By Bridget McCrea
Millions of visitors make their way each year to the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk in New York to take a walk, ride a bike, snap a few photos of the sunrise or simply feel the warm ocean breeze. But when Superstorm Sandy ripped through the area in 2012 – causing tremendous damage to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast – it took much of the 5.5-mile-long Rockaway Beach Boardwalk with it.
“What was once an idyllic stroll has been twisted into an obstacle course of frayed wood planks, twisted metal frames and demolished summertime memories,” Irving DeJohn wrote in the New York Daily News (1). “The area between Beach 110th St. and Beach 88th St. is post-apocalyptic. Concrete frames stretch into the horizon and not a single plank of wood remains.
“The demarcation line between utter ruin and a manageable repair is near Beach 86th St., the site of a jetty.”
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the municipality to realize the value of quickly rebuilding the iconic structure. Only this time, instead of wooden planks, the boardwalk would be made of precast concrete – a material designed to stand up to the test of time, the elements and Mother Nature.
“As part of the reconstruction effort, the city really wanted to make an effort to build a stronger, more resilient boardwalk,” said Dan Colangione, vice president of capital programs for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which was responsible for project delivery on behalf of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
“There was a major, citywide effort here in New York for better resiliency following Superstorm Sandy, and the boardwalk was one of the first projects that got underway following the storm,” Colangione added.
Going head-to-head with Mother Nature
Recognizing the unpredictability of Mother Nature, and with the desire to keep the new Rockaway Beach Boardwalk in service for at least another 100 years, the NYCEDC set its sights on building a more resilient structure. According to Colangione, the previous structure was “somewhat of a hodgepodge,” built on concrete footings that were driven into the sand. The deck was made of wood, and several of those segments had been repaired over time and replaced with precast concrete.
“Overall, the boardwalk has been a signature feature of the Rockaways for many, many decades and generations,” Colangione said. “It’s part of the fabric of the community as really an important resource for both residents and visitors, and serves as a focal point for how they live and interact and do business with one another.”
According to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, more than $140 million was invested to repair and restore Rockaway Beach, which suffered a direct hit from Sandy.2 As part of this work, intact sections of boardwalk were repaired, damaged beach buildings were renovated with new boardwalk islands constructed around them, public restrooms and lifeguard stations were installed to replace destroyed facilities, and interim shoreline protection and anti-erosion measures were created.
“We chose to use concrete materials because they were more durable, both in terms of maintenance and also due to their ability to withstand potential storm forces,” Colangione said.
Other advantages of precast included speed of manufacture and delivery, and the fact that all the pieces could be produced in a controlled environment and delivered to the project site for final installation.
Tweaking the design
The design phase for the new structure kicked off in 2013. Colangione said it was an accelerated process, with the design of various phases being completed at different times. The design phase for the new structure kicked off in 2013. Colangione said it was an accelerated process, with the design of various phases being completed at different times.
“The project was broken out into phases with the goal of minimizing disruption to the community as much as possible and also being able to open segments of the boardwalk as soon as possible,” he said. “We didn’t want to get in a situation where all 5.5 miles of the boardwalk were closed for a number of years, and we were actually able to deliver segments of it on a semi-regular basis to the community based on the aggressive schedule that we outlined.”
Slaw Precast of Lehighton, Pa., played a key role in helping the city meet its aggressive schedule. After winning the project, the precaster set out to manufacture nearly 5,000 slabs to reconstruct the lengthy boardwalk.
Robert Slaw, president, said the company “redesigned the new structure to be a bit better” than its original design by using prestressing and three different mixes. The latter resulted in an architectural finish that helps delineate between bike lanes (which are tan in color) and walking lanes (beige), plus a blue mix – embedded with glow-in-the-dark rocks – to spell out, “Rockaway.” The idea for the Rockaway text came from area residents who wanted the boardwalk to be visible to airplanes that were landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Tight time constraints
For the duration of the boardwalk project, Slaw Precast poured 19 large precast slabs each day.
“It was a huge undertaking,” said Slaw, whose team was working under time constraints set by the project’s owner. “The whole project was pretty challenging, but we beat the deadline and ensured that every section was able to be opened up to the public on the predetermined timeline.”
Designed for at least 100 years of use, the new boardwalk incorporated a mix made with slag for durability and sulfate resistance.
“We used a low-sulfate mix and a corrosion inhibitor admixture,” Slaw said. “It was a very good mix for the application and for the saltwater environment where the boardwalk is situated.”
For the project, precast concrete added an aesthetic quality that its wooden predecessor couldn’t touch. For example, Slaw said his company incorporated white and beige aggregate into the mix to ensure a good blend with the sand and other environmental elements.
“You can’t really do this with any other material,” Slaw pointed out, adding that the 5.5-mile-long, 40-foot-wide structure also includes a wavelike geometry. “It was supposed to mimic the ocean’s waves, and a lot of people thought it would be difficult to achieve. But we did it using wavy forms and it worked out very well.”
Standing the test of time
Colangione said NYCEDC took additional steps to ensure the boardwalk would stand the test of time and not be taken down by the next superstorm or hurricane. The boardwalk was raised out of the flood plain based on the new Federal Emergency Management Agency maps that were developed post-Sandy, which included adjusted flood elevations.
“We also added sand retaining walls along the 5.5 miles of the boardwalk to help control sand erosion that’s happening on the beach in order to protect the community,” he said.
The Army Corps of Engineers also placed an additional 3.7 million cubic yards of sand at Rockaway Beach, thus restoring it to a height and width not seen in decades (3).
Walk out onto the new-and-improved Rockaway Beach Boardwalk and you’ll see dozens of people milling about, enjoying the new structure, the adjacent beach and the various shops and restaurants that have reopened since Superstorm Sandy left its destructive footprint on the area. Displaying similar levels of resiliency as the area that surrounds it, the new precast concrete boardwalk is a centerpiece for the community.
“Millions of people go to the boardwalk throughout the year – mainly during the summer – from various neighborhoods here in New York City,” Colangione said. “The entire project was a great success, and we’re all really enjoying it.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.
Featured photo courtesy of NYCEDC.