On a March day when the temperature touched 70 degrees in Brooklyn for the first time since last fall, the United States Army Corps of Engineers presented a new plan at a public meeting in Coney Island to bring sand to a beach. They showed aerial photographs of Coney Island beaches that appeared wide and full, while, just to the west, there was a severely depleted beach near the gated community of Seagate.
The corps, the federal agency responsible for maintaining the nation's shores and navigation channels, wants to restore the level of sand at the Seagate beach to the way it was 15 years ago, and shore up a large pile of rocks at West 37th Street, known as a "groin," that holds sand in place for Coney's Island public beaches. Groins can be many hundreds of feet long and several feet high. The corps proposal calls for the construction of four groins at the southwest tip of Coney Island near Seagate, which will then trap and hold sand along the Seagate beach. A wide sand buffer at Seagate is necessary, in the corps' view, to bolster and protect the 37th Street groin from a storm that could attack the site from the side ("flank") and undermine the effectiveness of that groin.
The corps is joined in this effort by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Funding (65 percent federal, 24.5 percent state and 10.5 percent city) was secured through the efforts of Congressman Jerrold B. Nadler.
The army's engineers are not new to the Brooklyn beaches. Ironically, some critics say, the work the corps is proposing is intended to fix problems that the corps caused in the first place. Coney Island was a corps project in the 1920's, and they addressed the Seagate peninsula again in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
Residents living on Gravesend Bay, the north side of the Seagate area, contend that sand drifting around the peninsula, perhaps the result of the lengthy 37th Street groin and other corps construction projects, is damaging their community. One resident spoke of sand drifting into Kaiser Park, covering pathways and benches. Another bayside resident spoke of sand drifting into people's homes. A third resident, stated, "we now have 300 feet of beach we did not have twenty years ago." These residents asked the corps to use this "excess" sand to replenish south side beaches. The corps estimates that bayside sand could account for 30,000 of the 190,000 cubic yards it needs.
The corps' Edward Wrocenski, stated that "T-Groins are the best chance for the sand to stay in place" on the oceanside. He indicated that T-Groins have worked in New Jersey and elsewhere. Some people attending the public meeting did not agree..
Sand moves naturally by long shore ocean currents and storms. The corps is engaged in many locales around the country, building groins and jetties, and mining and moving sand. These methods are expensive. Where it is necessary to both build and replenish, it is even more expensive. And some corps opponents question the wisdom of long term beach projects that primarily benefit private property owners.
Environmentalists also raise concerns about the impact of corps projects that dump large volumes of crushed stone onto sensitive underwater inter-tidal habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fears disruption of the foraging behavior of the species they protect.
Still, the corps and the state contend that the $450,000 study and the $9 million project "are not about a beach for Seagate". The agencies say the project is about preserving the groin that holds the sand that makes the Coney Island public ocean beaches possible while keeping sand out of the homes of residents on the bay side. Some observers wonder if T-Groins will work.
Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.