How NYC Totally Rebuilt Its Shoreline In Just Five Months

The most expensive and complex effort to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy didn’t concern floodgates, transit or even buildings. It concerned the beach: 23km 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 — slap some new sand on that sucker and call it a day, right? But New York’s shoreline is actually a fairly complex piece of public infrastructure. By the numbers, the $US270 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 US 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 8000 volunteers. The entire project took 500,000 person-hours to complete.

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, the city is currently installing 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 — a far cry from the cement block pavilions that were washed away in the storm.

Another local firm, Sage and Coombe Architects, will officially open four brand-new pavilions along Far Rockaway beaches on Saturday. The blocky, fluorescent-hued buildings house restrooms and other vital amenities — on the beach-facing side, the buildings unfurl into a faceted amphitheatre-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. Come to the beach! yelps the group.

New York would never stoop to recording its own jingle about its beaches, but this massive rebuilding project does communicate something unique about the changing face of the city. Robert Moses, when he oversaw the construction of the Rockaway beaches, was adamant that hotels and stores be kept away from the shoreline. Unsurprisingly, the money to support the beaches eventually ran out, giving way to the trash-and-crime-plagued shore of the 1970s and ’80s.

Moses probably would’ve hated this new $US300 million investment in the Rockaways, since it’s not just about public betterment — it’s about developing 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. Sandy, in a way, simply cleared the way for an undertaking that was decades in the making. Urban planning, in hyperdrive.