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ESDC notes more evidence for a Coney arena, then dismisses it

One of the most detailed responses to the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) charged that the state had downplayed the option of Coney Island as the location for a Brooklyn arena. A report submitted by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn pointed out that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) had ignored two studies regarding Coney.

In the Final EIS, released Wednesday, the ESDC did acknowledge those studies, and the argument for a Coney arena, but mainly to dismiss them. Some of the arguments are worth considering, but others misread the situation. (At right, planned arena location, from 1/31/04 Brooklyn Papers.)

In the Project Description chapter of the FEIS, the ESDC states:
Two studies published after the 1974 Brooklyn Sports Complex report—a 1984 study authored by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (The Brooklyn Sports Study: Phase 1 Locational Analysis) and a 1994 study commissioned by the Brooklyn Sports Foundation and Temporary State Commission on Brooklyn Recreational Facilities (Brooklyn Sportsplex Development Plan)—identified Coney Island as a recommended location for future Brooklyn sports facilities. As indicated above, one of the Coney Island sites identified for potential sports use has been occupied since 2001 by KeySpan Park, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.

Although it is conceivable that an arena could be built at another location on Coney Island (e.g., immediately west of KeySpan Park or on a site designated in the 1984 study as the Gateway site, located between Coney Island Creek and the Belt Parkway), these locations are deficient for a variety of reasons.

In general, Coney Island is less transit-accessible and more remote than the proposed project site. The proposed project’s arena would be centrally located for Brooklyn and the region and would be accessible via 12 subway lines, 11 bus routes, and the LIRR. The convergence of multiple transit lines would make it easy for visitors to reach the arena from a variety of origin points without having to transfer lines or transportation modes. In contrast, Coney Island is located at the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, and there are only 4 subway lines and 6 bus routes located in the vicinity of the potential arena sites identified in prior planning studies.

Those issues apparently didn't deter Borough President Marty Markowitz, who on 3/22/02 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."

In January 2003, 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.

That was less than a year before he endorsed the Atlantic Yards plan.

The transit question

While there may be only four subway lines (D,F,N,Q), that's misleading. Because Coney Island is 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, the G and C stations within walking distance.

It's easier to load people on and off at a terminus, and Coney Island, with ramps as well as stairs, is designed to handle large crowds. However less accessible it might be, Coney Island has long drawn visitors from all over the city.

In the DDDB report, Simon Bertrang writes:
The Coney Island subway lines have low existing passenger loads and substantial reserve capacities. In addition, the Stillwell Avenue station is a newly renovated jewel – with wide ramps and platforms designed to handle a surge in crowds and efficient vertical movement from platform to street.

The Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street station on the other hand has no reserve capacity – the platforms and trains are overcrowded, the platforms narrow and the maze of underground corridors connecting the various platforms confusing. If mass transit’s capacity to absorb new riders, especially the kind of surge in riders associated with the beginning or end of an NBA game in New York City, is taken into account, the Coney Island sites are far superior.

Transfers needed

The FEIS states:
It is likely that a majority of visitors to Coney Island—particularly those traveling from the northern and eastern portions of Brooklyn, the west side of Manhattan, and Nassau County—would be required to make one or more transit transfers to reach the arena. This inconvenience would likely result in a higher share of automobile trips through the area’s limited number of access corridors. Travel time would be expected to be greater to the Coney Island site by both auto and transit for most arena patrons.

While it might be less convenient, it's less certain that transfers would deter people. What if there were new express trains? And, as Bertrang points out, Coney Island is actually located off a highway, unlike the Atlantic Yards site in Prospect Heights.

Concerts and circuses

The FEIS states:
The anticipated programming of the proposed arena makes geographic centrality and transit accessibility vitally important. As described in the 1994 plan, the Brooklyn Sportsplex previously envisioned for Coney Island would have promoted primarily amateur sports activities, with a small number of commercial events interspersed in order to generate revenue. The maximum capacity of the Sportsplex was described as 12,300, and the commercial events were anticipated to draw approximately 8,000 spectators.

In contrast, the proposed project’s arena would host the Nets professional basketball team as well as a variety of commercial and community events. The proposed arena would seat 18,000 for basketball games. In total, the arena is anticipated to host approximately 225 events per year. The number and variety of events and the capacity of the proposed arena make it likely that the proposed arena would draw visitors from a wider geographic area than the Sportsplex proposed for Coney Island. Therefore, it is important that the proposed arena be located on a site that is readily accessible to a broad visitor population.

But the FEIS is comparing the Frank Gehry-designed arena with the 1994 SportsPlex, not the expanded arena proposed nearly a decade later and endorsed by Borough President Marty Markowitz. 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 (at right, site at parking lot next to KeySpan park) :
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.

Could the 14,000-seat venue be expanded to 18,000 seats? It's not out of the question.

As for non-basketball events, it's hardly clear that a SportsPlex-sized arena would be wanting. The FEIS states:
Non-game events are expected to attract fewer spectators than basketball events, with attendance generally ranging from 5,000 persons to 15,000 persons.

In a 9/20/99 article headlined SPORTSPLEX COULD TURN FAST PROFIT, the Daily News reported that:
leaders of the Brooklyn Sports Foundation have released a report that concludes it would run a profit of more than $800,000 in its first year. The report by Ogden Entertainment, a Conn.-based firm that operates 35 arenas across the country, said the profit would be generated by commercial tenants such as Disney on Ice, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and other for-profit shows occupying the main arena for 107 days. College and scholastic sporting events would also be held there.

Mixed-use development

The Final EIS states:
Finally, the Coney Island sites identified in prior planning studies are not large enough in size or central enough in their location to successfully support a comprehensive mixed-use development. As described above, recent experience with new arenas has shown that these facilities thrive in combination with a strong mix of urban land uses, including offices, shops, restaurants, and housing. The Coney Island sites do not presently offer such a varied mix of uses, nor do they present enough space for construction of new uses that would be synergistic with the arena.

That depends on how "synergistic" and "presently" are defined. Could there be other attractions built near the arena in the longstanding amusement zone? Could a mixed-use development be built without offices?

Coney Island is just beginning redevelopment, and there's been some furious turnover of vacant land. Developer Joseph Sitt plans a $1.5 billion mixed-use year-round development.

There are also numerous public housing complexes, at least near the potential arena site, which probably makes developers wary. But Coney Island, more so than Prospect Heights, has been in need of a kick-start from government.


  1. Coney Island is a lousy site for a big-league sports franchise. It's one thing for a Class A baseball team to play there, it's entirely something else for a major basketball team to locate itself there.

    The current site on Flatbush and Atlantic is the best site in the city for a sports franchise. It's not just the huge nexus of subway lines that adds vast appeal to the location, it's also the presence of the Long Island Railroad.


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