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Coney Island’s Summer of Reckoning

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Jun 11, 2007
 

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At the seashore then and now: One of world's great beaches

Development is booming along much of New York City's once neglected waterfront. New developments shoot up in Greenport and Williamsburg, as luxury high rises encircle more and more of Manhattan's shore.

But the waterfront is luring developers and residents to the edges of the city as well. Real estate firms have bought up chunks of Coney Island, including the Astroland amusement park. The city has a strategic plan for the Brooklyn neighborhood and plans to announce rezoning of the area within the next several months. With Thor Equities, the new owner of the Astroland property, envisioning luxury condos, indoor water rides and other year round amusements, some Coney Island aficionados wonder whether the area's unique spirit can survive. Isolated attractions – the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump – will stay on but what will surround them? And what will become of the businesses -- some marginal, some tawdry -- that have staked out territory at New York's southern edge.

Wonder Wheel: A landmark attraction

Beaches on the Edge

See also:

  • Coney Island: Vendors Contemplate the Future
  • The Rockaways: Rescue, Revival or Ruin?
  • Coney Island Yesterday and Today:

    For more information on Coney Island:

    Coney Island Development Corporation: City agency charged with spearheading and implementing planning and economic development for Coney Island.

    Coney Island USA: A non-profit arts organization that promotes Coney Island and some of its traditions.

    Coney Island History Project: A not-for-profit organization that works to increase awareness of Coney Island's legendary and colorful past and highlight appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood today.

    Rollers Coaster of Coney Island: Coney Island's role in the development of the favorite amusement park ride.

    Coney Island Lost and Found by Charles Denson (Ten Speed Press, 2002): This book by a Coney Island native weaves together memoir with stories of the areas past and personalities.

    Coney Island: The People's Playground by Michael Immerso (Rutgers University Press, 2002): A history of Coney Island from its earliest development as a resort to the Mermaid Parade, with hundreds of photos.

    The Incredibly Bold, Audaciously Cheesy, Jaw-Droppingly Vegasified, Billion-Dollar Glam-Rock Makeover of Coney Island (New York Magazine): What could replace Astroland.

    Currently much remains unclear. Although the city has a plan for the area, it has not yet issued a planned rezoning of the neighborhood's streets. While Thor wants some residential development, the city wants to keep housing – luxury or not – out of that part of Coney Island. The owners of Astroland have sold their land, but they apparently still hope some of the rides can be moved elsewhere. The B&B carousel has been shuttered, the horses and other parts moved for renovation. The carousel will take children in circles again some day – but its final location in Coney Island remains unclear. Underlying all this are concerns about whether anything can lure people to Coney Island in the winter and whether it can support a year round amusement area, to say nothing of hotels and posh apartments.

    The Municipal Art Society recently held a forum on Coney Island and its history in this era of development. Excerpts from the discussion are below. (While the society did not invite a representative of Thor Equities, another developer, Ari Shalam, Taconic Investment Partners, did speak. Taconic has a number of projects in Coney Island but not on the Astroland site.)

    Honky-tonk Fantasy

    By Stuart Pertz

    Coney Island is an extraordinary beach, one of the most extraordinary beaches in the world, in fact. We take it for granted because it's ours. Once a most incredible place, it remains pretty incredible.

    Preceding the 1800s, a number of Indian colonies were around Gravesend Bay. The oysters were the size of dinner plates, and they were packed in crates and sent off to Holland as a delicacy.

    The turn of the century was really the heyday of Coney Island. There were three racetracks, there was Luna Park, Dreamland and any number of smaller amusement areas, and there was the beach and the boardwalk. There were few places in the world that could boast the kind of architecture that Coney Island had. It was a combination of honky-tonk and then the phantasmagoric dreamland.

    There were five railroads and a horse drawn trolley that got people where they were going, plus a ferry that, at peaks times, ran every 20 minutes. Some people even came by car. There were lots of amazing hotels to stay in: big ones, little ones.

    It was more than a place of amusement, it was an attitude. This is apparent in the fact that so many musical scores were written on or about Coney Island.

