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Rutgers Grad Students Help Reinvent Sea Bright

'Sandy Recovery Studio' works to transform sea walls and other structures into tourist attractions.

seabright studio
Off-season, beach parking lots can be used to host farmers markets and other outdoor activities.

More than six months after Sandy crashed into the New Jersey coastline, some towns that have been struggling to get back on their feet are just beginning to plan for the future. And one of the Garden State’s barrier islands is getting some help with that effort from a group of graduate students at Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

“This is just a really challenging situation, and the entire coastline is going to have to face it,” said Chris Kok, a student in this spring’s “Sandy Recovery Studio.” The class is dedicated entirely to rethinking and rebuilding the central New Jersey town of Sea Bright, which saw widespread structural damage and flooding during and after the October storm.

Sandy was certainly a wake-up call, but Sea Bright has always been vulnerable to extreme weather. “If Sea Bright were not urbanized today, nobody would build on it,” said Carlos Rodrigues, who co-teaches the class with Michael Yaffe.

Sitting on a three-mile-long strip of land due east of Princeton between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers, the low-lying town is three blocks across at its widest, so even a heavy rain leaves it prone to flooding. During Sandy, water rushed over the riverbank from the west and through the 10-foot sea wall from the east, inundating the island.

Now, work is being done to flood-proof Sea Bright. Workers have been strengthening the sea wall and the Army Corps of Engineers is building a bulkhead system along the town's riverbank.

And students in the Sandy Recovery Studio are thinking about how to preserve the character and communal spirit of a beach town that’s being walled in by engineers.

“We wanted to turn these traditional engineering efforts into an asset for the community,” said student Megan O’Leary. So the class has been devising ways to repurpose what O'Leary calls those "unsightly" barriers against flooding.

One proposal would turn the oceanfront sea wall into an elevated boardwalk, giving visitors a view of the Atlantic from several stories high. A pier connected to the boardwalk would house commercial space as well as room for a community center or library, two public buildings damaged during Sandy.

Kok says the class is hoping that with a makeover, the wall "would be something that would actually attract people to Sea Bright.” They'd add a tiered parking structure beneath the pier to accommodate new visitors.

The boardwalk would also serve as a much-needed jumpstart to Sea Bright's economy, according to the students. After Sandy, damaged homes saw their property values sink, and shuttered businesses lost customers.

As a beach town, Sea Bright relies heavily on the summer tourism season, a source of income that could suffer in the coming years as the town rebuilds and repairs property. Since the majority of Sea Bright's beachfront property is privately owned and thus inaccessible to the public, a boardwalk would attract tourists in a way the town previously couldn't.

Students are also proposing development projects using resources Sea Bright already has. For example, several beach clubs have parking lots that go unused in the off-season. So students proposed building canopies fitted with solar panels above the lots, to harness sustainable energy for the town and shield parked cars from the heat. Locals could use the covered space to host outdoor markets and events during the other seasons in order to create a sustainable year-round economy.

Students have consulted with Mayor Dina Long, as well as local officials and residents throughout the semester, but taking the temperature of the community has been difficult. Sandy displaced more than half of the town’s 1,400 permanent residents and devastated homes up and down the coast. “It was something like out of a movie -- apocalyptic,” Long told MSNBC in April. Her own house was gutted after being flooded.

Last month, the class presented its findings to Sea Bright residents and officials, who were pleased with the results and followed up with a flurry of questions. Having gotten the effective green light to move forward with the project, several students began working up a final report and Rodrigues started coordinating construction efforts with Mayor Long and FEMA. The Bloustein School will also stay involved with Sea Bright through the end of the year, as the town moves from wondering how to rebuild to deciding what to rebuild first.

Rodrigues says this is an example of how coastal towns ought to respond. He says that higher sea levels will produce storms more severe than Sandy more frequently than before. That's why long-term planning like the class’s proposal has become a necessity for shore towns along the East Coast.

"There's every indication this cycle is going to continue," Rodrigues added. "That's something we cannot ignore."

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