Dominic Recchia, a City Council member from south Brooklyn, has opposed the Bloomberg administration’s redevelopment plan for Coney Island since before it was unveiled a year-and-a-half ago, becoming a major obstacle to the city’s long-running bid to revive his district's oceanfront amusement park.
So when Recchia suddenly endorsed a plan today that had but a few minor differences with the city’s original proposal, it signaled not only that Coney Island may finally be saved from an uncertain future, but also that the developer who owns an important swath of land in the area—and a major Recchia ally—may be on the verge of striking a deal with the city.
“It’s impossible to make everyone 100 percent happy,” Recchia said at a special meeting of the council’s land-use committee this afternoon. “But this plan makes everyone happy enough that we can move forward.” The committee voted in favor of the amended plan 13-2, with a vote before the full council due next Wednesday.
The councilmember's about-face offers fresh hope for the city's rezoning plan, which aims to remedy one of the major problems facing Coney Island: The area is largely dormant outside of the summer, when the amusement park shuts down. In addition to creating indoor amusement spaces for year-round activity and employment, the city’s plan endeavors to revive the area with new housing—some 4,500 units—and a series of hotels. The plan would preserve the outdoor amusement traditionally associated with Coney Island on a nine-acre strip of land along the boardwalk stretching from the Cyclone to KeySpan Park.
The problem is that developer Joe Sitt owns 10.5 acres of land in the area, much of it along the boardwalk, and he would rather develop it as highrise towers, as opposed to the city’s plan to place such development to the north and east of the current amusement district. The city has offered to either trade land with Sitt or buy him out, most recently in June for $105 million. But the developer has held out for his original asking price of $165 million, even telling the Post he was through negotiating. That could all change, given Recchia’s new-found support for the city’s plan, as some local activists suggested today.
“Why would Recchia give up his bargaining position if a deal hadn’t been struck?” Juan Rivero, spokesman for Save Coney Island, said after the vote. Andrew Brent, a Bloomberg spokesperson, wrote in an email that there is “no such deal,” though he added, “Important to point out that it's not a done deal until the full council votes.” And Stefan Friedman, a spokesperson for Sitt’s Thor Equities, said, “Thor is currently in talks with the city and expects these negotiations to continue until the full council votes on the rezoning.” Even if a deal has not already been struck, that Thor is back at the table is a promising sign for an eventual agreement.
Any such deal could also end up improving the amusement area, as it would make way for additional open-air amusements along the boardwalk on the three blocks west of KeySpan, something amusement advocates have been clamoring for. Recchia said he would continue to fight for this change, the implication being that with Sitt no longer a factor, and thus less demand for luxury development in the district, the city might return to its earliest proposals, which called for 15 acres of open-air amusements on both sides of KeySpan. The current plan, by contrast, calls for housing to the west.
The other issue vexing advocates is four 15-story hotel parcels proposed for the south side of Surf Avenue within the new amusement district. Recchia said that despite his best efforts, he could not negotiate them out of the plan.
Advocates feared that if the district were too small or too overpowered by its outsized neighbors, it would continue to struggle. If all goes as currently laid out by Recchia, then, the result could be a wash.
“I’m a pragmatist,” said Dick Zigun, the founder of Coney Island U.S.A. “I realize if there’s the opportunity to save even one building or change one block, I’ll take it.” But Juan Rivera, of Save Coney Island, said the amusements "continue to be ignored."
The one noticeable, though arguably cosmetic, adjustment to the city’s plan touted by Recchia today was removing part of the proposed Wonder Wheel Way. A new street that would bisect the amusement area, Wonder Wheel Way is intended to create improved frontage for the new indoor amusements, which run the gamut from arcades to bowling alleys to retail stores.
Because of concern from the family that operates the Wonder Wheel and adjoining Dino’s amusement park, the block of the proposed roadway between West 10th and West 12th streets will be removed, though it will continue from West 12th to West 16th streets. But because Dino’s has agreed to make that space a pedestrian throughway, the city’s plan is largely intact, though it could potentially allow for large-scale development in the future.
Beyond this minor change to the plan itself, Recchia did receive some additional concessions from the city: The administration has committed to increasing the inclusionary housing bonus for affordable housing from 20 percent of units to 35 percent, meaning residential developers seeking additional bulk in their projects would have to make a greater percentage of units affordable.
A commitment has also been made to use union labor both in the construction and operation of the amusements, hotels, shops, and apartment buildings that will populate the new district. Both changes were sought in a last minute push by Coney Island for All, a coalition of labor unions and housing advocates, and while the group sees them as an improvement, it would like to see more housing and job security. “There’s been progress made, but we have to stay vigilant,” Kristi Barnes, a representative for the group, said after the vote.
Recchia also negotiated improvements to the surrounding area's troubled infrastructure—sewage overflows during storms and streets strewn with potholes—as well as money for the expansion of the local hospital and school to accommodate an influx of new residents. Money has also been promised for a new ice-skating rink and renovation of a nearby park.
“By the end of the day on July 29, everyone will be happy,” Recchia said.