Inside Coney Island’s Vertical Boardwalk

From top to bottom, this Brooklyn project is a model of green building practices. Here's what makes it unique.

1515 Surf Avenue. Image courtesy of STUDIO V Architecture

The most pressing issue changing the face and structure of the built environment is the need to build sustainably, the absolute necessity to create buildings that have very low or zero carbon offsets, and use energy- and water-efficient technologies. So experts in the industry are coming up with or reinventing building methods.

Over in Coney Island, N.Y., just steps away from the beach and Luna Park, 1515 Surf Avenue is taking shape. The mixed-use project broke ground in September 2021 in the midst of the health crisis, with completion slated for 2024. Plans call for 463 apartments—139 of which are set to be affordable—and 11,000 square feet of retail space. The entire development aims to limit the use of carbon-emitting HVAC equipment by 100 percent, reducing energy use by 60 percent. How? Through a geothermal system.

While it’s not a singular example—the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has registered 128 projects with wells of 500 feet, 81 in New York City—it is the largest one, and by the likes of it, it will serve as a model for multifamily developments across the country.

The vertical boardwalk

The moniker is given by the STUDIO V architects, who came up with the vertical boardwalk concept inspired by Coney Island’s three historical waves of development: The first one was the waterfront resort, featuring elegant Victorian hotels and resorts, celebrating the natural beachfront and dunes landscapes. The second was amusement parks, offering relief from the rapidly expanding city and growing into an international entertainment destination. The third wave was urban renewal, described by STUDIO V Founder Jay Valgora as “destructive attempts at rebuilding the neighborhood by clearing entire blocks and concentrating towers of affordable housing.” But many blocks remained empty to this day.

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An almost entirely empty city block was what the architects found when they first visited 1515 Surf Avenue, a parking lot facing the ocean. But there was potential, spectacular potential, even.

“The site overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and Coney Island’s famous beach and boardwalk. It was surrounded by the icons of Coney Island’s past—diagonal to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, across the street from Gargiulo’s historical restaurant, facing The Thunderbolt roller coaster,” Valgora remembers.

1515 Surf Avenue. Image courtesy of STUDIO V Architecture

Now, Coney Island is about to change again. A recent New York City rezoning initiated a new plan to repair the damage caused by former urban renewal and reinstate it into a neighborhood built around a mixed-use, transit-oriented, modern, sustainable community.

The project’s design is built around this vision: The architecture engages the street, the community, the ocean, and the greater Coney Island landscape and history, as Valgora puts it. Ultimately, 1515 Surf Avenue will rebuild a major portion of Surf Avenue, featuring restaurants and retail. It will offer extensive gardens on the street and upper levels overlooking the ocean, filled with native beach plants. And it will include luxury, affordable and co-living units served by many social spaces and amenities for the community within the building.

“I always remind people that New York City is comprised of four islands and a peninsula,” Valgora told MHN.

Building on waterfront sites

The architect reminisced a very “Coney” image that surfaced during Superstorm Sandy when nearly the entire peninsula was several feet underwater and the roller coaster appeared stranded in a rising ocean with waves crashing around it.

“With 526 miles of waterfront, it is one of the largest continuous urban waterfronts in the world, thus resiliency is a significant issue,” Valgora said.

Like all the Coney peninsula, the site at 1515 Surf Avenue rests within the 100-year floodplain, and retreat is not an option because more than 24,000 people already live here. So, the architects had to take this into consideration while coming up with a design that restores the streetscape and creates a new model for resilient development and communities.

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Valgora knew all the ins and outs of building on waterfront sites as he was the architect appointed by the mayor of New York City to help write the city’s 10-year Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.

“Our philosophy is not only to address, but to exceed all current codes related to resiliency, considering projected future climate change, providing thought leadership on innovative new techniques and technologies, participating in public outreach and educational programs, and providing pro bono work to many communities to help make their waterfronts more resilient,” he said.

The “vertical boardwalk” design at 1515 Surf Avenue addresses resiliency and climate change within a vision that unifies the architectural design and engages the community. It is inspired by Coney Island’s famous boardwalk, a wooden platform that “engages the sun, sand and ocean while creating a linear space for social interaction,” as Valgora puts it. All habitable areas are elevated over seven feet—which is two feet higher than the code-required freeboard—to ensure floor resistance for 100-year storms and extend it into the future to account for climate change over the projected lifespan of the building.

The vertical boardwalk is Valgora’s favorite aspect of the project’s design. It is as much a design feature as it is a landscape feature, combining dramatic wooden floors, ceilings, walls, millwork, and connecting the entire building on both exterior and interior with native and outdoor dune plantings and ocean-tolerant species.

“A limited portion of lobbies in each building occur at grade but are protected by special lightweight deployable flood barriers, including Norwegian-designed Aquafence, which STUDIO V pioneered at our design for Empire Stores, and has now become a standard for many waterfront buildings in New York City,” Valgora revealed.

