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Catching up with Coney Island: how CBA-like trade-offs may have sacrificed the amusement area

When I visited Coney Island last weekend, one of the first things I saw was a billboard on the north side of Surf Avenue inviting people to visit the Playland amusement park in Westchester, with 50 rides less than an hour away. The implication was obvious: Coney Island, in its diminished state, can't compare.

The problem goes deeper: critics say the rezoning passed 44-2 last week by the City Council won't save Coney Island so much as shrink the amusement area, allow the demolition of historic buildings, and, crucially, permit hotel towers south of Surf Avenue, blocking views of the beach and amusement area. Here's Neil deMause's live-blog of the Council action, suggesting the city unwisely gave up leverage over developer Joe Sitt.

(Graphics from Municipal Art Society slideshow; full MAS slideshow is further below.)

It seems a very shortsighted solution. The enormous natural advantages of Coney--the beach and the sky--are a civic asset. If there are to be many new high-rises in Coney--and that's fine--there's ample room north and west of the central amusement area, as the MAS slide below shows.

Indeed, as Kinetic Carnival blogger Omar Robau writes:
The hotels in the plan look like a ploy for something else. As city councilman and Mayoral candidate Tony Avella recently pointed out in an interview with Brian Lehrer, calling this part of the plan a, "house of cards." And it just as well may be that. Who in their right mind will expect large hotels to be needed for a small amusement area. How feasible is it that a hotel corporation is going to build a high-rise hotel here? Before any analysis is done they simply will not commit. The city is not in going to build it themselves are they?

Similarly, zoning for amusements is a scarce commodity--it allows light and noise--and there's a strong argument for maintaining a larger, rather than smaller, amusement area. "MAS commissioned real estate advisory firm RCLCO to identify the key characteristics that would ensure that an amusement area in Coney Island would be successful," according to MAS President Vin Cipolla.

"RCLCO estimated that the potential attendance for Coney Island was 3.5 million annual visitors or 15,000 visitors at any one time. This requires approximately 25 acres of land set aside for open-air amusements... MAS believes the City should set aside more than 12 acres of land for open-air amusements. Acquiring additional land and utilizing 5 acres of publicly owned land could expand the area of outdoor amusements from 12 to 24 acres."

But the City Council agreed, in part because of a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA)-like compromise that has little or nothing to do the amusement area.

Not dissimilarly, some of the promises in the Atlantic Yards CBA have nothing to do with the fundamental question: should Forest City Ratner be allowed to built Atlantic Yards at the size it wants and gain the benefits of state override of zoning and exercise eminent domain?.

Forces in opposition

The rezoning passed despite some strong voices in opposition. The Municipal Art Society produced a cogent alternative plan. The Save Coney Island coalition, including neighborhood residents, amusement industry stalwarts, and Coney Island USA, the organization that sponsors the Mermaid Parade and helped re-establish Coney as a destination, consistently lobbied and rallied for change.

But the Bloomberg administration wouldn't bend much. While once implying it would play hardball with landowner (and speculator) Sitt, who bought up crucial land in anticipation of the rezoning, the city's still negotiating with Sitt's Thor Equities, and seems prepared to let him--or the people who buy his land--build those high-rises.

Even a nifty video starring Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA didn't influence the Council. Michael D.D. White points out Council Speaker Christine Quinn's hypocrisy in honoring Jane Jacobs while pursuing the city's Coney plans.

The impact of ULURP

Also, though Atlantic Yards opponents and critics, for example, tout the value of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in producing better results, in this case, ULURP could not resolve opposing views. In this case, the positions taken by the organizations mentioned above were reinforced, in part, by both Community Board 13 as well as the New York Times. (Michael D.D. White dissects the editorial's credulousness toward the city and Sitt.)

The key player was City Council Member Dominic Recchia, a friend of Sitt's and no ally of the opposition coalition. Council Members generally defer to the local Member's wishes, so, if Recchia could get some more benefits for his neighborhood, he could claim to have delivered the goods--even if those goods had little or nothing to do with the amusement area.

