Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Miami Beach gets down to matters of substance and boardwalk repair

Coke or Pepsi? Charmin or Cottonelle? Such questions have been asked for years by marketers intent upon gauging consumer preferences regarding everything from sodas and cereals to laundry detergents and long-distance providers. Now the City of Miami Beach is applying the same approach to a less conspicuous item: new planks to resurface the eleven-year-old boardwalk that runs along the Atlantic between 23rd and 47th Streets.

Because public officials care about what you think, joggers and strollers are apprised by two pairs of bilingual (Spanish and English) signs just north of 43rd Street:

BOARDWALK RESURFACING
TEST SECTION
CITY OF MIAMI BEACH
WELCOMES YOUR OPINION
PH. 673-7730

The signs delimit a twenty-yard sample of a fancy-looking light-brown wood. Farther north, above 46th Street, lies another newly surfaced stretch, this one consisting of a gray substance that sort of looks like wood. Though no signs are posted to announce it, the city welcomes your opinion about this material, too.

In a joint undertaking, the city's recreation, culture and parks department and its property management division plan to refurbish the entire boardwalk, spending more than $400,000 in funds generated from a bond issue voters supported last November. And in an unprecedented display of public-works benevolence, citizens are being asked what kind of boards they want to walk on for the next 30 years or so. "We don't want to put anything down unless the citizens are in favor of it," explains Brad Judd, director of the property management division, the General Services Administration unit that handles boardwalk repair.

The choice is between pau-lope (pronounced pow-lo-pee), an attractive Brazilian hardwood that bears the National Audubon Society's seal of approval for rain forest-friendliness, and a wood-polymer composite known as Trex -- both of which are expected to far outlast the pressure-treated pine that was originally installed back in 1984.

So far, officials at the parks department, which is fielding calls in the popularity contest, haven't tallied the results, so they are not able to say which material is ahead. John Oldenburg, the assistant director of parks, guesses that calls are running about 50-50. At this point, his reading of public opinion is based on random messages that find their way to his desk. ("Don't need fancy," he reads aloud from one cryptic missive. "Plain boards okay.")

Apparently there is some concern among the populace that the classier-looking and ecologically correct pau-lope might put an unnecessary strain on the city's coffers. The hardwood, which is the material of choice at Coney Island, Atlantic City, and the Six Flags theme parks, is, Judd concedes, "a little more expensive, but not prohibitively so." As part of its sales pitch to the city, Judd recalls, the manufacturer supplied what it claimed was a 30-year-old pau-lope plank from Coney Island. "It looked good as new," says Judd.

Based on a highly unscientific survey conducted by New Times one evening this past week, if cost concerns weren't a factor, pau-lope would be the winner. "I don't like [the Trex]," said one power-walking passerby, crinkling her nose in disgust at the manmade material. "I like the real wood."

Frankly, though, the vast majority seem to be paying little attention to the signs. "Most people don't have a cellular when they're on the boardwalk. They forget the number when they leave," Brad Judd theorizes. It's possible, the property management honcho adds, that the city will assign someone to actually stand on the boardwalk and solicit public opinion directly. Regardless of the method, the tallying will continue until mid-September at least. Resurfacing won't begin until next year at the earliest; funding won't be available until after a lengthy master plan development process is completed.

Earlier efforts to switch over to a new kind of planking didn't fare well. Several years ago, the city began experimenting with a plastic substance when new boards were needed, but that material was soon abandoned. "Joggers didn't like it," Judd remembers. Since then, planks have been replaced with more pressure-treated pine when they begin splitting, peeling, or warping. There has been no full-scale renovation like that now being planned for the nearly two-mile-long boardwalk, which originally cost $3.2 million to build. (Judd says the railings and supports aren't slated for replacement during the resurfacing.)

When work begins, it will take between 90 and 120 days to complete, with the new surface -- whichever it turns out to be -- nailed directly on top of the current boards. To minimize inconvenience, workers will install the new surface on one half of the twelve-foot-wide boardwalk, then switch to the other side. "A lot of people walk there -- it's the most heavily used recreational facility the city has," Judd reasons.

Before reaching this face-off between wood finalists, the potential new boardwalk planks already met a number of rigorous criteria. They're tested by the manufacturer for elasticity, flammability, and perhaps most crucially, "slip resistance."

"We don't want any slippery-type surfaces that cause anyone to have an accident," notes Judd, mindful of potential lawsuits.

 
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