction. “We have to get these things raised up. The salt water is so corrosive. It just fries the copper.”
By now, it is clear that food stands like Rockaway Taco won’t move back in by Memorial Day. Officials say food trucks and carts will take up the slack.
May 15: Still a Blank Slate
With a little more than 10 days to go, workers swarm over the site — churning cement, ferrying loads and shooing onlookers away. The sun is out, but there is a spit of rain, too, as good a metaphor as any, as the busy optimism that for months had characterized the construction crew seems tinged with panic. In addition to the pile of benches still waiting for their moment, there is a mound of wire-mesh trash baskets. And while down at Beach 86th Street the shade structure is in place, the Beach 97th Street plaza is still a blank slate.
There is some good news: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says the A train will be back by June, a date that is later amended to May 30.
The most obvious sign of progress from a week earlier is the fresh coat of powder-blue paint on the building’s former beige facade. Out front, tractors, cement mixers and pickup trucks zip over deep ruts of muddy sand, as workers prepare to pour cement where the ramp will descend from the plaza.
Parks officials sound confident that the project will come together in the remaining days. Rockaway residents seem less concerned.
“I was devastated when the boardwalk got destroyed since a big chunk of my childhood was spent there,” said Gerald Watkins, 22. “This is going ridiculously fast. They’re doing a hell of a job.”