Sunday, November 11, 2007

And what if the city treated Ratner like Sitt?

The city's plan to have developer Joe Sitt, who owns much of the Coney Island amusement area, swap that land for city land to the west for high-rise housing development, doesn't mention eminent domain, as I pointed out on Friday, but there's another intriguing contrast.

Consider the New York Times's coverage Friday of the Coney Island rezoning:
[Deputy Mayor Dan] Doctoroff said yesterday that the city wanted to find an experienced, world-class amusement park operator to run the district, which is “a very different business than building a shopping center.”

“He doesn’t have the experience to do it,” Mr. Doctoroff said, adding that the city expected Mr. Sitt to play a role in building housing or retail just outside the amusement park.

And what if the city (and state) had said that Forest City Ratner, experienced, yes, in mixed-use developments with office space and retail, but not in building an arena and housing, wasn't appropriate for the Atlantic Yards project?

A retort might be: Sure, few developers are experienced building arenas, and Forest City Ratner's parent company has experience building housing, though not in New York.

The point is: were there a political reason for the city to resist the project, Doctoroff and his confreres could have raised the issue, perhaps even arguing that large affordable housing projects (as this is portrayed) should be built by parties with a track record in such projects.


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    I've read (or at least skimmed) a number of the articles about the Mayor's "plan" for Coney Island (and also a number of articles about Sitt's plans for Coney Island), but I'm still not sure what exactly is happening. I realize your main focus is on the Atlantic Yards development, but since you seem to have a special interest in, and knowledge about, Coney Island (as I see that your tour company give tours of it), perhaps somewhere along the line you may have the time to clarify some of the issues that seem to have been overlooked, or maybe even mangled, by the mainstream news media.

    First of all, unless I'm missing something here, the City's "plans" for Coney Island appear to be NOTHING more than a planned rezoning of the area's land use (and possibly height and set back, etc.) controls -- which, of course, mean NOTHING unless some developer eventually chooses to risk lots of private money to actually build something under these new regulations. Also, the whole "to do" over the new zoning rules seems to assume that the current zoning regulations for Coney Island have somehow discouraged the redevelopment of Coney Island while the proposed new ones don't.

    So, I wonder what are the current zoning rules, and why does the City think that the current zoning regulations discourage or impede the redevelopment of Coney Island? When were the current rules instituted? And if they're so bad, what was the city thinking of when they were instituted in the first place? And what was the City thinking of -- during all these years of Coney's decline and aborted rebirths -- to keep such "stupid" zoning regulations on the books all this time?

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    One reason I'm interested in this angle is, given all the discussion recently about Jane Jacobs, it seems to me that the current zoning regulations (and perhaps even the proposed changes requested by Sitt) are actually more along the lines of what Jane Jacobs would recommend than the proposed new ones -- which from newspaper descriptions, at least, seem to be a throwback to the belief that various land uses should be separated out from one another rather than be allowed to mix together if people so choose.

    Also, since you give tours of Coney Island, I assume you are familiar with that FANTASTIC book, "Coney Island: Lost and Found." One of the things that really struck me as I read that book, was how mixed use Coney Island was for almost all of its history. Sure, the old residential areas were mostly residential and the commercial areas were mostly commercial, but still there seemed to be a casualness about this separation and mixing (with, for instance, one person actually living beneath a roller coaster) that is reminiscent of mixed use areas in other parts of the City. For instance, in a way, it seems that the residential portions of Coney Island were to amusement areas of Coney Island what the residential portions of Greenwich Village were to the docks and warehouses of the far West Village. Yes, residences and work places were mostly separated, but this separation was a natural economic separation (and not due to zoning) and it also allowed for blocks where uses were, indeed, actually mixed.

    It would be interesting to see what Sitt, who seemed to be interested in a obtaining a zoning change that would have allowed for MORE mixed uses, had in mind.

    If his idea was for more mixed uses and city planning's idea is for less, this would be perhaps another instance where the chairperson of the City Planning Commission isn't as much of a Jane Jacobite as she says she is (as is the case with Atlantic Yards).

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    Also, it's interesting to note the language that's being used by the Doctoroff (sp?) and the City. If I remember correctly, the language he's using makes it sound like it is the City that is rebuilding Coney Island -- almost like a public school, a fire house, a police station, etc. This seems to me to be a telltale throwback to the Moses era of centralized planning and very much the antithesis to Jacobs (and also very much contrary to the vast majority of what's actually been built in New York City over the centuries -- including the original Coney island).

    Benjamin Hemric

  2. A lot seems to be happening, but the bottom line is that new housing/condos will be not be allowed in the core amusement district but will be allowed nearby. Also, the city is making available some stagnant "parkland"--the vast parking lot next to KeySpan park and outside the outmoded Abe Stark rink (which I think won't survive) for redevelopment.

    Zoning for amusements is very unusual in the city, so City Planning aims to preserve that, hence their rejection of Sitt's plans. Residents of the adjacent Luna Park houses (formerly the site of an amusement park) had complained about the noise from the Cyclone before it was landmarked!

