Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Coney contrast: no eminent domain, "constant public input"

As Atlantic Yards has become the poster child for bad public process and inadequate urban planning, it's worth watching the city's posture toward other major development projects.

And the city is treading carefully in Coney Island, where a rezoning plan would avoid use of eminent domain, even though the major landowner in the amusement area, Thor Equities' Joe Sitt, so far has very different plans for his property and has not yet agreed to a suggested swap of city land to the west.

Early in the process, a panel

At a panel last Wednesday on Coney Island at the Museum of the City of New York, Coney Island Development Corporation President Lynn Kelly explained the city's fallback tactics and offered the de rigeur assertion, "No zoning plan that the city has done was successful without constant public input and public participation."

Of course, Atlantic Yards was not a rezoning and, as everybody learned two days later, the chances for success have gone down significantly.

Kelly, in describing the anticipated process under the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedures (ULURP), offered another unremarkable assertion--but, in the Atlantic Yards context, notable--that it would be "the market responding to the zoning we put in place."

At one point, Moderator Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development observed that "it's refreshing" to hear a discussion about "the public vision" as opposed to dealing with a developer's vision.

What's the fallback?

The city wants to map all land in the prime amusement area as parkland; that allows the city to issue and RFP and find a developer who can get a loan for a lease, as opposed to a concession, Kelly said.

The city stated its policy in the 11/8/07 press release, "The City does not intend to use eminent domain to acquire the property in the amusement park. The City intends to work with each property owner to acquire the land in Coney East in order to realize the vision for its future."

But what's the fallback if Sitt and the other three major property owners don't agree to sell? "If we're not successful at acquiring it as parkland, there are other options we're considering," Kelly said.

Queried to clarify that, she said, "If negotiations don't work, we'll consider other options, where different landowners could partake" in the city's plan. That sounds like giving them a cut in the (increased) value of their land--something certainly not considered for Atlantic Yards.

Coverage in the New York Observer's The Real Estate suggested this was a departure from the city's posture; it strikes me more as an elaboration.

The Sitt posture

Sitt's plan has a huge supporter in Dominic Recchia, the local City Council member, who described Sitt as the only developer willing to "step up to the plate" and challenge two entrenched property owners, Hy Singer and Horace Bullard, who had been sitting on their property waiting for the market to change.

(The line echoed praise for Bruce Ratner from Community Benefits Agreement signatory the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who said at the 8/23/06 DEIS hearing, “I don’t remember any developer stepping up.")

"I've always found Joe Sitt to be very trustworthy and charitable," Recchia said "his family is from the neighborhood. [Gravesend, nearby.] He's a Brooklyn boy. He wants to see it developed."

Kinetic Carnival, a blog that's taken a critical look at Thor's plans, suggested that Recchia's criticisms of the city's plan had some legitimacy, but "the fact that Recchia was also clearly shilling for one particular land owner detracted from these arguments."

Indeed, David Gratt of Coney Island USA described bait-and-switch negotiations with Thor and declared, "We have not found Thor to be particularly trustworthy." Indeed, he noted Coney Island USA founder Dick Zigun has publicly said that Thor lied to them.

The MAS critique

The Municipal Art Society (MAS) commented that the "new zoning plan appears to achieve a balance between the needs of real estate developers and the need to maintain the area as an amusement park destination for the entire city,” but suggested "three critical concerns must be addressed."

MAS said:
First, Coney Island must be a genuinely regional destination, with its entertainment and amusement district pulling in visitors from a wide area. The city should explore ways of achieving this, including: different ratios of indoor and outdoor activities; expanding the entertainment district to encompass the area west of KeySpan Park known as “Coney Island West”; and reducing the amount of housing adjacent to the amusement district. As important as these, is the need for new and rapid mass transit connections, notably express subways and ferries, to make Coney Island more easily accessible.

Second, the city needs to broaden its plan beyond the current 19 blocks surrounding the boardwalk. Coney Island Creek and the Coney Island Railyards offer major development opportunities, and the city’s priority should be to figure out how to plan for these and other nearby areas in a way that would complement and enhance the current plan.

Finally, as the planning goes ahead for the future of Coney Island, the city should not lose sight of the area’s immediate future. It will be several years — even decades — before redevelopment is complete, and the city should create an interim plan to ensure that Coney Island remains a vital destination during this period. Current amusement uses, particularly Astroland, should be retained for as long as possible, and the city should program exciting temporary uses like food and antique markets, music and performance spaces, and art installations for the vacant sites along the boardwalk.


Thor's support

Recchia was asked if he got financial contributions from Thor and Taconic, the two most active developers in Coney Island. "Yes, I do work with Taconic," he said. "I do work with Thor. I said Joe Sitt is a friend. he's supported me. That has nothing to do with my decisionmaking or what I think is best for my community... Not many people would invest in Coney Island."

Recchia noted that Sitt has developed some properties; Gratt, on the other hand, pointed to Sitt's record as a "flipper" of property.

How much has Recchia received? A search of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (contributions $250 or more) shows that, since 2003, the Council Member has received $8750 in contributions from members of the Sitt family or people who report employment at Thor Equities.

That's certainly not a majority of his contributions, but it's not chump change, either.

Bottom line

Gratt got off perhaps the best summary: "Coney needs to be filled with rides and hotels. We're hopeful this will be resolved fairly quickly."

Coney's spirit

Lander wondered whether the city's economic development tools could support the "electic, freakish, democratic" nature of Coney Island.

"Amanda Burden loves Shoot the Freak," Kelly interjected, citing the patrician City Planning Commission Chair.

Just for the record, this is the pitch at Shoot the Freak: "Live human target. You shoot him, he don't shoot back."

The true spirit of Brooklyn?

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