Sunday, May 30, 2010

Coney Island reopens for summer season, but will buildings be demolished for chain retail and condos? Also, an AY cameo in the saga of a "razzle"

The summer season has begun at Coney Island, with Astroland replaced by the new rides of Luna Park (named to echo one of the three great amusement parks, open from 1903 to 1944 and replaced by public housing).

That's the cause of much official celebration and, indeed, there are some other signs of life, such as the city's plan to move the famed B&B Carousell to Steeplechase Plaza.

However, as Kevin Baker writes in the Village Voice and the folks at Save Coney Island remind us, much remains contested, notably developer Joe Sitt's plan to demolish some historic structures on or below Surf Avenue and replace them with chain retail and restaurants--and, quite possibly, hotels/time-shares that would be turned into condos, thus leading to the demise of the amusement zone ecosystem (despite Coney's unique zoning).

(Graphic at right from Save Coney Island.)

In the saga (Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future: Requiem for a dreamland), Baker suggests the current machinations are part of a longstanding tradition:
If it seems senseless, all this tearing up and building down, you have to understand that what's really going on at Coney is a scam as old as the place itself, one that's known in carny parlance as "a razzle." It's the same con New Yorkers have been subjected to all over the city for the past 10 years, a racket business and government run with almost breathtaking coordination against the rest of us. If it succeeds out in Coney Island, it will spell the demise, once and for all, of the city's most iconic neighborhood, and right now, things are looking as bleak as they have ever been. But then Coney has a long history of somehow evading all attempts by outsiders to make it into something it doesn't want to be.
And, as noted below, it's a tradition that also includes the Atlantic Yards plan.

The rezoning

Last year, Coney Island was rezoned and, as I wrote, trade-offs similar to those in a Community Benefits Agreement helped usher in towers south of Surf Avenue in the amusement district.

And the city later only bought part of developer Joe Sitt's holdings.

Why save buildings?

Save Coney Island spokesman Juan Rivero, leading a walking tour yesterday, offered a line straight out of Jane Jacobs: "Old buildings make for affordable commercial use."

A member of the tour observed that he'd heard that Disney World was trying to recreate buildings of such vintage.

Riverso said the organization wants to "disabuse the city of the idea that preservation and development are incompatible." He pointed to the High Line, the Parachute Jump (in Coney), and the Boathouse in Prospect Park as structures that had fallen into disrepair that had been saved.

The buildings in Coney are mostly more modest--the Shore Theater is certainly grand--but they supply something crucial--a sense of place, signs of Coney's generations. (Of course, a sense of place could've been preserved in Prospect Heights, as well.)

According to Save Coney Island:
Among the structures believed to be in immediate danger are the amusement district’s oldest remaining building, the Grashorn Building (built in the late 1880s); the Henderson Music Hall building (built circa 1899), where Harpo Marx first performed with his brothers Groucho and Gummo; the Shore Hotel (built in 1903), which was until recently Coney Island’s last operating hotel, and the 1920s classical revival Bank of Coney Island.

“The Bloomberg administration needs to decide: Will this summer be remembered as the beginning of Coney Island’s rebirth? Or will be remembered as the summer that the City allowed an opportunistic developer to demolish Coney Island’s history?” Rivero said.

Along with Save Coney Island, those urging the preservation of these buildings include Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the Municipal Art Society, and the Landmarks Conservancy.
From the Voice

Baker summarizes Sitt's curious history as a real estate developer known more for flipping properties than building them, and his curious relationship with Coney Island Council Member Dominic Recchia--only when Sitt began buying property in Coney did he discover his interest in political contributions.

(Fun fact: the cover line on the Voice is "What's the scariest ride at Coney Island?" and a fold of the page reveals "The bulldozer." More than three years ago, on 4/3/07, the Voice ran an article by Neil deMause headlined Coney Island's Last Ride? The Bulldozer!)

Make sure to look at the comments on Baker's article, including those from Amusing the Zillion blogger Tricia Vita and Coney Island historian Charles Denson.

The CIDC

Baker criticizes the city's formation of the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC):
Development corporations, for those unfamiliar with the bewildering layers of public, quasi-public, and private organizations that now constitute our government, are officially "nonprofit corporations serving the city."

This description exudes a sense of selfless philanthropy. But, in fact, what it means is that development corporations exist outside the democratic process, as bodies composed of whatever functionaries and political allies the mayor chooses to appoint, and unaccountable to anyone else.

(Sounds like the Empire State Development Corporation? Actually, the ESDC is even more insulated, since it hasn't set up a subsidiary to oversee Atlantic Yards.)

Baker writes:

Many of the smaller operators and preservationist groups out at Coney had been trying for years to talk to the city about plans for rebuilding the island, about bringing in new jobs and entertainments, and utilizing its empty lots. But any suggestions for such human-scale, incremental improvements were ignored. Instead, the city insisted, a grand plan—a new grand plan—was needed.

...Soon, the CIDC had a comprehensive plan, one that would address all of Coney's needs and problems. The neighborhood's crumbling infrastructure would be rebuilt, the old Shore vaudeville and movie theater would be renovated and reopened, and parking and mass transit would better connect the island to the rest of Brooklyn and the city. Lynn B. Kelly, president of the CIDC, promised to preserve the 27-acre amusement district and all of its "treasured icons" in a dynamic video presentation for its website.

...The video is as good as any Coney spieler. It features vivid images of a trashed, graffiti-ed Coney Island (although what most of the images actually show is the recent block-clearing by Thor and the city).

Only a veteran Coney skeptic would notice that... lurking in the distance, dwarfed by all the magnificent roller coasters, there is what looks very much like a residential high-rise.

