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Coney Island the place for an arena? Marty used to think so

Would Coney Island be a better place than the proposed Atlantic Yards site for a new basketball arena? Less than a year before Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan was unveiled, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz championed Coney Island as the location. City officials long have considered locating a Sportsplex for amateur and (later) professional sports there, first at the site of what is now Keyspan Park, and later next door at a parking lot in front of the somewhat antiquated Abe Stark Rink. (Graphic from the 1/31/04 Brooklyn Papers, p. 7 of the PDF.)

Of course, Markowitz now fervently backs Forest City Ratner's plan for a Brooklyn arena at Atlantic Yards. And a Sportsplex has been scrapped from the city's ever-evolving plans for Coney Island. But Coney Island still deserves consideration, especially given that a glitzy new development is planned just a few blocks away from the potential Sportsplex site.

On 6/9/06, Michael O'Keeffe of the Daily News's iTeam blog wrote that former Salt Lake City deputy mayor Brian Hatch, a regular analyst of New York City's sports facilities, is championing Coney. Hatch argues that the Coney Island location would reduce the density of the Atlantic Yards project, avoid a traffic bottleneck, and give a boost to long-neglected Coney, which has space, a welcoming community, and both good subway and highway connections.
(Photo of Abe Stark parking lot taken yesterday, with the famed Parachute Jump in the background)

Establishing a Coney Island arena wouldn't be simple--it would require, for example, the scrapping of Frank Gehry's singular effort to nest an arena within four towers. And who exactly would pay for what? On the other hand, Coney Island is much more of a tabula rasa than Prospect Heights, and, should political leaders back the switch, they'd find a much more welcoming community. Hatch argues, "Even if the Prospect Heights arena is approved, the developer faces a 'bleeder' where the surrounding neighborhood will fight it as long as it exists."

A stadium, an arena

Beyond Hatch's arguments, there's a good case for another sports facility in Coney Island. In a 7/13/05 article in The Architect's Newspaper, headlined Ten Better Places for a Football Stadium, Michael Sorkin, director of the Urban Design Program at City College of New York, took a look at the planned West Side Stadium and deemed ten locations superior, among them Coney Island.

Here's a chart laying out Sorkin's rationale.

The criteria used by Sorkin apply as well to the proposed Brooklyn Arena. The Atlantic Yards site, by my count, offers only three--or maybe 3.5--of Sorkin's nine criteria: subway, LIRR, and pedestrian access. There's no Amtrak or water access, no sports synergy, no direct highway to parking potential, --and, as at the West Side and Sunnyside Yards, there remains a need for site preparation.

You could argue that the crossroads of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues also offers bus access, but visitors to the arena are not expected to rely on buses. As for the issue of "neighborhood value added," I'd give that maybe a half point, since it's part of the "blight" argument. Yes, there may be some derelict buildings in the project footprint, but there also has been an significant wave of gentrification, as noted in the New York Times Real Estate section.

While a marquee architect like Frank Gehry, hired to develop the Atlantic Yards plan, might attract attention, the potential traffic snarls caused by the oversized development could make neighborhood life less pleasant. Development over the railyards is inevitable, with or without an arena. That's why another bidder, Extell, offered more money than Forest City Ratner to build housing over the rail yard, even after political leaders had backed Atlantic Yards.

Coney's potential

Coney Island lacks LIRR service, but offers many other opportunities, including a larger subway station, with more trains positioned at the terminus, plus sufficient potential for parking. Sorkin writes: The revival of Coney Island has been announced for years but proceeds at a snail’s pace. Some hopeful signs: Keyspan Park, a minor league baseball stadium, is enjoying great success; the city has just completed a massive renovation of the Stilwell Avenue subway station; and use of the beach is on the rise. Moreover, Coney Island is a virtual synonym for urban recreation and locating the Stadium adjacent to Keyspan Park, Astroland, and the beach would take it to the next level of attraction, luring other sports, entertainment, and related uses. The nearby Belt Parkway and ample opportunities for water transport round out a very pretty picture. And what more logical neighbor for Nathan’s!
(Keyspan Park photo from

Though Coney Island is farther from Manhattan than the Atlantic Yards site, a Coney Island location could be more attractive to those fans from New Jersey who likely would drive to the game anyhow. Forest City Ratner's consultant, economist Andrew Zimbalist, in his report on the estimated fiscal impact of the project, projected that "30 percent of New Jersey fans of the Nets will also attend games in Brooklyn."

