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In Coney Island Visions report, new ideas, express dreams, and AY avoidance

Observing that the city's truncated Coney Island plan--an apparent accommodation to developer Joe Sitt--"greatly reduces the area set aside for open-air amusements and puts too much faith in 'entertainment retail,'" the Center for an Urban Future yesterday issued a report called Coney Island Visions, asking thinkers from a variety of fields about Coney Island's future.

The effort is a partnership with the Municipal Art Society (MAS), which recently began the Imagine Coney initiative. While the MAS is soliciting advice from everybody (here are my suggestions), the Center for an Urban Future consulted amusement industry veteran, writers, architects, urban planners, and historians. Most have not been involved in the details of the development debate but were asked to provide a broader picture.

Avoiding AY

The first person quoted in the report brought up Atlantic Yards is an example of what not to do.

Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn & The Fortress of Solitude and an opponent of Atlantic Yards, said he thought the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team had made a big impact. (Well, maybe during the baseball season.) He continued:
One of the things that’s perverse about this is that maybe Coney Island would love to have something like this [an arena for the Nets]. While it’s a real sore thumb here close to downtown Brooklyn, it might be a marvelous result to have a professional sports team there.

He was asked if developer Joe Sitt, "who grew up in the area," had come up with the right ideas. Lethem's response:
Being from the place does not necessarily make you the best caretaker of its meaning in a larger sense, [Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz being a key example. I think sometimes people who are of a place are too eager to erase the scruffy complicated meanings that have attached to it in favor of something quite slick, which I think is the kind of mistake that Markowitz was prone to with his encouragement of [Atlantic Yards developer Bruce] Ratner. Obviously there’s so many reasons he fell in behind that proposal, his authentic Brooklyn-ness didn’t let him see the limitations of something so monolithic and futuristic.

He added:
One of the positive things, when you say that some of the space is owned by the city and some is private. That’s good. The nightmare of Atlantic Yards is that Ratner bought everything up.

An express train

The single best idea, to me, came from Lisa Chamberlain, executive director, Forum for Urban Design:
One thought is to have an express train from Times Square to Coney Island and do some cross branding. Call it surf and turf. Times Square is probably one of the most visited place on earth. But at least now, Coney Island is visited almost exclusively by people from this region. Few tourists go there.

Express service has been suggested for years, notably in Alex Marshall's article Play Ball in the August/September 2001 edition of Metropolis. And, of course, express service would bring a Coney arena within the realm of possibility.

Indeed, Ron Shiffman co-founder, Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (and a member of the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advisory board), pointed out that Coney in the 1980s had been selected as a site for an amateur arena:
Coney Island may be a good alternative to consider if the Nets are to come to Brooklyn. Locating the Nets there and having the kinds of attractions there in the off months that bring a lot of people to the area would be an asset for area merchants and for the city.

Intriguing ideas

Here are some of the comments I found most intriguing.

Eric Zimmerman, founder of video game development company Gamelab:
I was thinking of an emerging genre of games that take place in public spaces and use new technologies like cell phones or GPS locators. These are sometimes known as “Big Games” or alternate reality games. And these games would take place in and about the space of Coney Island.

Mike Wallace, professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice:
One wouldn’t want a reified, abstract, cartoonish version of Coney Island—to preserve a few remaining shells when the entire web of experience and meaningfulness is gone....

Whoever’s doing this should talk to Vietnamese, Ecuadorian, Pakistani immigrants and try to figure out what it would take to get them there.

Lars Liebst, CEO, Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens:
Why don’t you create a pier? Why don’t you start up a boat from downtown New York that could go over there, so the access to that area will be much easier....

You shouldn’t just look at it as an amusement area. Look at it as a whole area where you could add cultural activities, where you could do something about hotels and restaurants. You shouldn’t just do another Six Flags, because if you do, forget it.

Michael Sorkin, principal, Michael Sorkin Studio:
If any place were a good place for a competition, this is it! A wide open architectural competition. One wants to exercise the absolute limits of creativity in a case like this. The aura is so powerful.

Charles Denson, author, Coney Island: Lost and Found and executive director/co-founder, Coney Island History Project:
They should recreate the Steeplechase Pavilion: a winter garden in the winter and a grand interior space in the summer. The main thing is the amusement area should be low-rise so it permits evolution. Once you put in high-rises, it stops the evolution. As new entertainment technology becomes known, if it’s low-rise, you can adjust.

Karrie Jacobs, architecture critic:
What seems probable given all this new investment is you’re going to have one big amusement operator come in and replace this ragtag bunch of amusements with something big and new and shiny—and economically that may be successful, but I really hope they find a way to preserve the vernacular of Coney Island. Maybe the city should institute a zoning mechanism—a vernacular bonus—that would encourage a big amusement operator or developer to lease some percentage of their holdings to the small operators, new and old, so that some of the flavor of the neighborhood can be preserved.

Words of caution

Shiffman, the last interviewee, closed with some words of caution:
I’m not hopeful because I don’t really see anybody organizing or working with those directly impacted–local residents, merchants and the communities that Coney Island serves. Developers are doing it from the perspective of their needs and the City Planning Department doesn’t really care about engaging in a community planning effort. There should be a major initiative to develop an inclusive community plan there. I would want to make sure that the kinds of things that are developed there attract people of all ages and all backgrounds and aren’t somehow screened and sanitized. It would be a shame if we screened out the kids who have traditionally come out there because they like rap music or any other type of music that attracts a diverse audience. Any development or plan for Coney Island has got to be inclusive and it’s got to include all groups in the planning process.

Perhaps the flurry of discussion will foster a more inclusive plan.


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