Additional resiliency features include deployable flood gates to protect parking areas from hydrostatic pressure, and extensive rain gardens and green roofs for stormwater absorption.

Green building practices featuring a geothermal system

The project has a multitude of sustainable features that make it eligible for both WELL and Fitwell certifications, including many natural and local materials, as well as FDC-certified wood. Furthermore, 1515 Surf Avenue is set to feature extensive green roofs, active and restorative gardens, a robust building envelope with special insulation and sophisticated thermal breaks. More so, the mechanical systems were designed to harvest heat from the building systems and reuse it.

1515 Surf Avenue. Image courtesy of STUDIO V Architecture

The location is also ideal, as it is pedestrian friendly and highly accessible to mass transit, close to the beach and a long boardwalk, and bike paths. The project’s design features extensive bicycle parking and dedicated special casual beach entrance for biking, surfing, dog walking and running.

The most exciting of all the green building practices is probably the geothermal system, which is the largest geothermal heat pump project in New York City to date. The second-largest geothermal project is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, according to Valgora.

Anthony Tortora, senior vice president & principal at LCOR, the developer behind the project, shared that the 1.5-acre scale of the project made the 1515 Surf site “an excellent and unique candidate for a geothermal system.” Of course, Local Law 97—which will impose caps on carbon emissions from buildings greater than 25,000 square feet starting in 2024—is the catalyst for such advanced sustainability-focused development.

“It made sense to invest in the technology to get ahead of these regulations and ‘future-proof’ the project,” Tortora said.

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However, challenges came in different sizes and forms. One was related to cost, as the geothermal system is more expensive than traditional spec. On the developer’s side, the largest challenges associated with implementing the geothermal system were the steep learning curve and the coordination of the geothermal work with their foundation work in the field, according to Tortora, as this was LCOR’s first geothermal project. And that was no small thing as they had to coordinate the installation of more than 150 geothermal wells with more than 600 foundation piles.

On the developer’s side, the largest challenges associated with implementing the geothermal system were the steep learning curve and the coordination of the geothermal work with their foundation work in the field, according to Tortora, as this was LCOR’s first geothermal project. And that was no small thing as they had to coordinate the installation of more than 150 geothermal wells with more than 600 foundation piles.

For the architects, 1515 Surf Avenue was “proof of concept” for New York City’s rental housing, as for them too, this was the first design with a geothermal component. Because a quarter of the residences were committed to affordable housing, their goal was to create a financially viable project that can be used as a model for upcoming developments. As such, using a standard market-driven NYC typology with the residential tower at the base, the firm set on to demonstrate that the apartments create self-sustaining and economical models for affordable housing development in New York City, according to Valgora.

Challenges and excitement

The team at Ecosave had to “teach” the concept’s applicability in multifamily to the owner, the design team and the construction team. Specifically, because the geothermal system transfers heat to the ground, there was increased coordination required with the building’s structural elements and, implicitly, further coordination in design, permitting and construction sequencing.

The project promised a series of exciting tasks and results, and those fueled the team at Ecosave to overcome any difficulty. For one, 1515 Surf Avenue would materialize into the largest geothermal project in NYC. Second, it would use premium HVAC technology for electrification and net-zero emissions. Third, the system would help reduce the mechanical space within the building, offering quieter operation and a more reliable system with the highest efficiencies. In the end, this project would meet or exceed the building electrification and decarbonization demands of the city.

From a design standpoint, Valgora detailed three opportunities/challenges: the urban site, the site’s hydrology and the well depth. Specifically, urban sites means that there is less unoccupied open space, which requires the geothermal well fields to be located within and between the building’s foundations, including between structural piles.

“Solving this led us to more creative structural solutions, such as using post-tension concrete, less popular in NYC, but offering a lighter building, with lighter foundations, offering fewer piles spaced further apart to facilitate the well field,” explained Valgora.

Geothermal systems can only be used on sites that offer good hydrology for maintaining year-round temperature differentials and disbursing excess heat.

“Waterfront sites such as Surf Avenue often feature excellent hydrology, including sandier well-drained soils, less bedrock requiring drilling and the underground water which generally follows the tidal level of the adjacent ocean assists in heat dissipation,” Valgora added.

Lastly, well depth means that there is a limit in depth that wells can be drilled to—the deeper, the better—but more efficient, deeper wells are subject to outdated regulations that require prohibitive mining permits, said Valgora. So, to disburse heat, they added a dry cooler and used the excess undissipated energy to heat the rooftop swimming pool.

To ensure the geothermal system’s performance during the cold winter months and during the rising temperatures of the summer months, Ecosave created a detailed computer model to simulate these extremes. In addition, a test well was located on the site to a depth of 500 feet to evaluate and determine the soil’s thermodynamic properties. Combining the computer model with the data from the test well, the engineers designed a bore field with 153 wells that are 500 feet deep and spaced 20 feet apart, creating a bore field capable of meeting or exceeding the building’s heating and cooling demand.

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