Coney's New Big Top

Grimshaw has designed a new amphitheater as part of the Coney Center.
Courtesy Grimshaw

It has been rough sailing out at Coney Island of late, with the destruction of Astroland last winter and simmering tensions about the city’s rezoning proposal. But good news has started to trickle in this week, with the announcement Monday that $15 million in stimulus money would go toward replacing parts of the decaying boardwalk. That was followed yesterday by word of the possible creation of an “interim” amusement park next year so the summer escape will not be a total wasteland when the city rebuilds it.

And now comes the biggest show by the sea since Dreamland burned down, the new Coney Center, a $47 million amphitheater designed by Grimshaw. The project will replace a 1980s bandshell located in Asser Levy Park with a new 8,000-seat entertainment complex meant to attract marquee acts. Capping it all is a swooping, 60,000-square-foot roof in the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid—picture a massive Pringles potato chip, but made of steel and translucent fiberglass, supercharged by hundreds of strobing stage lights.

Mark Husser, the partner-in-charge, sees the theater as the latest in a long line of Coney icons, both historic and geographic: the Parachute Jump, Keyspan Park, the defunct Elephant Hotel, the Cyclone, and now Coney Center. “What is the context of Coney Island? It’s that there is no context,” Husser said. “Everything is unique, everything is a spectacle, but in that uniqueness, Coney’s icons find unity.”


The roof took the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid that helped keep weight—and thus costs—down.

Borough President Marty Markowitz first announced the “state-of-the-art recreation facility” in his 2007 State of the Borough address, with the intention of competing with the other summer concert venues in the area, like Jones Beach and Westbury. While smaller than some of its rivals—the former holds 18,000—the real attraction is new amenities, such as green rooms, of which there are currently none, and a better sound and lighting system, not to mention the appeal of Coney Island itself and its proximity to the city.

And while amenities and location are nice, the real hallmark of Coney Center is its shimmering roof. Husser said the shape was chosen for a number of reasons, mainly the lightness of its structure. “It’s like a bicycle wheel with a massive steel rim and a ring at the middle for a hub,” he explained. “It’s a much lighter structure than one operated by trusses.” By bending the roof, it provides its own tension and thus requires less structure, which means less weight and less cost. The shape also helps minimize noise to adjacent housing and keep out the rain. The peaked end at the east side also achieves one of the project’s other main goals: to create a new gateway for Coney Island on perhaps its most common point of entry, Ocean Parkway. (Far more people drive to the area each year than ride the subway.)

At one point, the designers had considered a retractable roof, but a number of issues prevented its inclusion. First, the cost of construction and maintenance would have been considerable, especially given the corrosive seaside air. But more importantly, Coney Center is intended as a year-round facility: During the off-season, the 5,000 fixed seats beneath the canopy will be removed and replaced with an ice-skating rink.

The amphitheater has seating for 8,000 and is intended to draw bigger acts to the Coney Island shore.

Beyond the amphitheater, Grimshaw is also redesigning the playground that currently sits in the park, both to modernize it and because it is located on the footprint of the new and expanded back-of-the-house. Working with landscape architects Mathews Nielsen, the designers have created an elevated climbing structure that wends its way up, down, and around trees. The idea is to disrupt as few trees as possible while also creating a structure that recalls the nearby roller coaster. The team will also refurbish the popular handball courts across Surf Avenue.

Through a spokesperson, Markowitz praised the park as the latest step in the revitalization of Coney Island. “Replacing Asser Levy’s antiquated band shell with a state-of-the-art one will ensure that free community programming—it was used for 45 different community events last year—remains in Coney Island,” he said. “Moreover, it will be a key component of a revitalized Coney Island for the community and visitors in the days ahead.”

The project has come under some fire from locals who have complained about the possibility of increased noise and crowds, as well as the fact that some concerts will be paid, instead of free. But both the borough president and the designers counter that money generated from paid shows will go to putting on more free ones. “It’s win-win for the community and the city,” Husser said.

Construction is due to begin at the end of this summer’s concert searon, and the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2011.

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