FCR's package deal

Forest City Ratner has not confronted the question of decoupling the arena, or whether its previous arguments for the site location still hold. At a 5/4/04 City Council hearing, FCR's Jim Stuckey contrasted the Atlantic Yards site with two potential alternatives, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Coney Island, and declared them inferior:
The Brooklyn Navy Yard could never result in the jobs that we would be able to create here, because you could not build the amount of office space that we are talking about building here.
And the Brooklyn Navy Yard would never permit us to build the amount of housing that we can build on this site, nor could Coney Island. It could not sustain it, it does not have the development ability and you could not attract the companies to go to those locations... As I mentioned before, this is a major mass transportation hub, there are 10 subway lines, and virtually every single, as I mentioned, Long Island Railroad Line comes through this site too.

But Stuckey was arguing for a previous iteration of the plan. Because Forest City Ratner packaged the arena with an office-and-housing complex (which now would be nearly all housing), it was presented as an all-or-nothing deal. The arena drew political support for the project as a whole, while the rest of the project--especially when there was an office component--served as an argument for the Prospect Heights site.

In a flier distributed to thousands of Brooklynites in 2004, the company suggested that the arena drove the location, not the provision of office space:
Forest City Ratner chose Atlantic Yards--and not Coney Island, the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Red Hook--because it is accessible by ten subways and the LIRR, and centrally located for both sports fans and Brooklynites who want to enjoy everything the project has to offer.

Unmentioned, of course, was the boost that the project might give to the adjacent Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls.

Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco told O'Keeffe last week that, while the developer considered Coney Island, it "prefers its current location because it is accessible to 10 subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road." Coney Island has only four subway lines (D,F,N,Q), but that's deceptive; because it's a terminus, it has eight subway tracks. At the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street hub, there may be 10 subway lines, but there are only 10 subway tracks--plus, it should be acknowledged, some other stations within walking distance. But it's easier to load people on and off at a terminus. (Photo at right taken yesterday)

Looking at alternatives

The Prospect Heights location is most defensible for office space, and secondarily housing, while an arena might work in Coney, and DePlasco apparently wasn't pressed on whether the arena could be decoupled from the project, nor on the developer's plans to promote use of public transit to arena events.

Stuckey's right that neither the Navy Yard nor Coney Island could sustain the office development initially announced; the projected office towers at Atlantic Yards were to be adjacent to the transit hub. The Navy Yard lacks the subway access and Coney Island, while home to a giant subway station, lacks the rail access for Long Islanders. However, the number of projected office jobs has been cut drastically.

Housing at the Navy Yard? OK, it's hardly central (though Brooklyn's running out of space). But Coney Island? It would make a terrific place for new housing, and upscale housing at that, as Peter Reinharz writes, in the City Journal article cited near the end of this post. The difference between Coney Island and Prospect Heights is that the latter is more upscale while Coney has yet to "tip." However, luxury construction has begun down the road at Brighton Beach.

So Prospect Heights, given the transportation and the gentrification, might be a safer choice for housing, but Coney Island might be as good if not better for an arena. We never had a public discussion. Observes architect Jonathan Cohn, "We should be asking the bottom line real estate question: what's the 'highest and best use' for this land?"

Another consideration could be terrorism. Last October, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn commented to the Empire State Development Corporation that another arena site, notably Coney Island, would be safer than the proposed Atlantic Yards site.

The Sportsplex back story

The Sportsplex was under consideration for more than 15 years, on city-owned land once occupied by the legendary Steeplechase Park, next to the Parachute Jump. In 1986, the state Urban Development Corporation (now known as the Empire State Development Corporation) sponsored a study with the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development regarding the feasibility of a sports complex. (Imagine--the state let Pratt weigh in before a project was presented as ready. After the Atlantic Yards plan was presented, Pratt offered several cautions.)