The only Council Members to vote in opposition were two fierce critics of the city's redevelopment policies: Tony Avella of Queens and Charles Barron of Brooklyn. (Let's just suggest that City Council Member Letitia James, the uber-opponent of Atlantic Yards, likes to pick and choose her battles.)

See Tricia Vita's Amusing the Zillion for more.

Delivering the goods

As Recchia described it:
Similarly, I know that there are those who would like to see lower buildings on the south side of Surf Avenue. We just couldn’t make this work and will be moving forward with project that you see today.

The trade off has been worth it: We’re getting a first-class amusement park, the long-awaited new gym for P.S. 188, infrastructure work to improve the bad drainage and sewer problems that have plagued the peninsula, a new skating rink in Coney Island that will continue to serve the hockey leagues as well as local residents and their families, new affordable housing opportunities including exciting home ownership opportunities along with funds to assist in mortgage down payments, and funds for the renovation of the Boardwalk and Dreier-Offerman Park. The city is also working with us to explore building a new school, and has set aside land for that purpose.

The administration has made commitments to encourage local hiring, to provide training for local residents in the food service and hospitality industries, and long-term strategies to help address the high rates of unemployment in the community. With all of these new visitors to Coney Island, it is important that we have a first class trauma and emergency room to handle any emergencies. The administration is committed to upgrading and modernizing the facilities at Coney Island Hospital to handle the capacities of the current and future residents and visitors.

(Emphasis added)

We just couldn't make this work? That, of course, is debatable. It sounds a lot like the AY CBA, except Recchia did the negotiation, with the backing of the Coney Island for All coalition, which includes local civic, labor, and housing groups, among them Coney Island CLEAR and, of course, ACORN.

The advisor to the coalition was the Pratt Center for Community Development, and the plan for equitable development (PDF) did mention support for a larger amusement area. But that got sacrificed in the final decision, and there was never any effort to stop towers south of Surf Avenue. Still, the coalition was happy, having achieved its main goals.

Sure, there are good arguments for a new school gym, infrastructure improvements, affordable housing, improved parks, and local hiring.

But do they justify the trade-off? Isn't Coney Island an international icon?

Going forward

Save Coney Island expresses some hope:
This rezoning plan will irreparably damage Coney Island. Now it’s up to the Bloomberg administration to mitigate that damage by working to increase the size of the outdoor amusement area and by preventing the construction of high-rises in the middle of the amusement district. It is our hope and expectation that it will do so.

Why would Mayor Bloomberg want his legacy to be associated with the destruction of Coney Island’s amusement district — with the destruction of this iconic place? Wouldn’t he rather go down in history as the mayor who restored Coney Island to its rightful stature, and saved it for the next generation?

If the Bloomberg administration does not have the perspective and the humility to revise its plan, this rezoning will be remembered as a disgraceful moment in the history of our city, akin to the demolition of the old Penn Station.

It's not actually over; as the New York Observer noted, legislators in Albany still must weigh in and the city must continue to negotiate with Sitt.

A visit to the Flea by the Sea

When I visited Coney Island, I stopped into the Flea by the Sea, the tented temporary flea market on Stilwell Avenue, prime space on the walk from the subway station to the beach. The Flea by the Sea has all the drawbacks of the worst street fairs that have proliferated around the city, and none of the local charms.

It's a desperate attempt to put something in the space formerly occupied by a go-kart track and a batting cage. Tricia Vita has much more on the Flea by the Sea.

As shown in the graphic at right, the Flea pamphlet professes that "Crazy Crowds in Coney Island Make Flea by the Sea a Hit!" Maybe that's a tribute to Coney's carny origins, where scams are part of the deal, but the photo shows a crowd of people on Stillwell Avenue gathering not to go into the flea market but to look back in the direction of... Nathan's.

The photo, I'll bet, is of the July 4 hot dog eating contest.


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