    And it was also a community. Living nearby were people who did not necessarily work in the amusement park, but people who lived normal lives in Brooklyn in perfectly nice houses: some very suburban, some apartment houses, and some that were not so nice and in need of repair.

    The basis change came about after the fire at Dreamland. That fire and subsequent fires wreaked havoc on an amazing place that had boxing, restaurants and racetracks. They left Coney Island devastated.

    But it is still a great place to swim, a great place to walk, and a great place to bike. It is also a great place with some wonderful opportunities for preservation.

    Stuart Pertz is a former New York City planning commissioner.


    The Plan for Change

    By Lynn Kelly

    Coney Island is an opportunity for something very exciting. You may not have been to Coney Island, but you've heard of Coney Island. I think everyone I have talked to has at least some notion or recollection of the name. Other great assets of Coney Island are its beach, its community, and most importantly, its history. But there are obvious challenges too: disparate ownership, a lot of vacant parcels. There is a seasonality issue. We would love to make Coney Island more year round, but without amusements to bring you there, why would you want to go to Coney Island in the middle of February?

    History will show that in Coney Island, the city made mistakes. Now we have a great opportunity, with everyone united, to change that.

    The first step took place in the previous administration with the implementation and building of Keyspan Park for baseball's minor league Brooklyn Cyclones in 2001. When the Bloomberg administration came in in January of the following year, the first step was to unite the local elected leaders and come up with a vision of how we were to change Coney Island. The Coney Island Development Corporation was formed in 2004 by the mayor, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the local city council member, Dominic Recchia. It has a 13-member board and is charged with spearheading a comprehensive economic development strategy for Coney Island.

    As the president of the Coney Island Development Corporation, one of my first tasks was to work on the strategic plan. The vision for Coney Island, released in 2005, was based on three strategies. - It is important to get year round activity, new entertainment, and retail. - It is important to enhance the amusement district, because, without enhancing the amusement district, we've effectively lost Coney Island, we've lost that brand. - And lastly, Coney Island is in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood of over 50,000 residents, and it is important to provide opportunities to those residents.

    The B&B Carousel: It gets the bras ring -- renovation and a new home

    How will we achieve this? The strategic plan breaks Coney Island into different districts, and in each of these districts we have certain goals that will become a part of the reassignment for Coney Island.

    In order to look forward, you have to know your past. Let's start with the historic aspects of Coney Island and the icons that are there: The Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone the Parachute Jump, the Aquarium, the Shore Theater. All of these are going to anchors for new development in Coney Island. Four of them are landmarks. One – the Parachute Jump -- received a 1.5 million dollar lighting scheme within the past year and went into restoration. This is Coney Island east, the main amusement area, and we really want to see that grow as an amusement park.

    We're proposing new streets because, back in the day, part of the Coney Island experience was the pedestrian experience. You could wander or walk in and around a certain avenue and really enjoy yourself in a way that was pedestrian friendly. Currently the blocks are very large, they're mega-blocks. One approach to the strategic plan is to break off some us those mega-blocks with new streets.

    The existing zoning right now is called C, a very limited zone. It only permits, for the most part, open amusements. We need to give people different experiences when they come to Coney Island -- for example, hotels, music venues, entertainment retail -- and of course, more amusements and rides. So the new zoning would allow activities that could complement an amusement district such as entertainment retail and hotel.

    The Cyclone: Preserving the wooden rollercoaster

    Some might ask, "If you're going to bring in all this retail and activity, who is going to use it?" A huge part of the strategic plan is residential as well. North of Surf Avenue, where there are currently a lot of vacant parcels with a mixture of public and private ownership, we are proposing residential, with ground floor entertainment retail. You need a reason to walk down Stillwell or Surf Avenue, you need something compelling, and retail is an important part of that plan.

    The western end of Coney Island is a transition area and heavily residential. Here again you can ground floor retail. These are parts of the plan that we feel create the critical mass of people within Coney Island.

    We did a lot of outreach in the community when we were first composing the plan and two things came out of that. One was the importance of having a community center in Coney Island and the other ferry service to Coney Island. The city has already designated a developer that is going to build South Brooklyn's first full-service 40,000 square foot YMCA and affordable housing. The city is contributing $5 million to that project. The city is also going to request a proposal to study ferry service.