The now-defunct Brooklyn Sportsplex Foundation was founded in 1987, with a compelling argument for a new facility. Even though Brooklyn has several colleges and universities, no athletic facility can accommodate over 2,000 people--this in a borough of 2.5 million people. Various studies established a plan for an arena for spectator events, and multiuse facilities for various sports. For basketball, would have seated 12,300 people--not quite major league. (Here's the Sportsplex's defunct web site, courtesy of the Internet Archive, and the page for the arena.)

A 4/17/91 article in Newsday (Sports Center Foes to Air Their Views) noted that the foundation had been considering Coney Island for the complex, but that Forest City Ratner and Rose Associates (then jointly developing land within Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area) offered them land within the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area, or ATURA. The parties were seeking a $500,000 grant for a feasibility study to evaluate possible sites. A 5/13/91 article (headlined "Brooklyn sports arena draws local jeers") in Crain's New York Business noted that a 1986 study said a combined stadium/arena would work best in Coney Island, because there was more room to build, but that mass transit "downtown" would make an arena work there. (That would have to be reevaluated today in terms of traffic.)

Cyclones take precedence

Even though the city and state had set aside $67 million for the Sportsplex, the Steeplechase Park site instead was designated by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1998 for the new Brooklyn Cyclones stadium.

Giuliani ignored some intriguing plans from Forest City Ratner. A 7/21/97 article in the Times (With Times Square Reborn, Attention Turns to Coney Island) noted Ratner's plan to build a 400,000 square foot entertainment and retail complex with electronic games and movie theaters. Ratner would build the Sportsplex too--not yet with a major league arena--as long as the city gave the land away. (Hatch writes that the current Atlantic Yards plan is Ratner's backup to an arena in Coney; I think it's better described as a successor plan.)

A 7/30/97 Times article (City's Budget Request Fall on Receptive Ears) reported a state budget agreement that granted $50 million to the Sportsplex after it had been rejected for two years. The plan "would pave the way for a private developer, Bruce C. Ratner, to proceed with plans for a new multiplex theater and virtual-reality amusement park."

Not everyone approved. In a Times op-ed 8/9/97, Steve Zeitlin, director of City Lore, wondered if such a complex would erase a raffish culture at Coney: "An amusement area... might build on those memories. A Sportsplex/retail/theater complex might well put them to rest." (Note that the Times published three op-eds on the Coney Island plan in one day. In some two-and-a-half years, the Times has published just one op-ed on the Atlantic Yards plan.)

The Daily News on 11/12/98 (BOROUGH BIGS NEARLY WHIFF ON RUDY'S BALLPARK CURVES) reported that developer Bruce Ratner had "talked with Brooklyn Sports Foundation officials about building the Sportsplex at cost, provided he can build an entertainment complex next door."

It sounds not unlike the plan to build an arena at Atlantic Yards, which would enable the construction of 16 high-rise buildings, most of them luxury housing, and thus provide revenue to the developer.

But the baseball stadium nudged the Sportsplex aside. An 11/23/98 article in the Times (Back to the Drawing Board in Coney Island) noted that the location for the Sportsplex would be occupied by the new baseball stadium and a parking lot, and that Forest City Ratner had not studied the new plan.

Marty's plan

There was and remains a lot of fallow space in Coney Island, quite close to the transit hub. Indeed, on 3/22/02, Markowitz issued a press release about the Borough's State Legislative Agenda, citing a goal to "retain funding for the Coney Island Sportsplex and increase the allocation in order to attract an NBA franchise." On the day of his next State of the Borough address, as noted in Chapter 5 of my report, the New York Daily News reported (Marty’s Minding Our Manners, 1/23/03):
The borough president also goes to sleep dreaming of bringing a National Basketball Association team to Coney Island.

The same day, in his address, Markowitz devoted six consecutive paragraphs to Coney Island, and in the fourth of those paragraphs said:
And, some will laugh, but I'll keep on saying it. Brooklyn deserves a sports team on a national stage. Major league sports owes Brooklyn for the great theft of 1957, when the devil O'Malley stole the Dodgers out of Brooklyn in the middle of the night. That's why, until the door is finally slammed in my face, I will continue to fight for a NBA team for Brooklyn.

