March 7, 2014 11:54AM
By MICHELLE R. SMITH
NEWPORT — Sixteen months after Superstorm Sandy washed away parts of Newport’s famous Cliff Walk, a large swath remains closed. But officials say they expect the entire 3.5-mile trail will open again June 13 after millions of dollars is spent on repairs to the centuries-old walk, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and is Rhode Island’s most visited tourist attraction.
They’re also looking at whether to add some user-friendly improvements, including trail markers that would provide information about the Gilded Age mansions that line the ocean-side trail.
Around $5 million has now been approved to repair what was damaged in the October 2012 storm, which undermined some walkways and cliffs, moved huge boulders and changed the look of the coastline in several areas. A first phase of work was completed in December to repair walls and walkways on the end of the trail farthest away from the city center. The other end was previously open, so now what remains closed is the middle section, which runs from The Breakers mansion built by the Vanderbilt family, through tunnels and across some of the roughest and most natural parts of the trail.
That section runs past several of the city’s well-known buildings, including heiress Doris Duke’s Rough Point and Beechwood, now owned by Oracle’s Larry Ellison and undergoing extensive renovations, as well as through a tunnel below the Chinese Tea House, built by another Vanderbilt.
The bulk of the work on that section will start this month, including shoring up land, repairing railings and doing other work, said Dave McLaughlin, a member of the Cliff Walk Commission.
After the storm, there was a debate in the city about how best to deal with the damage. Some argued in favor of a minimalist approach that would keep the trail as natural as possible, while others proposed more drastic changes. Surfers and environmentalists were particularly concerned about an early proposal that would have required huge boulders be put in along the water near The Breakers, known as one of New England’s best surfing spots. That plan was eventually scrapped, although some areas are being built up more than environmentalists think is wise.
Other improvements would have little environmental impact. McLaughlin said the commission is discussing a trail marker program that would be phased in and eventually include 15 markers. Each would have a so-called QR code that could be scanned by a mobile device. They are still in the planning stages, but he said they would likely provide information about the nearby Gilded Age mansions, as well as lighthouses and land masses that can be seen from that spot.
“So many times, people will stand in front of a particular house and say ‘Is that The Breakers?’ And they have no idea,” he said. “You look out and you see a vista, you don’t know what you’re seeing all the time. Sometimes I don’t even know which islands I’m looking at.”
The program is not estimated to cost much: $10,000, of which $5,000 has already been donated by a citizen, McLaughlin said.
The city council last month approved a contract to build the trail’s first permanent restrooms along the most traveled section, near the Forty Steps, a stone staircase that takes visitors down above the rocks. They will replace portable restrooms that Mayor Harry Winthrop has called embarrassing.