There are perhaps few other sights so closely associated with the summer scene at Coney Island than the wooden boardwalk. Predating even the venerable Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster, the boardwalk has been the main thoroughfare along which have strolled generations of New Yorkers and tourists alike, out for a game of ski-ball, some ice cream, or simply to enjoy the ocean views.
But despite the nostalgic and historical character of the boardwalk, changing times are buffeting Coney Island and turning the wooden boardwalk into a relic. In recognition of the need for an upgrade, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation proposed in 2010 a new design for the boardwalk that replaces the traditional tropical hardwood lumber with a green replacement: recycled plastic lumber and concrete, and that action has survived a challenge by those for whom the nostalgia of the wooden boardwalk is paramount.
The new design outraged some in the community who felt the wooden boardwalk was indispensable to Coney Island’s historical character. The Parks Department countered that the continued use of tropical hardwood in the boardwalk was too expensive and harmful for the environment. It cited a 2008 policy announced by Mayor Bloomberg to reduce the amount of tropical hardwood consumed by the city of New York-one of the country’s largest consumers of tropical hardwood.
Undeterred, a community group known as the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance filed suit, alleging that the Parks Department had not properly considered the impact of replacing the wooden boardwalk under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and its local analog, the New York City Environmental Quality Review Act. The Alliance argued that the Parks Department had arbitrarily decided that the boardwalk replacement was exempt from full review under SEQRA and CEQRA, and that the Parks Department should be required to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement.
In his opinion, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Martin M. Solomon held that the Parks Department had properly concluded that the boardwalk replacement was exempt from SEQRA and CEQRA review for two reasons. First, the boardwalk replacement merely involved “routine or continuing agency administration” and did not involve any “major re-ordering of priorities that may affect the environment.” Matter of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance v. New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, 2012 NY Slip Op 32936(U) at p. 6. Second, because the Alliance failed present any expert testimony on the alleged environmental impacts of the boardwalk replacement, the court concluded that the Alliance did not “establish a substantial adverse change” in the local environment. Id.
As public awareness of the environmental impacts of our building materials has grown in recent years, so too has the push to include more environmentally responsible building materials in our public projects. Unfortunately, as the conflict that led to Matter of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance showed, the push for more environmentally responsible infrastructure sometimes clashes with historical nature of New York City’s landmarks. But environmental responsibility doesn’t always have to conflict with the historical character of New York City’s historic landmarks. One example of a project that “greens” city infrastructure without altering the appearance of a landmark is the Brooklyn Bridge Forest Project, which seeks to replace the tropical hardwood in the Brooklyn Bridge boardwalk with ethically sourced wood from Guatemala.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has also sought to encourage the growing public awareness and support for green building materials through its administrative rulemaking process. Under a proposed amendment to the SEQRA regulations, projects that incorporate certain green building infrastructure techniques would be exempt from SEQRA review.
While the proposed amendments are still under consideration, if approved, the green building exemption would institutionalize support for green infrastructure, and discourage other lawsuits like the Matter of the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance in the future.