The most expensive and complex effort to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy didn’t concern floodgates, transit, or even buildings. It concerned the beach: 14 miles of gritty—and beautiful—shoreline that are reopening after only nine months. Last week, the city’s Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction described the reconstruction effort as “one of the most challenging, complex, and time-sensitive construction projects undertaken in our city in recent years.”
You wouldn’t think rebuilding a beach would be so difficult, but New York’s shoreline is actually a fairly complex piece of public infrastructure. By the numbers, the $270 million reconstruction project is mind-boggling: Workers had to remove 430,000 tons of debris (enough to fill 12 olympic-sized pools) before construction got underway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed four and a half million cubic yards of new sand. Hundreds of independent contractors were hired to work day and night, and the Parks Department had to hire 1,000 extra employees and 8,000 volunteers. The entire project, so far, has taken 500,000 person-hours—and it's likely to take many more to finish.
Rebuilding the Rockaways in particular—that sliver-like peninsula that reaches out into the Atlantic—involved dozens of architects, engineers, and designers. And in an odd way, it became a way for the city to flex its newfound design chops. For example, over the next few months the city will install 35 prefabricated lifeguard and restroom stations, the first of their kind, along the shoreline. The solar-powered modules were fabricated off-site, a rarity amongst city construction projects, and sit on stilts above the sand (as per FEMA’s regulations). Designed by Garrison Architects, the corrugated metal-and-wood are surprisingly elegant.
Another local firm, Sage and Coombe Architects, will officially open four revamped pavilions along Far Rockaway beaches, too. The blocky, fluorescent-hued buildings house restrooms and other vital amenities—on the beach-facing side, the buildings unfurl into a faceted amphitheater-style boardwalk. “The time crunch was stressful,” Sage and Coombe’s Sam Loring told Gizmodo. “You have pressure from the community locally and at the metropolitan level. Every idea is going to make someone upset at the end of the day.” Start to finish, the entire project took only five months—an incredibly speedy schedule for a public works project.
All of the construction projects are tied together by the city beaches’ very first cohesive visual identity, designed by Pentagram, the Manhattan graphic design studio who’ve worked closely with the DoT over the past few years. Bizarrely, there was never much by way of signage at the beaches—it was never entirely clear where you were. Pentagram partner Paula Scher developed an all-blue identity that gives each beach its own unique snapshot and label, as well as reformatted warning signs for rip tides and sharks. (If there was ever a legitimate reason for Swiss design, it was to warn people about shark attacks.)
All of the reconstruction invites a question: What’s in a beach? Besides broken glass and overeager vendors, I mean. Beaches articulate a particular kind of community pride—if you’ve watched a few minutes of TV over the past month, you’ve likely seen this piece of strangely heart-plucking ad time: Chris Christie, in a pastel button-up, leading a group of beachside New Jersey residents in a declaration that they’re Stronger Than The Storm, a catch phrase borrowed from Obama’s fateful post-Sandy visit to New Jersey, in November.
New York doesn't have a jingle about the beach rebuilding project, but this massive rebuilding project does communicate something unique about the changing face of the city. This new effort is twofold—to revamp the beaches, but also to develop this particular stretch of beach as a commercially viable entity to attract the kind of business that comes from surfing competitions and wealthy New Yorkers. There's still a long ways to go, and the entire project will likely take years to complete.