In June 2003, a half-year before the official unveiling of the Atlantic Yards plan, the Astella Development Corporation of Coney Island issued CONEY ISLAND: A Vision Plan, which also endorsed an arena:
The construction of the ballfield on the former Steeplechase Park site in 2001 displaced proposals for the Brooklyn Sportsplex at this location. Given the potential for an Olympic venue at this site in 2012, the proposal for a multi-use sports facility is gaining renewed momentum and is depicted on the NYC2012 website with a main hall seating 14,000 and a secondary hall with two additional regulation-size volleyball courts. The Borough President’s goal of an NBA basketball arena here appears compatible with these other uses.
(Above, the Sportsplex, as depicted in NYC2012's Olympics bid book)

I asked Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island USA and a prime mover in Coney's modest revival over the last 20 years, how the owners/operators in the amusement zone felt about the SportsPlex concept and Markowitz's pro hoops hopes. He responded: "There were years of lukewarm support for Sportsplex. When things were hopeless it wasn't what we wanted but we were happy someting was scheduled. When the [baseball] stadium was built Sportsplex stopped sending a rep to the monthly chamber of commerce meetings. Sure, we would have been thrilled for a professional sports basketball team but then Ratner went for Atlantic Avenue."

Marty forgets

In the month after the Atlantic Yards plan was announced, Markowitz wrote, in a 1/19/04 Gotham Gazette piece headlined Netting the Nets:
Common sense, good urban planning, and care for the environment would tell you that the arena must be located where visitors have the best access by mass transit, and this location is Brooklyn's best for public transportation, with nine subway lines, four bus lines and the Long Island Rail Road all meeting there.
The irony is that if land were available to put an arena in another area of Brooklyn, as some have suggested, it would definitely result in the use of cars almost exclusively!

Cars almost exclusively? Sorkin's chart suggests otherwise, and Markowitz seemed to forget his advocacy for Coney Island. Less than three weeks later, on 2/8/04, Markowitz in his State of the Borough Address seemed enthused about the public transit potential at Coney: With construction on the new Stillwell Avenue terminal nearing completion, Coney Island will be making history again.

Indeed, the Coney Island station has stairs and ramps--as opposed to just stairs at the stations near the Atlantic Yards site--which better accommodate groups. Sure, it's a lot farther from Manhattan than the proposed Atlantic Yards, but express trains could make the trip surprisingly swift. (Photo taken yesterday)

Coney Island and some lost opportunities

Coney Island needs a development boost far more than does Prospect Heights. These days, investment has begun to flow into Prospect Heights and environs. It's a no-brainer now to build over the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard--that's why the Extell Development Company bid $150 million--far more than Ratner's initial $50 million, which ultimately became $100 million--for the railyard site, and why the MTA's RFP, issued 18 months after the Forest City Ratner announced its plan, was so criticized.

Coney has been fallow for years, the victim of some bad urban planning. Absentee owners, squabbling politicians, and a failure of investment have all been factors. Coney property owners were holding on to underdeveloped land until the area "tips." Now Thor Equities seems to have quietly bought out some of those property owners, with a $1 billion entertainment complex plan for which construction could start next year.

The plan, as described in an 11/27/05 Daily News article headlined Coney's new ride?, would involve three blocks just opposite the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal, and just two blocks east of Keyspan Park and four blocks east of the potential Sportsplex site. It would turn Stillwell Avenue, next to Nathan's (which would be preserved) into a pedestrian mall, and involve a four-star hotel, an outdoor water park, and luxury condos.

While Coney Island could use luxury housing, the Coney Island Development Corporation doesn't recommend housing in the core amusement area, and zoning would have to be changed. Zigun told the Daily News, "Putting anything residential is controversial... Coney Island was zoned for things that were too loud and outrageous for other neighborhoods."
(At right, the western edge of the site proposed for the Thor Equities plan)

It sounds like an argument for the gaudy arena signage about which Bruce Ratner seems skittish putting into a residential area like Prospect Heights.

