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Times Square By The Sea?
Ideas charrette for Coney Island's future yields vision of year-round entertainment district
The MAS sees a vibrant future for Surf Avenue, including plenty of new digital signage.
Courtesy MAS

If the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and the Department of City Planning don’t see eye to eye on Coney Island’s future, both agree action is urgent. “If we wait much longer,” warned MAS president Kent Barwick, “we could lose Coney Island forever.”

He was addressing a standing-room-only crowd at the BAMCafe on November 17, which had gathered to see the results of “Imagine Coney,” the MAS’s recent series of public brainstorming charrettes for the neighborhood, whose future has been in flux for the last several years. Excitement in the crowd ran high, buoyed by that day’s news that developer Joe Sitt had agreed to sell his 10.5 acres at the heart of Coney Island to the city instead of turning it into an entertainment and shopping complex.

Of course, just because the city might soon own more of Coney Island doesn’t mean they will follow the MAS’s recommendations. As Barwick readily acknowledged, “We’re not the ones with the power here.” But the purpose of their “Imagine Coney” campaign was to convince the city that Coney Island can regain its former glory, given the right strategy and initial investment—and that such a feat will require more than the nine acres the city has currently set aside for an amusement district.

As a first step, the MAS’s charrette team, which includes architect Will Alsop, landscape architect Margie Ruddick, stage designers, and entertainment developers, advocated an overhaul of Coney Island’s image to start attracting investment right away. “We must send a clear message to the world that Coney Island is back, and get people going there this summer,” Barwick said. To that end, the team suggested turning Coney’s biggest weakness—its desolate empty lots—into a strength by filling them as soon as possible with programming like parades, ethnic festivals, and graffiti contests.

Looking further into the future, the team all agreed that Coney Island needed “a very iconic, unique new ride” that would become its defining symbol. They envisioned a fantastical cable-car line connecting all the district’s various destinations with a wavelike retractable roof for year-round use. On ground level, the team sees the area becoming a “main stage” for New York, kept alive with performances and larger-than-life festivals, including the traditional hot-dog-eating contests and Mermaid Parade (“Dial those up!” enthused entertainment developer David Malmuth). All of this programming would occur amid an “electric city” of buildings covered in digital skins that could change their appearance instantly so that Coney Island could resemble Venice one day and Marrakech the next.

Creating a destination like that “can’t be done with nine acres. Minimally, you need 25 acres,” said Malmuth. But won’t the city lose money? No, he insisted, and pointed to the example of Times Square, where renovating historic theaters boosted surrounding property values and helped earn back the city’s initial investment many times over in taxes. “No one believed in Times Square, but everything that happened there can happen here as well,” he said.

Though they never said so explicitly, the charrette team seemed to be looking to Times Square not just for economic inspiration, but aesthetic as well. Malmuth envisioned the park attracting “significant signage and sponsorship.” And just as Times Square revels in its flashy signs, the team didn’t seem to view them as a negative for Coney Island, either. Malmuth reminded the audience that “Coney Island has never been shy about being commercial.” One architect on the team argued, “When you add, add, add [signage], eventually you reach a point where it’s poetry.” The public may not be persuaded, judging from the audience members who lamented what they found to be a lack of Coney Island’s historic spirit in the renderings.

Of course, as the MAS reminded the audience, the results of their charrettes are just the beginning of the discussion about the new Coney Island. But they are intent on not letting that discussion founder. “If there’s one thing New York suffers from, it’s announcing grand plans, and then years go by and nothing happens,” said Barwick. And just as crowds flocked to Coney Island during the Depression, reviving the “People’s Beach” will be all the more important now that times are tight.

Julia Galef