Locals Fear City Will Destroy Coney Island In Order To Save It
Its ass is Gras? The Grashorn Building, dating to the 1880s, could be replaced by a 30-story hotel.
When the city Economic Development Corporation announced last week--via a New York Times article by Charles Bagli--that it was revamping its years-in-the-works rezoning plans for Coney Island, much was still unclear about the details, beyond that the zone reserved for outdoor rides would shrink (from 15 acres to 9) and more buildings would be allowed in the traditional amusement district between the Cyclone and Nathan's.
A week later, Coney denizens have started to get more details on the EDC plan--and several now worry that the city is preparing to destroy Coney Island in order to save it.
"Things were looking so good in Coney Island about a month ago," says Dianna Carlin, owner of the boardwalk-side Lola Staar Boutique and founder of Save Coney Island, who was briefed by city officials on the revised plan earlier this week. "I had such a positive attitude for the summer--now things are looking somewhat dismal. It seems as though they're compromising their goal of preserving the amusement district."
The amusement district--the traditional rides and carny games that have defined Coney Island for more than a century--was the centerpiece of the the rezoning plan the city released last November. As it was announced then, the entire area between the boardwalk and the Bowery (the pedestrian walk that runs behind Surf Avenue) would be designated as city parkland, with only outdoor amusements allowed there. (Landowners wouldn't be forced to sell, explained CIDC president Lynn Kelly, but if they chose not to, they'd be stuck with the current C7 zoning, which allows only amusement uses anyway.) And while the plan allowed for new apartment towers and stores, it mostly relegated them to the north and west of Keyspan Park--easing worries that the onetime mile-long stretch of amusements would dwindle to a handful of blocks.
In the latest plan, according to conversations with EDC officials and those who've gotten city briefings, the balance has shifted--though how much depends on who's doing the talking. Now, a new street would be created running roughly from the current site of the Astrotower to the Parachute Jump; between it and the boardwalk still would be reserved for outdoor amusements, but north of there would be opened to new low-rise buildings for "entertainment retail" uses. Meanwhile, the three-block stretch of Surf Avenue immediately west of the Cyclone--most of which has been snapped up by developer and would-be condo builder Joe Sitt, including the Grashorn Building, Coney's oldest surviving structure--would be opened up for hotel towers as tall as 30 stories.
Coney Island historian Charles Denson was shocked to hear, in a phone call the night before the Times piece ran, that the city was switching gears. "The original plan was a compromise, and I supported that completely," says Denson. "In exchange for saving the amusement area, they were allowing 5,000 condos at the outer edge. Now it's such a reversal--although it does preserve a small amusement area, it's so completely different from what they'd initially proposed that you have to wonder what's going on behind the scenes."
Meanwhile, even those who've been granted sitdowns with city officials haven't been able to suss out precisely what such terms like "entertainment retail" would include--EDC staffers have stressed indoor rides that could draw visitors in bad weather, but there have also been dark murmurs of a Dave and Buster's or even a Niketown. "Are we talking about a mall with a merry-go-round in the corner? Or are we talking about an amusement park with a gift shop?" wonders Carlin; she says she asked EDC project manager Nate Bliss and Brooklyn city planning chief Purnima Kapur, but they "couldn't give me an answer." (City officials said they couldn't yet provide specific details of what would be allowable uses under the new zoning.)
Other locals who are still awaiting their meetings with the city are more circumspect, for now. Dennis Vourderis, co-owner of Denos Wonder Wheel Park (part of which would be opened for development under the new plan) calls the new plan "a step in the right direction" but is still concerned about the city's declared intention to seize the Wonder Wheel and adjacent kiddie park and turn it over to a city-licensed operator. Astroland operator Carol Hill Albert, while saying she's glad that "long-term" landowners will get dealt in on development rights, says it's "crushingly disappointing" to see the 15-acre amusement zone whittled to 9 acres. Sideshows by the Seashore artistic director Dick Zigun, meanwhile, says he "obviously has questions" and is "withholding comment or support" until he gets further details--which he's hoping will emerge when he gets his turn with EDC honchos today.
Meanwhile, the big question in everyone's minds is: Why now? The city's change of pace was so abrupt that CIDC president Lynn Kelly, who has been the public face of the rezoning plan, was on vacation in Europe when the announcement was made-- not that that stopped EDC from sending out a press release in her name last Thursday, citing that day's Times article and assuring Coneyfolk that the changes represented mere "modest adjustments" to the zoning framework.
One theory, promulgated by the New York Observer, credits Coney councilman Domenic Recchia for forcing the city to scale back its plans. (Recchia is on vacation this week; his spokesperson Rob Hart said the councilmember is "optimistic" that the new plan is closer to "striking a balance between the needs of the city and making sure the landowners" are satisfied.) Yet Recchia--who called Joe Sitt a "good friend" at a March forum on the future of Coney--has been a critic of the city's plan from the start. Unless the EDC thought it had misplayed its hand--or Recchia performed some unrevealed feat of horse-trading in the interim-- it's unclear what changed between last November's bold city pronouncement and last week's backtracking.
"Something happened," concludes Carlin. "There's definitely some pressure from somebody. There was a sense of urgency. They kept saying these desperate things, like 'This is as good as it's going to get, and if we don't get this to happen, we're not going to get anything."
And if it just comes down to a rush to get a Coney rezoning done before Mayor Bloomberg's City Hall countdown clock hits zero, Carlin hopes the city reconsiders. "Once these 30-story buildings go up," she says, "they're not coming down."
UPDATE: This story was updated at 4:15 to reflect a statement from the EDC.