    I haven't had a chance to study the city's plans in Coney, but I do have a special interest in the area. I don't think an amusement zone prohibits mixed uses, but it does prohibit *certain* mixed uses, and there is a logic to it. So I think it's a question of degree rather than "no mixed use" vs. "some mixed use." After all, the ballpark and aquarium are different uses.

    Once the Coney Island subway station was revamped into a magnificent terminus, and given the increasing cost of land, development in Coney has become much more attractive.

    One factor I think that needs more scrutiny is whether the city's tax policies affected Coney's stagnation. In other words, would a different policy have made it tougher for some longstanding property owners to hold and hold their land until Coney tipped? Would there have been reason for them to pursue development sooner? If I have time--and I don't anticipate having much time in the immediate future--I'll look into it.

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    Thanks for the speedy reply!

    I'd like to clarify my question / statement a bit, though. (Again, I'm just submitting these posts to put some of these issues on the table, so to speak. I realize that neither of us probably has the time to delve deeper into them right now.)

    So far, though, what's been said in the newspapers doesn't really seem to make sense and / or seems to be a prime illustration of a city that is greatly overreaching its duties / abilities.

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    Sitt has apparently asked for a rezoning that allows for more mixed use (e.g., residential with commercial).

    The city is planning to rezone for less mixed use (e.g., residential with commercial).

    That would seem to mean that at the current time a certain amount of mixed use (e.g., residential with commercial) is already allowed.

    So the question is, "How has the current mixed-use zoning for the area supposedly impeded investments in amusement uses?" and, "How does the proposed new zoning supposedly stimulate investment in amusement uses?"

    Is the city really saying that investors have stayed out of the amusement area primarily because they were afraid of the area's current mixed-use zoning? Are they really saying that investors have been waiting primarily for the City to complete the divying up of Coney Island, begun by Moses and his successors, into various single-use islands?

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    As to there supposedly being a certain "logic" to the separating out of residential uses from amusement uses and amusement uses from residential uses, what is it? Is it really logic, or is this yet another remant of the dogmatic prejudice against mixed uses by orthodox urban planners that Jane Jacobs criticized in, for instance, "Death and Life of Great American Cities"?

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    As to "protecting" the amusement area from residential encroachment by private rdevelopers, three points come to mind.

    1) First of all, I think it's important to remember that in actuality it was the City's grand plans (especially those of Robert Moses), not helter-skelter private development compatable with mixed-zone zoning, that was responsible for the near terminal shrinking of the Coney's (primarily) amusement area. It was Moses / and the city, for instance, that plopped the aquarium down on the eastern end of the amusement area; it was Moses and his successors who were responsible for the wiping out of many small Coney Island landowners (some of whom, judging from the Denson book, apparently used their residential land for amusement related uses too, like small family-owned in-season bath houses); and it was the city that replaced them with high-rise residential ONLY fortresses.

    2) I think I read about the residents of Luna Park complaining about the Cyclone in Charles Denson's wonderful book, "Coney Island: Lost and Found." Of course every development is going to have its share of complainers, and the complainers of Luna Park can complain all they want, but if the area is already zoned for mixed uses (e.g., BOTH residential and commercial) it would seem that they don't have much of a leg to stand on -- it would seem that amusement uses would have every right to continue to stay there. And as long as the rest of the citizenry of New York City doesn't jump on the complainers' single-use bandwagon -- which seems likely to be the case -- mixed residential AND commercial zoning would seem to offer the amusement zone all the protection -- and mixed uses -- that it would need.

    (Manhattan too has its own complainers who also complain about commercial uses in mixed use areas. But that doesn't mean that in order to protect Manhattan's commercial uses we have to switch to single-use zoning districts all over Manhattan.)

    3) I remember Coney Island from the mid-1950s when the amusement area was still incredible. True Dreamland was long gone, and Luna Park was a rubble strewn construction site, but the Steeplechase was still going strong, and the Bowery was just an amazing place!

    When I visited Coney Island two years ago, for the first time after many years, what was so striking about the amusement area was not that it was "bad" -- which is didn't appear to be from my brief visit -- but that, except for Astroland and the Tornado, there was almost nothing left! It was empty!!!

    Given this fact, it seems to me that the city is greatly overplaying its hand -- and I don't think that the new subway station (which was open when I went there two years ago) really changes the situation all that much. And neither do I think that Keyspan Park changes the situation all that much either. It seems to me that the truth of the matter is that the glory days of Coney Island as a "world class" amusement park are gone and highly unlikely to return -- due to circumstances way beyond zoning.

    HOWEVER, that does not mean that Coney Island can't be a wonderful, smaller-scaled, regional amuseument area. But it seems to me that it is the City's centrally planned, all-or-nothing approach to redevelopment that has been standing in the way, and is currently standing in the way, of a practical revitalization of Coney Island.

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    That is not to say that the City should give Sitt anything he asks for. But it given what's been reported in the papers, it seems that Sitt is asking for mixed uses -- which is very much in the tradition of both Jane Jacobs and Coney Island (as it was originally) -- and the City bureaucrats are showing their true anti-Jane Jacobs, orthodox city PLANNING colors.