Spend time with Robert Raab and you’ll quickly hear and see the passion he has for his city – Long Beach.
The Commissioner of Public Works for the barrier island, bedroom community on the western edge of Long Island’s Nassau County, Robert spiritedly talks not only about his responsibilities as head of the department, but also about the renaissance his city has experienced over the past 20 years. When discussing a recent or ongoing project, Robert will want to take you there and proudly show it off, while pointing out what the road or bridge used to be like and how the new one has improved the community. When talking about a new playground, he beams when he sees children playing there. When explaining the ongoing rehabilitation of the city’s recreation center, he’s excited that the residents will have a state-of-the-art facility where they can enjoy themselves.
All this is in a day’s work and it’s been this way everyday for the past 18 years that Robert has been Long Beach’s Commissioner of Public Works.
Long Beach’s Department of Public Works
The City of Long Beach operates on a budget of approximately $60 million, which is then shared among the sundry departments in the city, including the public works department.
As Commissioner of Public Works and as the City Engineer (both appointed positions by the City Manager and City Council), Robert, more than anything else, serves as a technical advisor to the various departments in the city, such as highway, beach maintenance, sanitation maintenance and water and wastewater treatment. Most departments are run autonomously by individual superintendents.
Although Robert doesn’t get involved in daily administrative issues such as “ who is in today and who isn’t,” he will get involved when asked.
“If something goes wrong, they’ll call me and we discuss how to fix the problem,” Robert said. “When it comes to major improvements, construction, rehabilitation, that’s where this office primarily steps in. We do all the bidding for major infrastructure improvements; we do a many designs in-house and undertake construction inspection activities.
“Most often, we are involved with project management,” he added. “We however directly oversee a masonry contract for overseeing curb and sidewalk replacement; as well as the maintenance of the extensive street lighting system.
“The Public Works Department here runs differently. While many of the City’s outside crews are technically capable of handling most routine situations, many do not get the exposure to the varied materials and construction methods that may be currently available. Often we can provide suggestions for tackling a problem or else do the research necessary to deal with an issue. For example, if the highway department has a problem with a road or street, that’s when we come out. We’ll direct them on possible procedures and what may be the best way to do things. If there’s a problem with drainage, we’ll sit down with them and explain what may have to be done,” he said.
Modernizing an Antiquated Sewer System
Over the past 18 years, one of Long Beach’s chronic problems is the city’s deteriorating storm water and sanitary sewers and water mains. It is one that Robert has helped resolve.
“The roads, the water system and the sewer system were all put here in the 1920s and ’30s,” he said. “Very little rehabilitation was done from the ’30s through the ’70s. What started happening in the 1980s is that the water lines began deteriorating; the sewers started collapsing; and, the roads above began falling apart. In the 1980’s, the city became more aggressive in trying to improve its infrastructure, and we’re still working on trying to improve this situation, today.
As a result, when it comes time to repair or upgrade a street or road, there’s no question about how to do it.
“Because of the failing utilities, we typically don’t do a lot of asphalt overlays; we tend to do more reconstruction projects, because it’s foolish to start overlaying a road when it can potentially collapse because of a deteriorating sewer,” he said. “Often, when we dig up a sewer, it’s disintegrated, it’s literally gone. Over the past 10 to15 years, we’ve reconstructed about a mile of roadway and spent $2 million to $4 million each year. While that seems like a lot of work, the trouble is that there are a lot of roads, approximately 50 miles of concrete pavement, and we can’t keep up with the deterioration since they all fall apart simultaneously. Since the roads are all the same age, we try to do the worst ones first.”
When reconstructing roads in Long Beach, drainage is a significant concern. Ground water is very high since the City is situated only 5 to 10 feet above sea level.
“When we design a road, we’re using just a one-inch slope for every 100 feet of street,” explained Robert. “We deal with a very flat slope, which makes it difficult with very little tolerance for mistakes. That’s why designs here have to be extremely exact, and we have to stay on top of the contractors to make sure that they pitch the gutters according to the specifications. Approximately 75 percent, maybe 80 percent, of the city is connected in some fashion to positive drains. We have many storm sewer outfalls that discharge into the bay”.
