Saturday, February 10, 2007

In Coney Island, developer learns from Atlantic Yards

The public relations blitz that helped usher along the Atlantic Yards project surely did not go unnoticed by other developers planning controversial projects, and Thor Equities' Joe Sitt--who plans a massive project in Coney Island--seems to have taken a few pages out of the Forest City Ratner playbook.

As Gowanus Lounge blogger Robert Guskind has ably pointed out, the developer apparently sent a mailer from a seemingly grassroots group, The Future of Coney Island. As with a Forest City Ratner brochure, the list of issues for respondents to cite could only serve the developer: "Yes, my community needs jobs."

As Guskind wrote, "The promo mailer says nothing about housing or highrises, both of which are controversial parts of Thor's plan." It's reminiscent of the Atlantic Yards mailer last May (below) that curiously contained no towers but asked residents what aspects of the project interested them.

Abandonment threat

The New York Post reports that Sitt won't go through with his plan if the city won't rezone the neighborhood to allow luxury high-rises. It's understandable that the developer needs revenue from housing, and it's a good idea to keep people in the neighborhood year-round.

But the devil is in the details--the boardwalk blocks are zone for amusements--an unusual type of zoning. The Post reported:
Chuck Reichental, a member of the agency that will determine how Coney Island is rezoned, said a majority of residents opposes housing in the amusement district as well as any new development exceeding the height of the 262-foot landmark Parachute Jump.

That sounds a little like the desire of some Brooklyn residents, including Borough President Marty Markowitz, that no building be taller than the 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank. Will the Coney Island project end up with 261-foot high rises that meet the letter but not the spirit of the sentiment?

First, the community

A total of five promotional mailings from Thor are said to be in the works. Why? Thor needs that zoning change. That's tougher to do so within the city land use review process, but the effort is reminiscent of Forest City Ratner's effort to get the Atlantic Yards project passed by the Empire State Development Corporation, which would override zoning.

The new Thor web site, The Future of Coney Island, omits the housing issue, as Guskind notes . That print mailer has apparently already produced results, since there's a section of the web site with comments, including "STOP ALL THAT TALKING, just start the building process now!"

Press coverage

How should the press respond? The lesson from Atlantic Yards is that development is a permanent campaign, and public relations efforts and brochures should be scrutinized like political campaigns and political advertising.

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