The city took a step toward sustaining historic Coney Island this summer when
it put a
roadblock in front of a $1.5 billion plan by Thor
Equities to turn the legendary area into a resort enclave. As New Yorkers
warmed up on Coney’s beaches, the administration threw cold water on the proposal
to speed up the rides and bring in hotels and time-shares. Thor’s scaled-back
plan, which included a glass-enclosed water park, three hotels and 400 time-share
units, restaurants, movie theatres and high-tech arcades, was a bit much even
for a city administration that likes to think big.
Now the question is whether the city can come up with an alternative that helps
to sustain and build up what is left of the storied amusement area. Will they
be able to do it without a mega-developer like Thor? And will the city continue
to react to the schemes put forth by private developers rather than coming up
with ideas of its own?
As incongruous as it might seem, Coney Island, with its honky-tonk image, could
become a model of sustainable development. If the city wants that to happen,
it could look to some key decisions already made at Coney.
Where’s the Plan?
New York City’s long-range sustainability plan,
PlaNYC2030, says little about unique areas like Coney Island, which don’t
fit in the category of residential neighborhood or an average business district.
However, Coney Island redevelopment could play an important role in meeting the
plan’s objectives of insuring that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute
walk of open space, cleaning up the city’s waterways, improving mass transit
and air quality and reducing global warning.
If the past is any indication, the way to accomplish these objectives is through
carefully thought-out small steps over a long period of time instead of giant
commercial adventures and “big ideas.” For example, long before PlaNYC2030,
the Metropolitan Transportation Authority renovated the
Avenue subway station, making it the greenest, most energy-efficient
subway station in the city. Completed in 2006, the station has photovoltaic panels
that provide solar energy and an open design that maximizes the use of natural
sunlight. This example of smart design and public policy has given a small boost
to the private amusement area and to many public facilities in the area.
Previously, the city preserved the
Cyclone, Coney Island’s famed roller coaster that opened in 1927. It became
a city landmark in 1988 and a federal landmark in 1991. This mostly wooden structure
remains an icon of the amusement area, marking its identity as distinct from
the kind of high-tech, high-priced theme parks epitomized by Six Flags.
The corporate amusement giants also cannot replicate the non-profit,
Coney Island USA a
focal point for many unique cultural and civic groups that have helped keep
the historic area alive. And in yet another small step, the
city government and the Coney Island Development
Corporationnow plan to develop
Plaza, a public park that would feature a restored
So it may be smarter for the city to think smaller and move one step at a time.
The popularity of the relatively tiny Nellie Bly Amusement Park, only a couple
of miles from Coney Island near Bensonhurst’s waterfront, suggests that
many small parks might work better than one big one.
Stadiums On The Island?
In an earlier effort to spark development at Coney Island, the city encouraged
the building of Keyspan Park,
where the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team
plays. This was a questionable addition to Coney Island’s waterfront when
it was built during the Giuliani administration. The minor league field broke
the classical Coney Island model that combined amusement park, beach and boardwalk.
Stadiums for professional teams and leagues are great for team owners and the
health and welfare of the small number of athletes who play in the stadiums,
but do little more than encourage the sedentary lifestyle and junk food binging
that contribute to the city’s epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
Still, compared to the monster Shea and Yankee Stadiums, Keyspan Park has opened
the door to a different kind of professional sports. Much smaller than the baseball
behemoths, Keyspan is only a stone’s throw from the boardwalk and beach,
and the Abe Stark skating rink, and within walking distance of the amusement
park. With affordable ticket prices and easy access via mass transit, it attracts
families with limited recreational options in their neighborhoods and works as
part of a daily outing. On the other hand, Shea and Yankee Stadiums function
as enclosed enclaves, attracting a large fan base that drives, and they funnel
people in and out as quickly as possible.
And why not put the arena for the Nets basketball team in Coney Island, as planner
previous studies recommended Coney Island as a location for a professional
arena, and until recently that view was held by
Brooklyn’s political establishment. Wouldn’t the 18,000 seat arena
that the basketball team’s owner, Forest City Ratner, now proposes to cram
in between the Prospect Heights and Fort Greene neighborhoods make more sense
nested in Coney Island’s amusement area?
If this was to happen – which is admittedly unlikely -- a Coney Island
arena should not go the way of the New
which is isolated from the amusement park. Nor should it be dropped in next to
Keyspan Park, thereby creating a big enclave of professional facilities. But
if properly designed, the home court for the Nets could be physically integrated
with Coney Island’s recreational facilities.
The City’s Role
The heart of Coney’s surviving amusement area,
Astroland Amusement Park,
closed for the season on September 9. The owner of
Equities, may very well decide not to renew Astroland’s lease for
next year’s season, although a petition campaign is underway to prevent
this from happening.
Lacking the kind of public or private commitment given to the Cyclone and B&B
Carousel, no amusement park can survive and keep prices affordable to average
New Yorkers. Thor wants public subsidies to support any amusements it puts on
In light of this, it is hard to imagine any steps at Coney Island going forward
until the administration takes a more direct role in development. In the past,
however, the city has tended to rely more on rezoning than direct intervention.
Zoning leaves the door open for development but can’t substitute for complex
planning with a strong dose of preservation, community engagement and attention
For a number of reasons, Coney Island cries out for an active city role. If we
look to the year 2030 and beyond, Coney Island will probably be one of the most
vulnerable areas to rising sea levels. While Coney’s 60,000 residents may
be willing to risk flooding and evacuation, it certainly makes no sense to encourage
more permanent housing there. Millions of dollars in public subsidies already
go to maintain Coney Island’s beach and protect it from erosion. When will
the cost of such efforts exceed the public benefit?
Beyond this, a strong public role is imperative if Coney Island is to remain
affordable to New Yorkers, both as a place to live and a place to play. Today
the park and recreation areas are a boon for New Yorkers with limited incomes
and for Brooklynites. Preserving affordability on what was once known as America’s
playground is as important as saving the Cyclone and is consistent with PlaNYC2030’s
aim of preserving affordable housing.
Island’s Summer of Reckoning and With Pizza, Pinball and Panache, Boardwalk
Vendors Face Changes
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.