Robert said the remaining 20 percent of the run-off is to be accomplished through dirt gutters.
“When we get heavy rain, we get a lot of flooding because the bay waters rise up,” he said. “The piping system also fills up and there is no more capacity in the system. So we get localized flooding on many streets. We’ve done some corrections over the years. We’ve put some tide valves on the end of the outfalls. These valves are such that if the tide gets high, it doesn’t allow water to get back in. Street runoff however will filter through. Unfortunately some flooding will always remain a fact of life on this barrier island.”
Quality of Life
Robert also is very involved in designing parks, playgrounds and improving the city’s remaining waterfront areas.
“In 1996, we completed a bayfront park and a few years ago, we finished about a half-mile walkway with new railings and bulkheads along the waterway,” he said.
“The most pressing need for rehabilitation, though, is the recreation center. It’s vintage1950s, so it’s antiquated; it’s got an Olympic size pool, which is used constantly, and it has a weight room. The problem is that it needs complete renovation; it needs to modernized and improved to meets the needs of today.
“Modern rec centers are not just a pool and a workout area …they’re also community centers, they are multi-media rooms, they are activity rooms, they are party rooms. That’s what people want and one of the controversies now is whether we rip the whole structure down, which costs a lot of money, or renovate. So right now, we’re moving with the rehabilitation plan and we prepared some recent conceptual plans in-house to actually revamp the whole facility. That’s something I think the City is going to be focusing upon the immediate future,” he said.
Keeping the Beach in Long Beach
Long Beach boasts five miles of ocean beach and 2.2 miles of boardwalk. The beach maintenance department is responsible for grooming and cleaning the beach, maintaining the boardwalk and doing deck repairs or improvements to the boardwalk. This department also is responsible for maintaining the city’s approximately 1 million square feet of lawns that run down many of the residential boulevards.
“That may not sound like a lot,” Robert said, “but in a community of 35,000 people all living within 3 and half square miles, a million square feet of lawn is precious.”
With a name like “Long Beach,” obviously a major concern is beach erosion, and Robert has been on the forefront of trying to solve this problem.
Over the past 15 years, Robert and the city have been working with the U.S. Corps of Engineers to build a short erosion project, which would bring in sand and elevate the beach. Currently, the beach has approximately 20 groins, or breakers, but these are wearing down. This project, in part, would renovate these and elevate the actual beach.
Sounds easy, but doing anything with a beach in a city that’s named …well, Long Beach…will likely be controversial, and the strategy to protect the beach is!
The proposed project would create dunes much closer and taller in relation to the boardwalk, and that notion makes many people in Long Beach bristle.
“Right now the city basically has three sections. We have the east, the west and the center and the center is defined by the boardwalk. The east and west beach areas already have dunes,” Robert explained. “Back in 1984 and 1985, the city put dunes in to protect the community. But those dunes stop when they get to the boardwalk. Why? Because that’s where all the activity is and people don’t want the view of that activity obscured in any way. So there’s a major controversy.
“These dunes are upsetting to people because all the activities on a typical boardwalk occur right at the base of the boardwalk. However to counter that, we have recommended constructing finger extensions, which would extend from the boardwalk perpendicularly over the dunes to bring the people beyond the dunes. Some of these extensions would be very wide where, in a way, it would allow people to get closer to the ocean than before.
“We’re looking at a couple of ways to present this to the public. You’ll still see the water, but you’re going to see a dune, a natural system in front of you. It’s not going to really obstruct the view, but the people walking on the boardwalk are not going to be as intimately involved with the activities on the beach. But when you’re used to something after all these years and when the city is defined by this type of boardwalk, it’s going to be very controversial,” Robert said.