Or that almost all of the problems the CIDC is now promising to fix are ones created in the first place by the government, and usually by government in the guise of quasi-private special authorities, answerable to virtually no one—much like the CIDC.

Sitt on the spot

Baker grills the developer:
"It's against the law," Joey Coney Island protests when it is suggested that any hotels built on Coney might be converted to condos or time-shares, sometime in the very near future. "Can they? Listen, if you want to ask, you know, 'Can somebody kill somebody?' Yes, physically they can. But it's against the law."

But as we've just witnessed, zoning regulations are a tad more flexible than the laws against murder. Once Sitt or some other developer erects 30-story "hotels" that stand vacant and moribund throughout the long winter months, is the city really going to sit back and let them go bankrupt? Order the towers torn down?

What about AY?

Baker writes:
It's not just Coney. Much like Thor Equities, Michael Bloomberg's administration has forwarded its development schemes everywhere with "renderings of some fantastic building."

...A veritable catalog of such swindles—past, present, and future—can be found in a triumphalist 2006 copy of New York magazine on "Tomorrowland"—the Oz-like New York it imagined would exist by 2016.

Therein can be found a headline that reads, "Brooklyn (Like It or Not) Will Get a Shimmering Frank Gehry Crown."

It refers, of course, to the Atlantic Yards project, where somehow no shimmering crowns ever appeared—only plans for a cheesy, college-style fieldhouse, built to house a bad basketball team owned by a mysterious Russian oligarch. In the process, the city—which currently claims to be unable to afford to let schoolchildren ride the subway at half-price—may well have squandered nearly $200 million for the cash-strapped MTA, money it left on the table in its rush to hand the site over to a single mega-developer that ended up flipping the whole project.

Well, Baker's right--there won't be any Gehry crown, because Gehry's gone. But Forest City Ratner didn't flip the whole project; more cleverly, they brought in a partner to buy 80% of the team and 45% of the arena operating company.

State of Coney

Today, Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA, the "Unelected Mayor of Coney Island," will give his annual State of Coney Island address. From the press release:
Zigun is expected to highlight the launch of the New Luna Park, the excitement of the long-anticipated "rebirth" of the amusement area, and the remaining questions about the future of the important historic structures that remain intact in Coney Island's historic district. The proposal for PEACE TALKS AND NEW STRATERGIES FOR AMUSEMENTS will be put forth.
It'll be at 4:30 pm at the Coney Island Museum.

Bloomberg on Coney

From the press release Friday:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Central Amusement International today celebrated the opening of Luna Park at Coney Island – a new 3.1 acre amusement park featuring 19 traditional and cutting-edge state-of-the-art rides from Zamperla S.p.A, the renowned Italian designer and manufacturer of amusement attractions. The first rides at Luna Park will open this weekend, with the remaining rides to open in the coming days. It will remain open everyday through Labor Day, and on weekends through Columbus Day, for its inaugural season. It is the first new amusement park to open in Coney Island in nearly 50 years and will more than double Coney Island’s total amusement area. Luna Park already employs greater than 200 people, more than half of whom live in the Coney Island area. The Mayor was joined at Luna Park for the announcement by Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert C. Lieber, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Council Member Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., New York City Economic Development Corporation President Seth W. Pinsky, City Planning Commissioner Amanda M. Burden, Department of Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri, Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe, President and CEO of Antonio Zamperla S.p.A Alberto Zamperla, Central Amusement International President Valerio Ferrari, and Consul General of Italy to New York Francesco Maria Talo.
In an interview Friday from Coney Island on The John Gambling Show, Bloomberg asserted, "This will galvanize the whole area."

He was a little fuzzy on some details. When touting the Brooklyn Cyclones--a terrific experience to watch in a ballpark-by-the-sea, I'd say, but no economic boon--Bloomberg, said, "I don't know if it's Double A or Triple A ball," Bloomberg. Actually, it's Single A.

2 comments:

  1. I ventured out to Coney Island today, compelled to see what is going on so far. As expected, crowded, and sadly, many areas screened off to camouflage the demolition - space for rent signs abounded. Rides in evidence were more expensive, lines daunting even for Memorial Day weekend, too little offered for the community, the curious, and the newcomers that had been enticed out. Sad to see the Shore Hotel had lost it's sign, people camped out on sidewalks to eat and garbage overflowed on corners. After Nathans and an impossibly crowded (and partially closed) boardwalk and beach, we decided to take refuge in The Coney Island Museum "still .99!", we thought, and something that used to feel somewhat grass roots. Now it has this cafe-style ground floor entrance that adjoins to the Sideshows space, and on such a day it was closed for a $5.00 "State of Coney Island" lecture by a resident historian. We decided to attend last minute, but the lecture was delayed (waiting for more folks to cough up the 5 bucks I can onl surmise). We wandered around the lobby/gift shop and observed 25.00 t-shirts, including infants!, 40.-100. plaster wall art, and more high-priced "art-memorabillia". Almost all the lobby staff seemed to be white, pseudo-boho preservationist-types who exhorted people to sign a postcard to the politicians to save the historic buildings and features of Coney Island. I realized, this is not for the community as it presently is; in all this neo-activist millieu, it felt like a prelude to preservation of appearance for the new saviours of Coney. Preservation should first be concerned with people, with keeping them anchored to a place, to join them as a group and enlist them with the goals of common benefits. I felt none of this and we asked for our money back, which was given back silently and with a slightly seething attitude. We decided to leave and have one last beer with the community herded on to the boardwalk.

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  2. I'll note that the $5 fee was not announced in the press release.

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