Walking and talking: Coney Island
New Yorkers and tourists enjoy the beautiful weather on Coney Island boardwalk
If Coney Island were a person, it would look beaten up and bullied. Still standing, it would be tattooed head to toe, but grinning and swinging right back.
One of New York’s most historic and beloved neighborhoods, the original city by the sea, Coney Island is facing the most important neighborhood rezoning in the history of New York City. What happens here affects the economic future of South Brooklyn’s coast and the entire borough. It will severly impact New York’s tourism figures and global reputation as a city that can care for its historic yet decaying neighborhoods, or one that cannot.
That’s why the mayor’s office, committed to a five-borough plan, has moved full-force ahead with revitalizing the area. It’s also why special-interest groups, city departments, land developers, neighborhood planners, architects and old-time Brooklynites have such strong opinions. All matter, but some serve only to encumber development of a once-glorious city icon that now looks like a war zone in winter and a hodgepodge of amusements in summer.
The roots are there. National and city landmarks give the place a constant aura. The Cyclone still knocks your socks off, and the Wonder Wheel makes you want to kiss your girlfriend. The Childs Building, an aircraft- hangar-size 1900s Beaux-Arts masterpiece steps from the sand, might become a top catering hall with a beer garden on the roof.
What’s at stake for Coney Island is about more than real estate, but real estate is the core of the problem and eventual solution. Condominiums versus affordable housing, hotels versus hospitals, mom-and-pop shops versus big-box retail. All are up for debate.
What can’t be lost, though, is the welfare of hardworking New Yorkers who have whiled away time in nearby public housing projects since the 1960s, waiting for the once-great neighborhood to reclaim an international spotlight and find prosperity. Their lives are worth a compromise and a few less million dollars from developers or City Council members hoping their interests prevail.
Now in the public-approval process, called ULURP (or Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), the Department of City Plan-ning’s rezoning program includes a 27-acre amusement district with 12 acres of permanently protected parkland that includes the existing landmark rides and stresses year-round activity. It includes a revamped Mermaid Ave., which would create housing and retail opportunities. With amendments suggested by the community board, the plan must go through the borough president, the City Council and the mayor’s office before making its way back to the planning department for potential revisions.
If the plan receives approval, developers will know what they can build and where. That means condominiums and light amusements in Coney West, the amusement district in Coney East, and larger retail buildings and investment opportunities in Coney North. Construction could begin on infrastructure, hotels and housing as early as September.
If drastic changes are recommended, the neighborhood could remain in limbo while the planning department and outside interests weigh in on how to rebuild the present rubble.
In the middle of the city’s proposed year-round entertainment district are 8 acres of land owned by Thor Equities. After the rezoning, Thor can build “as of right,” meaning within the framework of what zoning allows. That now means no housing and a destination of year-round amusements. Critics argue that the plan for a $2 billion mixed-use hotel, amusement, entertainment and retail complex is a masquerade for a giant mall. Others say the goal is to hold out to profit from land acquired over the past few years. In all, Thor has spent $93 million buying land in Coney, mostly from amusement owners.
The city has offered Thor $105 million for the land, which would give the city the 27 acres needed to draw a huge, year-round tenant providing indoor amusements for winter. Critics, though, say indoor amusements alone aren’t enough to sustain a winter season.
Globally, there is only one full-time coastal winter amusement park, Tivoli in Copenhagen. It’s wildly successful, with concert halls, theaters and indoor festivals. Tivoli proves that a year-round wonderland can thrive. Thor’s plans would preclude that vision in Coney Island, but they claim their complex will do the same without taxpayer dollars. Time will tell.
All the entities plan a busy summer. Thor will hold a flea market and freak show called Festival by the Sea. Taconic Investment Partners, which owns two large lots and the Childs Building, leased the latter to a roller-skating rink and the land next door to the city for the Ringling Brothers Circus. Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park and the Cyclone will run as usual.
Walking the neighborhood with city planners, citizens, architects, developers and ride proprietors gives a glimpse of how they think the area can prosper. Their comments offer a detailed look at why Coney Island real estate, after all is said and done, must not be about money; it must be about people.
Purnima Kapur, Brooklyn city planning director, the architect of the city’s plan along with her staff under the leadership of City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden: “Coney Island needs to be a 21st-century attraction. We want to keep the fantasy, the edginess, the accessibility, and to make it everyone’s playground. How do we do that? By providing a plan that keeps the amusements year round and prominent. Things that are not amusement-related — like housing or residential services — will not be in that area. This is a neighborhood. It needs view corridors to the beach, more entrances to amusements, and jobs. There has been no investment in the neighborhood for three decades. Coney Island is a brand name. If we do not act now, it could be lost forever.”
