Ocean City proposal for concrete boardwalk sparks concern

Concrete tram lane contemplated

  • A tram (at right) moves up the expanded and improved Ocean City boardwalk. More changes, including an expanded concrete tramway, are under consideration.
A tram (at right) moves up the expanded and improved Ocean City… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
December 20, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

How much concrete can you add to a boardwalk before it becomes just another city street? Will tourists flock to a plastic boardwalk?

These are questions Ocean City officials might be asking themselves this winter as they consider the first thorough reconstruction of the iconic walkway in more than 50 years.

Time, water and heavy loads have taken a toll on the 2 1/2 -mile wooden boardwalk, and the town's engineers say it's time to replace nearly the entire structure — a project that could cost as much as $10 million.

The big question is whether the town will rebuild it in the all-wood tradition of decades past, or replace much of it with more durable — and cheaper — concrete, or use synthetic "faux" wood materials. One option offered by public works officials would add a concrete center lane to better support the tourist trams and vehicle parades that have shortened the life of the old wooden decking.

"The need is definitely there. The boardwalk has to be repaired," City Councilman Brent Ashley, a former president of the town's Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.

He said he's leaning toward a concrete tram lane. "It would be a deviation from tradition, but in the long run, it would be a good thing. But I haven't made up my mind."

Ashley, the rest of the council and the mayor are planning a series of hearings, perhaps late in the winter or in early spring, to gauge the opinions of town residents and business owners.

Reconstruction of the boardwalk, between North Division Street and the terminus at 27th Street, could begin as early as next fall. Completion would require two off-season work periods, ending in the spring of 2013.

Redecking would be needed south of Division Street, where there already is a concrete tram lane alongside the wood.

The price will depend on the design and materials selected by the town. The traditional, all-wood design could cost as much as $10 million, said City Engineer Terry McGean, though other options using more concrete could cost as little as $6 million.

McGean said has heard from one big fan of the traditional boardwalk. "One lady wrote us and said, 'If the boardwalk is made of plastic, I'll never come back to Ocean City.' I understand. It's been there a long time; it means a lot to people. … After the beach, it's the second most important feature."

Other reactions were mixed.

Anna Dolle Bushnell, part owner of Dolle's Candies, the century-old, fourth-generation candy store at South Boardwalk and Wicomico Street, wants to see a safer boardwalk installed.

"Traditional wood boards have nails and splinters, it expands and contracts and can pop up, and that's a safety concern," she said. In the long run, she added, a synthetic board of recycled material could be the best answer for a 21st-century boardwalk.

Suzanne Jackson, general manager at the Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel, on the boardwalk at 13th Street, said that the project is "a concern" to her business.


But until she has a chance to attend one of the hearings this winter, she said, she cannot form an opinion. "We'll wait and see what the town of Ocean City is going to present," she said.

Former Carroll County resident Paul Gillan, who now lives in Clifton Park, N.Y., e-mailed this reaction: "Are you kidding? If the boardwalk were concrete instead of boards it would be called 'The Sidewalk.' How charming is that?"

Asked for their opinions, Baltimore Sun Twitter followers Jessica Trinh and John Milleker tweeted back. Trinh said, "a boardwalk is made of wooden planks/boards, not concrete. 'nuff said." Milleker noted that on the southern end of the boardwalk, "part of it is concrete, and it's not fun to walk on."

Donna Abbott, spokeswoman for the Ocean City Convention Bureau, said some people have "traditional thoughts, that a boardwalk is a wooden walk, and no other surface will do." But she added that a recent letter to a local newspaper urged the town to do "the most cost-effective replacement, some sort of surface that looks like wood, but is another material that would last longer."

McGean said the boardwalk's longevity is part of the problem.

"We've been fortunate. In the past, Mother Nature told us when we had to replace the boardwalk — when a storm would come in and destroy it," he said.

The last time the boardwalk had a thorough reconstruction was after it was demolished by a storm in March 1962. "I'm not even sure, at that point, whether it was all replaced," McGean said.

The town undertook major repairs again after Hurricane Gloria ripped up the decking in 1985.

But beach replenishment, and construction of the sand berms on the ocean side of the boardwalk north of downtown, have protected it against more recent storms.

"As a result, we have a boardwalk that is suffering from old age," he said.

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