News
12.05.2007
Wonder Wheels at Work
Parkland swap to revive Coney Island
Courtesy Coney Island Development Corporation

There may be light at the end of the long dark ride for Coney Island after all. For Joseph Sitt, of developer Thor Equities, it's no tunnel of love, but at least he hasn't been ejected from the Cyclone at top speed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's announcement of the new Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) rezoning plan on November 8 put to rest local residents' concerns that a high-priced private complex would turn Stillwell Avenue into Vegas East. Dividing a 19-block, 47-acre district into three differently zoned segments, the CIDC aims to foster new residential and retail development in two areas further removed from the current Astroland and other attractions, and, in the Mayor's words, "to preserve the world's most famous urban amusement park in perpetuity" by mapping it as city parkland managed by a single specialist developer. In return, by de-mapping a site officially identified as parkland—but currently used only by Cyclones baseball fans as a parking lot for Keyspan Park—the city would give developers incentives to create a thriving new mixed-use neighborhood with connections to the boardwalk and the beach.

The proposal is essentially a land swap, with the public sector offering the property near the ballpark plus a negotiated subsidy that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff estimated at probably tens of millions of dollars to obtain the land owned by Thor as part of a projected $1.5 billion investment. Mapping the Coney East amusement area (West Eighth to West 19th streets between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk) as parkland makes it harder for Thor simply to warehouse its holdings, wait for a successor administration that might favor its scheme, and lobby for zoning changes that would allow Sitt's complex to go forward. Should Thor hold onto its parcels (or flip them) instead of taking the city's offer, zoning will remain at its current C7 level, offering little incentive for construction. "The value that he will be offered [in Coney West] will be substantially greater than that," said Doctoroff, asserting that this win-win scenario should obviate eminent-domain proceedings. "One assumes," commented the mayor, "that Mr. Sitt is rational."

Instead of Thor's plan—visionary in its way, but unpopular with local business owners, community groups, and city officials alike—the CIDC plan preserves what planning chair Amanda Burden called the essence of Coney Island: "It has to be open, accessible, and affordable." Under the new plan, Coney would feature year-round, all-weather attractions such as water rides and a modern ice rink; an open-air performance space; a high-speed roller coaster winding through the district (echoing early designs executed for Thor by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn and Thinkwell); and some 4,500 new apartments, 20 percent of them affordable. High-rises will be allowed outside Coney East, with height limits respecting the Parachute Jump. Changing what Bloomberg repeatedly called "outdated zoning" will allow 100,000 square feet of new retail space in Coney North (bounded by West 20th Street and Stillwell, Mermaid, and Surf avenues) and 360,000 square feet in Coney West (south of Surf to the boardwalk, between West 19th and West 24th). Upzoning along Surf will create an additional million square feet of new entertainment-related retail, including hotels and restaurants. Noting that C7 zoning bans sit-down dining in Coney East, Bloomberg commented that after all these years, "Nathan's would like some company." Parking for Keyspan Park will be integrated and a new street network will replace superblocks, enhancing sightlines and beach access. Overall, Bloomberg projects $2.5 billion in private investment in Coney over the next decade, creating 3,000 permanent jobs and 20,000 construction jobs over 30 years.

The mayor's projections for Coney East remained cautiously hypothetical. Along with Doctoroff, Burden, and assorted commentators, he acknowledges the need for substantial work before new features begin to appear. The city needs to consult with the community about details of the RFP; select a master developer with amusement expertise; negotiate terms with Thor and other landowners, possibly integrating some existing attractions into the park; undergo ULURP; obtain state approval to demap Coney West; and explore mass transit options to handle the residential influx. Not surprisingly, Bloomberg stressed the value of his congestion pricing plan as a feasible funding source. DCP's timetable sets an initial public scoping meeting for January 2008 and projects a complete ULURP by summer 2009. Bloomberg expressed a wish to have developers begin work before he leaves office in 2009 and estimated an end date ten years away.

Community Board 13's Chuck Reichenthal says the plan is "pretty damn close to what we initially had worked out with the [2005] Strategic Plan. It's open; it's still a people's playground." Phil DePaolo, however, a community organizer working with the Save Coney Island group, expressed concern over just how affordable the district will remain, both in the amusements and in residential areas. Affordable housing may be little help to many, he says, if it is based on citywide rather than local Area Median Income. The new Coney is likely to spur displacement in as-of-right areas just outside the new zones. "Three blocks over, there are no rules, so that's where [gentrifying developers] are going to go," DePaolo observed. "Once you put density in an area, the city tends to allow the density to expand. The city grants variances like water. These are all the trickle-down mechanisms that people don't look at; they just say, 'Oh, good, no towers on the boardwalk.'"

Meanwhile, Coney Island USA's Dick Zigun, the seersucker-suited "Mayor of Coney Island," is still feeling optimistic these days, calling the plan brave and visionary.

Bill Millard