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Sandy-Bashed Rockaway Cheers Small Changes, $20 Billion

Rockaway Beach
The trellised concession stand rebuilt at Rockaway Beach's 86th Street. Architect Sage and Coombe restored the concession interiors and designed shade canopies which will receive fabric roofs. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

On a beachfront pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, warped trellises clustered around a chartreuse-painted concession stand wave a cheerful greeting.

They are small, symbolic signs of storm-resistant renewal that could cost $20 billion citywide. They are also the best thing to happen to New York City’s beaches since parks czar Robert Moses erected festive Art Deco bathhouses in the 1930s.

Five such concession stands reopened for the May 28-30 Memorial Day weekend at the Rockaway beaches, a line of communities along a narrow peninsula in New York’s borough of Queens that took a direct hit from the storm.

These beaches long offered the cheerless ambience of a Soviet Baltic Sea resort. Miles of asphalt-backed drab boardwalks were lit by highway fixtures. Posh residential neighborhoods turned their backs on low-lying tracts of dispiriting slab apartment buildings, nursing homes and public-housing projects.

The little trellises added to concession buildings that survived the storm mean so much because they suggest a brighter, better-protected future.

Their small details delight. Broad beach stairs made from wood salvaged from storm-wrecked boardwalks incorporate benches perfect for people watching. Angled slats in jazzy aluminum railings refract the varied colors of the sea light. Vines crawl across a revetment of rocks made to diffuse storm-wave energy. Architects Jennifer Sage and Peter Coombe collaborated with the landscape architect Signe Nielsen.

Station Wagons

What look like surfer station wagons stand high above the sand to house new lifeguard stations and public bathrooms. They rise on stilt feet akimbo, some with a metal-stairway proboscis that stabs the sand. Designed by Garrison Architects, their stylishness thankfully equals their prominence.

At $140 million, the Rockaway repairs weren’t cheap, but David Burney, commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, said that the costs reflect how quickly the work was done to get beaches reopened for the summer and how sturdy the new structures are. (The bathrooms and lifeguard stations were built in a factory.)

“What would normally take three and a half years to do was done in six months,” Burney said.

Yet the real work of protecting the thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or severely flooded has only just begun, and the process won’t be simple, quick, or cheap. Before Sandy the shoreline was largely unprotected.

Massive Dune

Naked concrete pilings are all that remains of miles of boardwalk. After the storm heaps of sand were hastily piled among them and they are webbed with sand-grabbing fences. This tangle is just a placeholder for what will probably grow into a massive dune designed to repel waves and flooding.

The Army Corps of Engineers will dump 3.5 million cubic yards of sand to widen beaches narrowed by the storm. That’s a down payment on what a massive dune system now being designed by the Parks Department would require.

You can see the height needed -- 10 to maybe 20 feet above the current beach level -- because the new comfort stations, though not the existing concessions, have been elevated above the higher flood elevations mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

An undulating dunescape along the beach, crowned by low trees and waving beach grass, could be beautiful but will likely block the view, and may not be able to accommodate a restored boardwalk.

Some shore neighborhoods have rejected those tactics. But such a high level of protection is absolutely essential if people are not to be forced to move away.

New Risks

A drive through streets in and around the Rockaways shows some people taking new flood risks seriously by raising buildings, while others resign themselves to vulnerability or don’t yet know what they can afford to do.

An impressively comprehensive city plan, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” recommends combining shore protections with flood-proofed and storm-proofed buildings and infrastructure -- all for that estimated $20 billion price tag.

As the losses from Sandy reach the $70 billion mark, the future price of half measures is likely to be much steeper.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeffrey Burke on books, Jaime Widder on music.

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