However, it’s clear that something will have to be done to save Long Beach’s shoreline. According to Robert, the department of public works did a profile survey of the beaches in December of 1992 after a major Nor’easterer hit the island. Fortunately they had also performed a similar survey only three months prior.
“After the storm, we looked at erosion levels in areas were dunes existed and where they were not,” Robert began. “We actually lost about a foot and a half of sand where the dunes were, but lost up to four feet where there were no dunes prior to the storm. The beach was literally sliced out …gone.”
But there hasn’t been a storm like that since, and that’s not always a good thing, according to Robert. “People become complacent sometimes because we haven’t had a major storm in awhile. When you haven’t had the big storm you feel you’re not that vulnerable, but we are.”
Now or Never
Robert believes that if a decision isn’t reached about the erosion prevention project soon, it may never happen because the project would be 80 percent federal funds, and he thinks that this project may be the last one on the East Coast that would get those kinds of federal dollars. Due to the economy however, the previously committed federal monies may not be available any more.
“In the future you’re not going to see these type of funded projects,” he said. “The city is going to have to make a decision probably this year whether to go with it or not to do this. Right now, it’s about 50/50 in the community. The two questions are “do you put the dunes in and provide extra protection for this community?” or “do we not do the project and keep the flat, susceptible beach”? The decision may be easy however, if federals dollars are no longer around. If the project does not go, we are probably going to have to build the deteriorated groins up ourselves. Now that is a big expense, nearly $10-12 million. Right now, they don’t hold sand…they’re like sieves, the sand goes right through them. All of this is going to be a very historic decision for the city.
“We live on a barrier island, and, if you think about it, people shouldn’t be living here. But we are and we’ve got to do something,” Robert said.
A Day That Changed Everything
Manhattan is a short Long Island Railroad train ride away from Long Beach. Look out any fourth floor window facing west and the city’s famous skyline greets you. Robert and the residents of Long Beach are proud New Yorkers. They live and work here because they get the best of both worlds –- the ocean and the closeness with one of the planet’s finest cities. But on just one day in September of 2001 everything changed, forever. Living close to the city now inherently brings with it a new set of rules, and local governments, such as Long Beach’s, must adapt – both mentally and physically, according to Robert.
“We’re so close to the city, and we’re under the airway path from JFK,” Robert said. “A lot of planes fly over here constantly, some quite low, and there’s always a kind of paranoia, now.”
Because of new federal guidelines created to defend against potential terrorist attacks, municipal governments must maintain certain facilities differently.
“Obviously the police are being trained and the firemen are trained in different ways now, but I would say the biggest problem or issue we have is water supply,” said Robert. “As a water supplier, we are very vulnerable to someone coming in and possibly contaminating our system. It’s not only the question of our water treatment plant or our well houses, but also we have hydrants, we have water mains that run down the streets, so everything we do in the future regarding our water system is going to have to prevent the possibility of tampering.
“We are now required to begin making changes to our water systems, and some of the things are quite stringent, such as changing doors so the hinges are on the inside as opposed to the outside, which becomes a safety issue, as well; putting barricades and surveillance cameras around various structures such as wells.
Robert speculated about the “what if” scenarios, which is exactly what the federal government is now requiring local governments to be prepared for.
“If there is a contamination problem, what do you do? People still have to have water. You still have to protect the community in case there’s a fire. What do you do if the water supply becomes contaminated? We have some options. We have access to alternates water supplies through interconnections with adjoining communities, but there may not be enough water to supply the whole community indefinitely and it may not be enough to provide fire protection to the high rises. What do we do? These are the kind of things that we’re going to have to wrestle with. Certain things are immediate, certain things we’re starting to look at now, but all this has to be resolved,” Robert said.
How the water is purified will also have to change in Long Beach.
“Right now, we use chlorine gas to chlorinate our water, which is the easiest of all the disinfection methods. It’s very simple to do and it has never been a problem for us, but there are two issues now: One, the gas is in pressurized tanks and is potentially explosive. Two, the tanks have to get here and they could be considered a moving bomb being transported along the streets. Now, we have to worry about somebody hijacking one of these.”