Transportation the key

Coney Island has long had an amusement zone (with special zoning), which has shrunk, which means that an arena could be separated from housing but stimulate other entertainment facilities.

The catalyst is transportation. As Alex Marshall wrote in an article headlined Play Ball, in the August/September 2001 edition of Metropolis magazine, the subway station is far more important than the new baseball stadium:
Even more significant, although less hyped, is the complete rebuilding of the subway station, where four separate lines terminate, and which once routinely dumped out a million people into Coney Island's downtown on a hot summer's day. At $250 million--six times the $40 million cost of the ballpark--the new station will take four years to complete....The stadium's 800-space parking lot is placed to the side of the building and is not visible from the stands. Although minimizing the parking lot visually is admirable, the larger question is, why is the city spending money on parking while also dropping a quarter-billion dollars to rebuild a subway station a block away that can handle a million people per day?
...Four separate lines--the B, D, F, and N--terminate here, giving it immense capacity. Like Grand Central Station, the stop was built with ramps instead of stairs, to better handle the vast crowds... If the MTA added better express service to Manhattan, the island could be a half hour from Wall Street.

(Photo of the roof, which uses solar energy, from the MTA web site.)

In the Summer 1999 issue of the conservative Manhattan Institute's City Journal, in an article headlined Rockaway Riviera? CopacaConey?, Peter Reinharz made the case that Coney was wrecked by saturating it with poorly constructed, badly managed public housing--and that Coney and Far Rockaway could have the allure of Miami Beach. And Reinharz also pointed out the possibility of an express train: Coney is less than an hour from midtown—a mere 30 minutes if the Transit Authority would provide a nonstop express train between Coney and Times Square. Such a train, which could use existing subway tracks that end at Coney's Stilwell Avenue, would speed the area's economic development enormously.

Coney Island, Reinharz wrote, could house a new convention center and become part of a tourist boom. (His solution would be to have potential developer agree to build "new, smaller-scale, private affordable housing in suitable areas of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens as a condition of being allowed to rebuild Coney and the Rockaways.") He didn't mention a basketball arena--this was 1999, remember--but an arena could also make a seasonal venture a year-round attraction.

The politics of Coney

Given the long history of the planned Sportsplex, and given Markowitz's quite-recent hope for an arena in Coney Island, his dismissal of the site--not to mention FCR's dismissal--deserves more public discussion. After all, as Hatch notes, City Council Member Dominic Recchia from Coney Island said in early 2004 that he'd welcome an arena:
“I would welcome Bruce Ratner into my neighborhood with open arms. I would welcome the Nets to Brooklyn and Coney Island any day.”

Indeed, while Brooklyn as a borough has a proud basketball tradition, Coney Island has more of a claim to that history than many other neighborhoods. Its housing projects have produced some serious hoopsters, including New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury and his cousin, Sebastian Telfair of the Portland Trail Blazers. Nearby Lincoln High School is a perennial powerhouse. Marbury and some of his high school cohorts appeared in Darcy Frey's book The Last Shot, and Spike Lee picked up a similar story in his film He Got Game.

However, Hatch observes, funding for a rec center in Coney seems to have been held hostage until the Atlantic Yards plan moves forward. He likens the process to the city's resistance to a Jets/Olympic stadium in Queens, because local powerbrokers favored a new West Side Stadium. But once the latter plan died, two new Queens stadium plans quickly emerged.

I don't think that moving the arena to Coney Island solves the density problems at the Atlantic Yards site as much as Hatch suggests. If there's no use of eminent domain, then the project footprint would likely be less than the current 22 acres. But the number of apartments currently projected, even without the arena, would constitute extreme density compared to other major developments, so it still would have to be reduced. That might not be so difficult. Yes, the provision affordable housing (and the developer's profit) is one reason for the density, but another is the cost--and limited profitability--of building the most expensive arena ever.

But Hatch is right when he points out that Coney Island has been built for crowds, offers a variety of transit access, and has community leaders that welcome development. The question is: after Markowitz and Mayor Mike Bloomberg endorsed Forest City Ratner's plan, have they closed their minds to alternatives?