City and Developer Spar Over Coney Island Visions
Coney Island was once known as the world’s largest playground, where millions of working- and middle-class New Yorkers prowled an anarchic, pulsating bazaar of bathhouses, freak shows, dance halls, carousels, roller coasters, chop suey parlors, hotels, hot dog stands and game booths tightly packed across two miles of beachfront.
But that was more than 45 years ago.
In the latest in a long line of efforts to revamp or revive the onetime resort, the Bloomberg administration recently introduced its plan to develop a year-round amusement and entertainment destination, with a special 9.4-acre amusement district, as well as new housing, shops and parks. And in keeping with the waterfront’s contentious history, a prominent civic organization and a developer, who has spent over $100 million buying up property in the area, have put forward competing visions of how to best preserve the soul and mythology of Coney Island.
The civic group, the Municipal Art Society, contends that the Bloomberg administration’s plan must be bigger and bolder to be successful, with three times as much land dedicated solely to outlandish amusements and an “eye-popping” attraction akin to the London Eye, a 443-foot high Ferris wheel.
“Coney Island will only be successful if we think big enough, with enough space for outdoor amusements to accommodate the potential attendance and to create a true economic engine,” said Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society, who estimated that Coney Island could attract 3.4 million New Yorkers and tourists a year.
The developer, Joseph J. Sitt, whose own plan owes more to Disney World than to Coney Island’s tradition of inexpensive amusements, argues that both the city and civic proposals are “seriously flawed” and doomed. In order to be economically viable, he says, there need to be time-share hotels and large retail shops, which would be banned under the city’s zoning proposal.
“We want to create a 21st-century Coney Island,” said Jesse Masyr, a real-estate lawyer who represents Mr. Sitt. “We don’t believe it’s economically viable because of the restrictions imposed on development in the district.”
Mr. Sitt, who has wrestled with city officials over his plans for several years, has tried to put pressure on the Bloomberg administration by vowing to buy more land in the area and ousting some of his tenants, including Astroland amusement park, adding to the desolate and vacant lots on the waterfront.
The issues are only further complicated by the recession, sharply declining retail sales and the inability to get financing for any project, regardless of who the developer is. Many residents of Coney Island are more concerned with affordable housing, jobs and attracting grocery stores to the area than the nuances of rebuilding the amusement district, although no one wants it to close down. The beaches, a minor league ballpark and what’s left of the amusements still attract millions of summer visitors.
“We hope that there’ll be some sort of marriage of convenience so we don’t lose any summers, especially now with a depression, when more people may choose to come to Coney Island,” said Chuck Reichenthal, district manager for Community Board 13.
The city is pressing forward, expecting that Mr. Sitt will ultimately yield or sell his land. “The city’s plan will set the stage for the restoration of Coney Island’s world-renowned vibrancy,” said Robert C. Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development. The art society “has some compelling concepts that we are open to, but it’s also important to make sure that the final plan is economically feasible and is integrated with the Coney Island community.”
The Coney Island that is lodged in the public imagination dates back 100 years to a time when the playground spilled across more than 60 acres, with sandy beaches and three separate amusement parks: Dreamland, the most opulent; Luna Park, a blur of minarets, spires and swirling fountains; and Steeplechase Park. It is where some historians say the hot dog, the roller coaster and indoor amusements were invented.But Coney Island declined rapidly after World War II, and the last of the great amusement parks, Steeplechase, closed in 1964. Over the decades, Robert Moses sought to demolish the remaining amusements, while the developer Fred Trump tried to build apartment towers along the boardwalk.
Today, the amusement district is a shrunken five acres with only the skeletal remains of Coney Island’s heyday: the 270-foot high Parachute Jump, the Cyclone roller coaster, the Wonder Wheel — all three are official city landmarks — and Nathan’s hot dog stand. Gone are the Thunderbolt, Mile Sky Chaser, Loop-o-Plane, the Half Moon Hotel and Feltman’s restaurant.
After years of study and many public meetings, the Bloomberg administration introduced its plan last month calling for a special L-shaped 9.4-acre amusement district, along the boardwalk south of Surf Avenue, between KeySpan Park and the New York Aquarium. The zoning also provides for indoor arcades, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, theaters, laser games, breweries, bicycle shops, restaurants, gift shops and spas just to the north of the special district, as well as hotels on the south side of Surf Avenue, which parallels the waterfront.
Viewed as incompatible, apartment buildings are banned from the amusement district, but up to 5,000 units, including 900 set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants, can be built on the north side of Surf Avenue and west of the ballpark. The city also plans to upgrade the aquarium and build a new park to the west of Steeplechase Plaza.
The city’s plan entails buying the land for a permanent amusement park from local owners, including about half of Mr. Sitt’s 10 acres. Although city officials have said that they will not resort to eminent domain, the text of the proposal states that “the land could be acquired by condemnation.” The parkland west of the ballpark would, in turn, be converted to developable land.
The city’s differences with Mr. Sitt and the art society revolve not around whether to preserve Coney Island’s unique character, but around how big the amusement district should be and what uses should be allowed.
The art society concluded that at least 25 acres should be devoted exclusively to amusements, enough room for a half-dozen major rides and an iconic attraction, in order to create a district that would attract 3.5 million visitors and become an economic engine for the city.
The art society recommends that hotels and housing be built on the north side of Surf Avenue, but not in the amusement district south of Surf Avenue. In order to underwrite the costs, they say that there could be the kind of lucrative signage and corporate sponsorship deals that generate $63 million a year at the L.A. Live entertainment complex in Los Angeles. In the meantime, they say the city should hire an impresario and develop concerts, live theater and rides until developers are selected for the project.
The city views the art society’s recommendations as financially impractical, as do Mr. Sitt and even some longtime vendors in Coney Island. They cite the $300 million theme park, Hard Rock Park, which went bankrupt last year, nine months after opening in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“The city’s plan practically doubles what we have now,” said Dennis Vourderis, who together with his brother, Steven, owns the one-acre Deno’s Amusement Park, consisting of 22 rides including the Wonder Wheel. “Based on a 100-day operating season, it’s tough to recoup the cost of these rides.”
Mr. Sitt has developed a $1.5 billion plan to revive the amusement district with high-tech rides, a glass-enclosed water park, arcades, restaurants, a shopping mall and now time-share hotels, instead of apartment towers. He has argued that time-shares and big-box retailers would help underwrite the cost of the amusements.
City officials counter that the commercial and residential development would soon overwhelm the amusements.
The two sides have been at loggerheads for over two years. Mr. Sitt had planned on waiting for Mr. Bloomberg to leave office. But after the mayor announced his bid for a third term, Mr. Sitt began negotiating with the city over a possible deal. The talks foundered around Thanksgiving.
The fear is that ultimately little or nothing will happen on Coney Island.“We might be looking at vacant lots for a long time to come,” said Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project. “Everybody’s broke. These massive plans, these visions, don’t usually work. But I hope for the best.”