To offset this scenario, Robert is in the process of implementing a system in which chlorine tablets can be used instead of gas. But it’s more expensive and, though this has to be done, getting the money to do these things is not easy.
“One of the biggest problems that we find in the local municipality is that there’s just
no money to do everything,” Robert said. “One of the issues that always comes up is when all these regulations and all these requirements are promulgated, the burden really falls on the local people. In the past, when federal mandates were issued, some form of grant money was made available to help local communities. There are no grant monies even for these vulnerability assessments. Taxes will have to be raised. As our water funds increase, the water rates have to increase. The public works in 1986 is absolutely nothing like the public works in 2004. More regulations and less money to comply.”
Doing More With Less
It’s become a cliché in the business world, but “doing more with less” doesn’t get any easier for any business or organization, including the department of public works. The part that Robert laments most about is losing good people to budget cuts and layoffs.
“In the City of Long Beach, we used to have about 300 full-time workers; now it’s under 200,” he said. “You have people doing twice as much work as they used to. You have sanitation workers part-time making $10 an hour and they’ve been working here for 10 years – that’s $10 with no benefits”.
“This is Long Beach. This is metropolitan New York. How do you expect a person making $30,000 to live here? It’s impossible. It’s $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. Who can afford that? We have had many talented young engineers come through this office over the years, but either we can’t afford to keep them or they find employment elsewhere. It’s always bad for us, but good for them, I guess. On Long Island in general, many college graduates want to return here after school but they can’t afford it. Housing costs are so prohibitive. The median house costs $400,000 to $500,000 in Nassau County, and you’re just talking about middle-class communities.”
The Great Sand Beach
Long Beach is one of the older communities on Long Island.
The Long Beach barrier island was reportedly sighted by the crew of explorer Henry Hudson's Half Moon as he sailed along Long Island's south shore in 1609. Mapmakers of the period dubbed the place the Great Sand Beach.
But it wasn’t until 1870 that the town of Hempstead deeded to a group of wealthy New Yorkers a 200-foot-wide strip with authority to build a hotel, cottages, picnic pavilion and rail station. That same year the Long Beach Hotel opened. Then the railroad arrived in 1882 promoting Long Beach as a resort community for vacationers.
The hotel was a resort fixture for 25 years, until it burned down in 1907. Then William H. Reynolds took over. Long Beach's future was assured.
Reynolds was the youngest elected state senator at age 24. He owned theaters, produced plays and vaudeville, and in 1903 built Coney Island's largest amusement park, Dreamland.
Reynolds widened and deepened the channel and used the dredged sand to fill in Long Beach's wetlands and inlets. Then he brought in some Dreamland elephants to help haul pilings to build a 2.2-mile boardwalk. He set about designing a 300-room fireproof hotel that was to be the centerpiece of his resort community. Strict zoning laws dictated property size, red tile roofs, white stucco walls and red brick streets. The wealthy began moving in.
In 1913 the village was incorporated, still within the Town of Hempstead. Reynolds' envisioned city-by-the-sea was becoming a reality and started to draw the entertainment figures of the day. Famed dancers Verne and Irene Castle opened a nightclub here. Others who came included Clara Bowe, Eddie Cantor, Flo Ziegfeld and Rudy Vallee. New hotels rose along the beach. At Reynolds' urging, Long Beach was granted city status in 1922.
Long Beach continued to flourish through the 1920s, but the Depression put a damper on the resort. Gradually the celebrities moved out, the major hotels were sold off, and Long Beach began its transformation into a residential/beach community. Boaters found its many canals with access to the bay and sea attractive.
The City of Long Beach currently has a population of about 33,000 people and about 13,000 households spread across two square miles of land surrounded by water. More 4,000 children attend Long Beach schools.
(Long Beach’s historical information was provided by the city’s web site, which can be found at http://www.longbeachny.org/)