    This is a plan that has been presented to the public and will continue to be presented to the public. The mayor has already committed over $85 million to a variety of capital projects in the plan: public housing, the B&B carousel, new streetscape work.

    We're here, we're active in Coney Island, we're anxious to hear your. But let me leave you with one thing: Tell every person you know that this is absolutely not the last summer for Coney Island.

    Lynn Kelly is president of the Coney Island Development Corporation.


    Opportunity Around a Great Building

    By Ari Shalam

    In 2004, we looked around Coney Island and saw what it could be. We saw the new Stillwell Avenue subway station. We saw the Cyclones stadium, which was a great public investment although not necessarily planned the way we would have done it. We could see the Parachute Jump go into motion and the aquarium. We saw a lot of public investment and initiative.

    We saw the wonderful history of Coney Island. We saw the beaches. A lot of money had gone into rebuilding those beaches and the Boardwalk. And yet just behind the beaches, there's all this land lying fallow. You have to ask yourself why. Some of that land was orphaned – cut off from other properties. In particular, the stadium development took land that might have been used for new amusements and cut it off from the amusements already there.

    Luna Park: Architectural fantasy destroyed by fire

    The last thing we saw was a good transportation infrastructure. If New York City is going to accommodate the growth that it needs and the housing formation that the mayor has called, it has to site residential opportunities close to public transportation. Whether it is vehicular transportation or subway transportation, that is where the homes need to be. We need to have sustainable development in the city, and not develop things far away, where people have to drive.

    Our first acquisition was in the spring of 2005. The strategic plan came out just around that time. Everything that we are thinking about doing is fixed with that plan. We are going to do what we can to put it together and really bring about the reality of change in Coney Island, rather than some of the failed plans that have come and gone over the years.

    Now to something that is near and dear to my heart and to many of the people here: the Childs building. The Childs building is really one of the remarkable landmark structures of Coney Island. In the development community, you hear a lot of people say, "Gee, that shouldn't be a landmark." But it is. With the Childs building, there are no doubts. It is a wonderful building.

    There are a couple things about it that are particularly important. It happens to be at a place on the Boardwalk where there is a natural bend. Trying to draw people from the narrow, reduced footprint of the amusement area, around the stadium and into some of the more transitional areas, people will look down the boardwalk and see the Childs building. We see that as a kind of gateway piece.

    The Childs building has a great history. It was once part of the Childs restaurant chain. Since it closed in 1947, various people have owned it. The person we bought it from was a bookseller. It was an extraordinarily complicated transaction. The person did not really want to do anything with it. Many organizations have tried to talk to this owner. We were successful in August of 2006, finally consummating a long-term ground lease with the option to buy.

    We see it as a as a marquee food operation with catering and opportunities for people to come in and not only eat on kind of a passer-by basis, but actually have reservations and sit down. If you look over to Brighton Beach side, you see some restaurants that come out on the Boardwalk. As you walk by, they really pull you in.

    We have proposed restoring the fascia of the building. There are some beautiful medallions on there and great detail work. The interior of the building was a mess. It was dark and dingy. We have cleaned it up made it safer, installed security.

    We are trying to get in a position where it could be used very soon. Because we don't know how the ultimate rezoning and development will occur on Coney Island, we have to be careful of what money we spend now. But we are working on a way to open up the historic parts on a temporary basis this summer or at least open up the front portions of the building for that.

    Childs Building: Restoring a onetime jewel of the Boardwalk

    One of the ideas we kicked around is to try to create access to a second floor, or the roof, for a catering facility. Wouldn't it be great to have a wedding or an event and come out to the roof and look at the ocean? If you look at some of the old pictures, you can see that there was almost a beer garden up there. We're going to try and restore that. But the plan for that building really has to be taken in context with everything that's going to happen around it, not only the plans for the parachute jump, but also for Steeplechase Park which is a block or two away. We have to see what happens with the rest of Coney Island.

    Ari Shalam, Taconic Investment Partners

     


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