A stack of sample materials sits in Wildwood development director Lou Ferrara's office, evidence of the city's ongoing search for the next big thing in boardwalks.
"We're looking at every possible alternative that we know of," Ferrara said. "We're worn out looking at wood."
The city's Boardwalk, currently made primarily of southern yellow pine, is in the midst of a multi-year renovation. The first phase, which cost about $4 million, covered the section at Schellenger Avenue; and that section was replaced with ipe, a tropical hardwood, a choice decried by environmentalists concerned about the impact of using woods harvested from South American rainforests.
The samples in Ferrara's office include everything from black locust and heat-treated pine to cumaru, also a tropical hardwood, and composites made from plastic bags and woodchips.
"We're going to continue to try to find an alternative," Ferrara said, adding that whatever the city uses must withstand the sea air, heavy foot traffic and the weight of emergency vehicles when needed.
Wildwood is not alone in its search for the best boardwalk material: something sturdy, durable and affordable.
Atlantic City's acting engineer, John Feairheller, said durability is what drew his community to the controversial use of ipe, a hardwood expected to last for decades despite the salt air and sometimes harsh conditions along the coast.
The city's Boardwalk traditionally has been made of southern yellow pine, but newer sections are now built with ipe, a dense lumber valued for its hardness.
"The tropical wood lasts longer than it takes the trees to grow," Feairheller said, adding that southern yellow, depending on its grade, lasts five to eight years.
But hardwoods such as ipe have their own downside, namely the controversy that can arise over their use. In Ocean City, officials opted this year to use pine to replace a block of Boardwalk after an order of tropical hardwood was delivered months late.
The Ocean City's 2.5-mile-long Boardwalk is second only to the beach as its most popular attraction, home to amusement piers and pizza places, fudge shops and miniature golf, movie theaters and the Music Pier. Its entire length boasts a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean.
The city's initial decision to use tropical hardwood prompted public protests on the Boardwalk and outside City Hall. The Mayor's Office was flooded with messages from protesters.
City Council canceled the order after the lumber supplier, Louis J. Grasmick Lumber Co., of Baltimore, missed the first deadline. Grasmick sued the city.
In a controversial move, the city in February paid the company $100,000 in damages and $898,000 for wood to settle the lawsuit.
The city is using pine to make minor repairs to the Boardwalk this summer, Business Administrator James Rutala said.
Ocean City also plans to take a deeper look at its 80-year-old landmark to see what repairs or replacements to its deck and substructure will be needed in the future.
Coney Island's 10-mile Boardwalk is made of tropical hardwood, New York City Parks & Recreation press officer Trish Bertuccio wrote in an e-mail. "However, Parks is exploring various contemporary alternatives, including sustainable colored, textured concrete decking, and plans to use this material for Boardwalk improvements." The famous New York boardwalk is being rebuilt in part with thanks to $15 million in federal stimulus money, Bertuccio said.
Bertuccio said that in the past, New York used ipe or similar tropical hardwoods along its boardwalks - which, in addition to Coney Island, include walkways along Rockaway Beach in Queens, Orchard Beach in the Bronx and two beaches on Staten Island.
"We are now using alternatives, such as concrete or recycled plastic lumber, for most of the boardwalks," Bertuccio said. "But we still use ipe in the historic sections of the Boardwalk (i.e. in front of the historic storefronts at Coney Island)."
Atlantic City workers have completed the first phase of the Boardwalk's revitalization project. The section stretches between Georgia and Mississippi avenues, a job city legislators were prepared to contract out for $969,969. But Business Administrator Michael Scott said the city saved about $250,000 by assigning the job to its Public Works Department.
Scott said city workers will start on the project's second phase in front of Boardwalk Hall after Labor Day. The city's previous administration had estimated that section would cost about $700,000, if done privately.
Wildwood will use ipe for its next renovation, slated to begin in October, but what materials will replace the rest of Wildwood's aging pine is up for grabs.
The city is looking at two products including lyptus, harvested from eucalyptus trees, and kebony, a product made curing bio-based substances inside wood, making it harder and more durable.
Wildwood is even looking at obtaining reclaimed hardwoods that were submerged during the construction of the Panama Canal.
Jack Morey of Morey's Piers, meanwhile, is just hopeful that the city will always use a wood product to build its boardwalks.
"Got to be wood to be a boardwalk," Morey said. "Otherwise it's a B-O-R-E-D walk."
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