Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Imagine Coney thinks big (and small): new cable car, digital skins, and lucrative $ignage

A little more than four decades ago, many in the city had given up on the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Now it's a thriving, multi-building institution, and its handsome, cavernous BAMcafe, glittering with light and graced with Milton Rosa-Ortiz's floating part-torso sculptures dubbed "Disbelief", was the appropriate setting for last night's standing-room only public unveiling of the Municipal Art Society's (MAS) Imagine Coney project.

It was a particularly opportune time, as well, given that just yesterday morning the New York Post reported that developer (or flipper?) Joe Sitt was ready to give up his plans for hotels (time-shares) and entertainment retail and sell to the city.

And MAS president Kent Barwick said that city officials, while not yet jumping on the Imagine Coney bandwagon, were definitely listening. (Presumably they're considering the Imagine Coney contention that a 25-acre amusement area, not the city's plans for a bonsai park of 9 acres, is required to restore Coney.)

The civic process, it should go without saying, differs enormously from the Atlantic Yards plan, where the city embraced rather than challenged a developer and endorsed a fait accompli.

Big plans

If Sitt sells, the city would control the site of Astroland, whose rides are about to go on the block, but, as was instantly clear yesterday, the nostalgia that New Yorkers feel for that 1960s amusement park is not enough to revive Coney.

Rather, said members of an international team that solicited ideas from the public, held two public work sessions last week and then held an intensive two-day charette, it was time to restore Coney as an international destination, capitalizing on the amusement area's iconic status.

That means Coney would be the city's "greatest seaside stage," a home for concerts and festivals--and current empty lots and Keyspan Park could immediately be deployed so that Coney is busy rather than dead in 2009. And Coney would be a year-round destination.

An express train from Manhattan could deliver many thousands more people, and no new track is easy. (The train design incorporates the Funny Face emblem of the old Steeplechase Park.)

But, as former Disney VP David Malmuth put it, "It's critical that there be something that blows people's minds."

That would be a "glass boat in the sky," according to stage designer George Tsypin, and it's the first item in the MAS press release:
Among the concepts from the charrette: an extraordinary new cable-car ride that would float through clouds and connect all of the major Coney Island attractions; a wave-like retractable roof that would ensure 12-month seasonality for Coney Island; an “electric city” that would feature small-scale, local entrepreneurs, amusement operators with 21st century digital skin signage; and a high-rise hotel and entertainment district north of Surf Avenue that would feature extraordinary new architecture.

Digital skin signage? "One day, it looks like Venice," said Tsypin. "The next day, it looks like Marrakech."

Retractable roof? Well, as architect and design engineer Nicholas Goldsmith explained, the Beijing Olympics deployed a tent-like foil material that allowed climate control but also let people get a sense of being outside.

More ideas

Other ideas floated last night included an international graffiti contest; parades for every season; a ferry to Coney Island Creek; an opportunity for large-scale public gaming; and juiced-up presentations of Coney's popular sports, handball and basketball.

Malmuth suggested that the Shore Theater next to the subway terminal be revived, housing a "signature Coney Island show," an introduction to the amusement area's history. He also endorsed an opportunity for "sing-along" shows.

The Child's Restaurant building, at the west end of the amusement area, has already been temporarily repurposed as a roller rink; Malmuth said it could house "a new form of dinner theater."

How to pay?

Oh, and how to pay for it? Well, L.A. Live, the entertainment campus next to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, generates $63 million in signage and sponsorship.

(Oh, right, civic groups and government now know that sponsorship and naming rights can be lucrative. The Empire State Development Corporation apparently gave no thought to claiming a share of the naming rights for the Atlantic Yards arena, which would technically be publicly-owned.)

One audience member was dismayed: "Are corporate billboards about dreams?" Malmuth responded that "Coney has always been about commercialization. I want to suggest that we not think about Coney as either/or."

Also, and this was a major theme last night, high-rise hotels and housing--north of Surf Avenue, so as not to block sightlines to the beach--also would be necessary to drive revenue.

Audience reception

Several hundred people filled the BAMcafe and, while the crowd (to my eye) skewed hipster, there was good diversity in ages and geography (and some in ethnicity), each with Coney Island memories.

"We really need your help," Barwick said and, while a few in the audience expressed dismay at aspects of what they saw as blueprints, most were enthusiastic.

If the city proceeds with its land use review process regarding the smaller amusement area, could the Imagine Coney ideas still work? Sure, said Barwick; the first round of events could occur in Keyspan Park and parking lots.

What about smaller entrepreneurs--wouldn't they get lost? "You need both," said Barwick, saying the overall framework must work for promotional purposes but "Coney Island cannot be Disney by the Sea."

One Coney Island resident said she was very upset because she thought Coney was demonized as a deserved place of criminals and addicts. "All I see is a beautiful beach, a beautiful boardwalk," she said.

Barwick didn't respond directly; only later did Aaron Beebe of Coney Island USA comment that there were limits to the Imagine Coney plans, which were focused on the mostly-empty amusement area--which, he could have said, benefits from zoning that is rare in the city.

But last night was the beginning of a long process, and MAS said it aimed to keep
people in the loop and capitalize on their passion.

“The long-term future of Coney Island begins with a short-term programming schedule,” said Barwick in the MAS press release. “We must send a clear message to the world that Coney Island is back, and get people going there this summer. Unless that starts to happen, a robust long-term vision will become less and less viable.”

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