News
09.05.2007
Coney Island Drum Roll
With zoning change pending, caution amid speculation

All summer long, rumors have swirled around the future redevelopment of Coney Island, generating an atmosphere nearly as carnivalesque as the boardwalk itself: anonymous media reports of city officials’ intentions, tea-leaf readings of ambiguous signals, alarmist claims that Coney is shutting down. Change is coming, but it’s not yet clear in what form.

Coney Island is New York City’s only C7 zone, a special amusement-park category that bans residences, restricts commercial uses, and limits Floor-Area Ratios to 2.0. However, developer Thor Equities saw massive potential for hotels, timeshares, and other new features in the area should the zoning change. Thor purchased 10 acres (over half the amusement zone), hired a design team, and started to float the plan to the public. They may have jumped the gun: The inevitable battles under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure await the Department of City Planning’s revision of the C7 requirements, serially rescheduled and still under wraps. DCP press secretary Rachaele Raynoff said that no date has been set; Charles Reichenthal of the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) and Community Board 13 anticipates an announcement by early September.

Thor’s plans and the CIDC’s 2005 strategic plan clash on key points. Adding housing to a C7 district, for example, is unlikely; DCP chair Amanda Burden has stated flatly that residences and amusements are incompatible. Whatever ultimately gets built inside or outside the zone, “We’re still going to be here,” said sideshow proprietor Dick Zigun, founder of the arts and preservation organization Coney Island USA. “If you come to the neighborhood and you want something sleazy, we’ll provide it.”

The developer faces accusations of warehousing, flipping, Vegasification, and worse. Chief executive Joseph Sitt has evinced a talent for attracting opposition; speculation about his aims has overshadowed attention to the designs by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (buildings) and Thinkwell (amusements). Since removing condos from his plan at a June 26 community meeting, Sitt has lowered his public profile. Thor representatives were unavailable for comment for this story.

Citing historic assaults on Coney by Robert Moses, Fred Trump, and others, Zigun sees a classic battle between a speculator’s potential gain and civic resistance to homogenization of “the people’s paradise.” “It’s astonishing,” he said, “how developers still don’t realize it’s more sophisticated to mix old architecture that’s still worth preserving and rehabilitating together with new buildings, creating a sense of culture and continuity.” While working to preserve Coney’s freaky grit, CIDC member Zigun disavows any public position for or against Thor.

All parties regard the “Coney Island’s last season” meme as mythical. Parks Department attendance estimates are around 14-15 million people per year, up from 3-5 milliontwodecades ago;most key businesses have no intention of closing.

What may be in its final season is Astroland. Operator Carol Albert sold the property to Thor in 2006, leasing it back annually, but a 2008 renewal lease remains under negotiation. After listing her rides with Nashville-based amusement broker Ital International, she took them off the market in August; though the unmistakable Astrotower remains among Ital’s offerings at this writing, chief manager Carlo Guglielmi confirmed that sales of Astroland equipment are “suspended until further notice.” Albert’s representative Joseph Carella explained that Thor has informally given her a steep rent increase—roughly 15 times the current payment.

Dennis Vourderis, whose family is the owner/operator of Deno’s Wonder Wheel and has seen plans come and go over four decades, advised that any developer should consider local expertise, economics, and values,avoiding chain-amusement practices. “If you outprice yourself, you’ll be closed,” he said. “What works here may not work anywhere else, and what works somewhere else may not work here.” Outsiders brought in by city officials, he noted, were partly responsible for closures and blight in previous decades, a precedent he hopes Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will avoid. “The city’s track record—not the current administration, but previous ones—is not any better than Thor’s,” he said. “Not to cause animosity, but at least Thor has a concrete plan.”

Still, any Coney Island veteran develops a skeptical streak. “Until we see shovels in the ground and rides starting to be built,” Vourderis said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Bill Millard