Yolanda, an executive assistant for a major corporation located near City Hall, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there: “We have to go to Bay Parkway to shop for food. Reality has to set in for the people making decisions. We’re hardworking, middle-class people looking to improve our lives. This was a carnival, and now there’s garbage all over the streets.”
Neil Kittredge, partner and director of planning and urban design, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, lead architect for Taconic Investment Partners, which plans affordable and market condominiums next to KeySpan Park in the area outside the amusement district: “The idea for the entire area hinges on making it relevant year round. The thing that will make a difference for Coney Island development not being generic is the
way [we] integrate the landmarks — the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s and the Shore Theatre. They’re like beads on a string drawing you from one iconic jewel to the next. There’s not another urban plan in the country that has that going for it.”
‘The small business stand’
William Montalvo, owner of Animation Odyssey, a video-game store kitty-corner from Nathan’s and across the street from a vacant plot of land owned by Thor Equities:
“This is not condo land. I want a big hotel right across the street. I want gambling here. This could be a mini-Atlantic City that could end any state tax problems.”
Ashley Karal, 19, who took a 12-hour bus from Ontario, Canada, to New York City to bring her friend to see Coney Island: “I came here last summer, and I can’t get it out of my head. I think people in New York just don’t understand how fantastic a place they have here. So much of it has already been destroyed. To lose more would be careless. It makes me ill. There is something larger happening here that I can’t describe.”
‘On my dime’
Joe Sitt, chairman and CEO, Thor Equities, owner of land the city needs to complete its 27-acre year-round entertainment district: “I grew up just a few miles from Coney, and I can remember what Coney used to mean to all of us. Coney represents more than just a fun place. It’s a part of our history. It’s a part of who we are as Brooklynites, as New Yorkers and as Americans. It’s a place where a working-class family can come and be amazed, maybe even shocked, by some of the wildest entertainment in the world for a reasonable price. Coney is an icon, but for a variety of reasons it has fallen on hard times. When an icon falls on hard times, I think we as Americans have a need to rebuild it and make it better than it ever was, and that’s what I want to do. “We can create more jobs and more revenue for the city [and] rebuild Coney into a 21st-century entertainment mecca on my dime, or we can spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to create a smaller, less successful Coney that acts more like a museum than a vibrant entertainment destination.”
Jobs and housing’
Seth Pinsky, president of New York City Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit agency that operates as the city’s real estate developer: “There are 50,000 people who live in Coney Island. Sixty percent live in public housing. It has two times the unemployment rate than the rest of the city and two times the commute time of other city residents. This rezoning plan will create 25,000 construction jobs, 6,000 permanent jobs and 4,500 housing units without any displacement. The real thing people need to be afraid of is doing nothing. Doing nothing has left us with large vacant pieces of land. By embracing development, good things will come.”
Wonder Wheel owner
Dennis Vourderis, co-owner with his brother Steve of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, watching crowds swarm the park his family has owned for 28 years. He turned down an offer from Sitt two years ago to buy his land: “It’s frustrating, because there are
some things out here that aren’t broken. Like our park. The plan could impact what we’ve worked hard to build and we’re working, so any change happens for the better. The $64,000 question is what will bring people out here all year long. An Applebee’s or a movie theater isn’t going to do it.”
Igor Zagranichny, Russian developer who owns several buildings on Coney Island and built the area’s first upscale condo project with partner Lenny Gelfand: “We sold these out in two days without a
real estate agent. They cost $500,000. We’re the first new condo in the neighborhood.”
‘Coney as necessity’
Doreen Brunson, from Sheepshead Bay, with her daughter: “I come every week for the rides to get my child out of the house. I’m surprised to see so much of it gone this year. Prices are up about $2 from last year, and the rides seem shorter. If this is gone, I don’t know where we’ll go.”
Charisma Watson, 6, Ms. Brunson’s daughter: “I want rockets. Real space ships.”
‘The market will dictate’
Charles Bendit, CEO Taconic Investment Partners, owners of two large lots and the Childs Building: “This is the only opportunity in the country to build a waterfront amusement park near usable beach. That makes for a great place to live, and we can do housing on our land.
I think the city’s plan will pass. What we build is based on the economy, but we think affordable housing for the middle class will stimulate growth and be an economic engine for the area and city. If we get an express train there, this should be New York’s top draw.”
by Jason Sheftell