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Queens Chronicle

Water Taxi Creates An Oasis In Hunter’s Point: A Beach

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Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2005 12:00 am

There is no swimming; there are no seashells and no jellyfish. But the East River breeze that blows across Long Island City’s first beach is as refreshing as the ocean’s, and the sunburns are just as authentic.

New York Water Taxi, the Red Hook-based company that provides ferry service between Hunter’s Point, midtown and Lower Manhattan, and Jersey City, at a cost of $4 to $10 per trip, now offers a new service over its competition—Water Taxi Beach.

Located in the back of the parking lot for its Hunter’s Point dock, at Borden Avenue and Second Street, lies a slice of the Jersey shore. Covered with 400 tons of sand, visitors can enjoy picnic tables, a volleyball net and a reasonably priced snack bar. The area is enclosed by a chain-link fence.

“It’s really bizarre,” said Jennifer Wintrich, 36, a fashion retail recruiter from the Upper West Side. “It’s like a mini-paradise in an eyesore,” she said while sipping her margarita and pointing to enormous piles of rocks and debris on an adjacent construction site.

Water Taxi Beach was created by a group of entrepreneurs with a history of implementing park and waterfront projects. Initially proposed by Water Taxi’s former Chief Operating Officer Mark Baker, the beach came about as a way to promote the company, as well as bring people to the waterfront.

Now in its fourth week, the beach’s hours are expanding due to high turnout, from 4 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday, and noon to midnight on weekends.

Tom Fox, president of Water Taxi and founder of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, worked on the beach plan for nine months. “Just getting it up and running was a Herculean task,” he said.

The project was a joint effort with the Port Authority, which is leasing the 15,000-square-foot former storage area to the company through Labor Day. “This is kind of a win-win-win situation,” Fox said. The Port Authority gets revenue for its property, Water Taxi gets new customers, and the city gets a beach.

The $17,000 cost of the sand was paid for by Douglas Durst, co-president of the Durst Organization, an investor in Water Taxi, and the developer of an environmentally friendly Bank of America building that is rising in midtown. “I just thought that people on the west side of Queens deserved their own beach,” Durst said.

From there it came together like a game of beach volleyball. Harry Hawk, chef and owner of Schnack in Red Hook, had suggested that Fox, a regular at his restaurant, offer food service on the ferry. Then one day Fox popped the question. “He said ‘how about a beach?’ I said, ‘OK’.”

One day in mid-July, as deejay Tyrone Cepeda of Long Island City dropped off his wife, Michele, at the Hunter’s Point dock to commute to work across the river, as he does every day, he noticed sand being poured, and offered his services. Now Cepeda deejays at the beach, “whenever they call me,” with his partner, Ray Pesantes. They play a variety of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s music, from rock to disco, and take requests.

Although Water Taxi says the beach is increasing its sales, one does not need to be a customer to enjoy it, and many patrons are not.

For 20-somethings Thomas, Jason and Robin, who visited the beach for the first time last weekend and wished to be identified only by their first names, its main attractions was outdoor alcohol consumption, burgers and the proximity to Williamsburg.

“I got a summons at Coney Island,” said Jason, a bike messenger, in between beer gulps. “I figured here it’s pretty safe.” The beach rules are few: no pets, no coolers and no outside food.

In addition to beer, the snack bar sells Schnack’s famous elk burgers for $8, Polish bratwurst for $5, and hot dogs for $2, available in beef, turkey or tofu. To drink, there is Fizzy Lizzy, soda and tropical beverages.

For Hawk, business has been good—perhaps too good. “We get surges of people coming off the boat, which is sometimes a service problem.” Harry’s LIC has already doubled and redoubled its waitstaff, who provide table service whenever possible.

Despite a positive response, the beach’s future remains uncertain. Water Taxi hopes its lease will be extended through early fall, or at least renewed next summer, but is not pushing its luck. “We’re happy to be here and work with the Port Authority to determine the appropriate usage,” Hawk said.

Patrons are doing the same, struggling against the beach’s newness, and lack of established norms or regulars, to make themselves at home. The atmosphere is like a club or bar, where visitors arrive mostly in couples or groups, chat over loud music and check each other out. However, the isolated location and fenced-in privacy give it an intimate feel, like attending a backyard social.

Located four blocks from the Vernon/ Jackson Avenue subway stop on the Number 7 train, the beach is sandwiched between remnants of the neighborhood’s industrial past, including an aging railyard covered in high-voltage danger signs, and symbols of its resurgence as a residential hot spot, a 32-story luxury apartment building and a 2.5-acre state park. P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center is a 10-15 minute walk.

Beachgoers, who represent a cross-section of the city, come from near and far. “When you live in the city you can’t see it. When you come here, it’s magnificent,” Wintrich said.

The lack of water doesn’t stop parents from dressing their children in bathing suits, and many visitors carry towels as blankets and tokens of pride, as if to say: we are, indeed, going to the beach in the city.

For more information, call 212-742-1969 or visit www.watertaxibeach.com.

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