Saturday, August 18, 2007

In Coney, development, planning, and the cost of delay

Three very different editorial messages regarding Coney Island development appeared in the past week, and from some surprising venues, if not authors.

It was the New York Times, often pro-development and steadily supportive of Atlantic Yards, which published an op-ed highly critical of Thor Equities’ plan for a massive beachside project heavily dependent on towers—once condos, now perhaps hotels and time-shares.

The New York Daily News, also pro-AY, published another critical op-ed. (The willingness to publish an op-ed doesn't necessarily signal the newspaper's outlook, but consider that the Times refused op-eds critical of Atlantic Yards before publishing a lukewarm one in November 2005, nearly two years after the project was announced.)

And it was the weekly Brooklyn Paper, which has editorialized against Atlantic yards and provided critical print coverage, that seems far more welcoming to Thor.

Baker's warning

The 8/12/07 op-ed in the City section, headlined Paving Over Fun, was written by Kevin Baker, whose historical novels concern New York City; his Dreamland was set partly in Coney Island.

Baker writes:
My German friends also expressed their amazement that all this marvelous, beachfront property wasn’t lined with luxury housing. There is the rub. After so many years of decline and neglect, Coney Island at last has a serious developer, Joseph Sitt. Mr. Sitt, who says his company has spent $120 million buying up land in and around the area’s entertainment district, has dangled the idea of erecting a 40-story condominium there.

The City Planning Commission, to its credit, scotched this proposal. And last week The Daily News quoted a city official as saying that Mr. Sitt’s $1.5 billion plan to create some sort of enclosed, multimedia 21st-century amusement park, complete with time-sharing hotels, was “dead in the water.”

The question of just what Coney Island should be — a democratic bastion of raucous, honky-tonk entertainment, or something more genteel — has been disputed for nearly 200 years. Lately, though, it has become a struggle with a greater resonance, one that may foretell just what the future of New York as a whole will be.


Coney, he allows, is “diverse and edgy and even seedy in places, much more like the rest of the city was in the 1970s,” but he acknowledges that changes continue. Will Coney go the way of lost sports facilities, restaurants, and nightclubs?

While he concludes that some changes are inevitable, they shouldn't be developer-driven:
The city cannot simply react to developers’ plans if it is to save Coney Island. The Bloomberg administration, which has recently shown a heartening interest in reviving the idea of city planning, needs to get ahead of the process and solicit ideas for what Coney should be. The dozens of small businesses that stuck it out through Coney’s worst years and did so much to preserve its honky-tonk flavor should be encouraged to stay. Strange as it may seem, Frederic Thompson had it right. We will have to manufacture frolic if we are to have it at all.

There is, in fact, a Coney Island Development Corporation.

Denson's vision

In a Daily News op-ed Monday headlined Coney's roller-coaster ride: Surf's a sought-after turf, so mayor must save this paradise, Coney Island native and chronicler Charles Denson, author of the definitive Coney Island: Lost and Found, writes:
Most people agree that Coney needs improvement, but they also realize that a scenario that includes just one owner and a rezoning that allows high-rise residential development is a dangerous combination that could lead to the death of Coney Island.

Coney Island has seen vast improvement over the past decade. Crime is down, a new subway terminal and ballpark opened, and the Bloomberg administration saved the historic B&B Carousel.


Denson points to an ongoing planning process:
In 2003, the mayor, City Council and borough president formed the Coney Island Development Corp. and gave the group the task of spearheading a long-overdue planning process for Coney Island. This led to the Coney Island Strategic Plan, a compromise worked out in public meetings with community and stakeholder input.

The plan calls for the preservation of a central amusement zone, yet allows residential and retail development in the vacant outer fringes of the zone. This is the plan that Thor Equities is seeking to undermine with their high-rise project.


Why not Thor?

In an editorial last week headlined Why not Thor? the Brooklyn Paper begins
The city’s failure to redevelop, reimagine and reinvigorate Coney Island is a decades-long calamity.

It’s an echo of Borough President Marty Markowitz’s 2005 statement, "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years.”

Well, just as “the Atlantic Yards area” has morphed from a manufacturing zone to a development zone, the value of land rising as gentrification proceeded nearby, Coney has also been in flux. Perhaps most importantly, in 2005 a marvelous $300 million subway station opened, the largest in the world, a catalyst for any development.

The Brooklyn Paper editorializes:
Given all those years of failure, we remain completely baffled — and, frankly, appalled — by the Bloomberg Administration’s handling of a legitimate proposal by Joe Sitt’s Thor Equities to redevelop a vast stretch of Coney Island’s amusement area into a $1.5-billion year-round theme park, recreation, hotel, restaurant and retail Xanadu.

For the past year or so, Thor has spent more than $100 million buying up land — including the Astroland amusement park and most of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park — at market rates. At this point, Sitt owns most of the land between the landmark Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan’s Famous.

But to realize his dream of adding hotel units to Coney’s amusement distict, he needs the city to grant him a zoning variance.
For some reason, the city is playing hardball.


(Graphic from the Gowanus Lounge)

The newspaper legitimately criticizes city officials for leaking “doling out little ‘exclusives’” to both the Daily News and the Post, calling the plan “dead in the water.”

The cost of doing nothing

Daily News columnist Errol Louis, in embracing the Atlantic Yards plan, has observed, “And there’s been a cost for not doing anything.”

The Brooklyn Paper opines similarly:
Nowhere, it seems, is anyone willing to remind the mayor of one important benefit of Sitt’s plan: it is a plan! For the first time in decades, there is an actual plan on the table. But rather than debate it on the merits, “city officials” are going on paid junkets and negotiating through hand-picked stooges in the media. (And, all the while, negotiating with Sitt behind closed doors, the papers have reported.)

Yes, there is a plan, and it's the city's fault for not moving faster, and for not changing tax laws that make it easy for landowners to leave their plots fallow. But the subway station is new and the Brooklyn residential market hot.

So the newspaper suggests that the city’s existing Uniform Land Use Review Procedure—which AY eluded—would be the right way to go:
Let Joe Sitt apply for his zoning change, force him to make concessions so that he can get through the land-use review process with the necessary approvals, and stop all this back-room, leak-driven nonsense.

That may be better than AY. But that doesn’t deal with the issue of planning. When a developer borrows some techniques from Atlantic Yards and has a web site ambitiously titled “The Future of Coney Island,” well, shouldn’t the press be a bit wary?

A letter in response

A letter to the editor in this week's Brooklyn Paper:
Your editorial praising Thor Equities’ Coney Island plan ignored one thing: That Thor’s plan is just one idea for rebuilding the Coney Island amusement zone (“Why not Thor?” Aug. 11).

Unfortunately, Thor tried to play it cute. First, the company told area landowners that the city would never let them build condos. This allowed Thor to buy up land at a cheaper price.

Then, the company turned around and tried to push the condo idea. They are still playing it cute with their hotel and time-share proposal.

So instead of taking the city to task, maybe you should be putting your energies into castigating Thor for the disingenuous way it has bargained with the city and the Coney Island community in general. Thor’s approach has demonstrated to me that it cares more about profit and less about restoring a great historical treasure.


The writer is Lloyd Handwerker of Park Slope, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of the Nathan's hot dog emporium, still an anchor of Coney.

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