Off the Tracks on Coney Island

800px-Coney_Island_beach_and_boardwalk_scenes.jpgI continue to work through my “to-read” pile. Most recently, it was “Coney Island’s Bumpy Ride”, by Eric Wills, in the July/August 2007 Preservation magazine.

In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other city officials, created the not-for-profit Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) and appropriated $85 million for renovation of the neighborhood. Thor Equities, a for-profit real estate development company, responded by buying up three-fourths of the available land, with plans to build condos, even though the land is not zoned for residential uses.

During its golden age, in the late 19th century, Coney Island was the most famous amusement park in the country, maybe the world. In a time of widespread, and perhaps more convenient, electronic entertainments, Coney Island has fallen on hard times. Some people view the condos as economic salvation, others view them as the death knell of one of the last vestiges of old, and real, New York. The go-cart and mini-golf courses have already been cleared away by Thor Equities. Astroland was slated to be next, after the 2007 season.

Although it’s had a colorful past, brothels, gambling dens and crooked real estate deals earned the area the title “Sodom by the Sea”, Coney Island was a place of great innovation. In 1867, the hot dog was invented there, in 1884, it was the roller coaster, and, in 1895, the first enclosed amusement park, featuring a water slide and artificial lagoon, opened. It was also a place of great popularity; 20 million people visited during each season.

No one disagrees that this 150 year-old model is no longer working. The CIDC’s strategic plan is to make Coney Island a year-round destination by attracting restaurants and retail to the amusement core. The CIDC supports rezoning areas on the fringes for housing. Thor Equities, however, argues that residential construction in the heart of the amusement district is necessary for financial feasibility.

Critics of Thor’s plan contend that the approach of completely razing and rebuilding threatens the essential sense of place of the community. Author Charles Denson puts it this way, “this is the last place where you can come down and see this kind of funkiness and spirit”. He continues, “it’s kind of anarchy really”. The kind of anarchy that gave us hot dogs, roller coasters and water slides.

The President of the CIDC, Lynn Kelly, seems to agree. Small, unique businesses she says, “keep Coney Island authentic” and give it its “charm and sassiness”. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz also has concerns about Thor’s plans. “I don’t mind seeing a hotel, trade center, convention center, things like that, but if we allow housing in the heart of the amusement area, what’s going to happen, clearly, is that the residential section will grow, amusements will decrease, and Coney Island will be gone”.

Thor Equities has already made substantial financial commitments to their plan. They clearly feel that at least some people led them to believe that their was political support for their vision.

The conclusion that I drew from this controversial situation is that development plans need to be clear from the very beginning. Municipalities need to define the acceptable land uses in the master development plan before proceeding with financing and construction. Furthermore, decision-makers need to understand the financial feasibility, including the assumptions, estimated costs and expected returns, of the big picture before giving approval to individual projects or phases.

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