Friday, May 29, 2009

Today’s State Senate Hearings on Atlantic Yards and Noticing New York Testimony

We were prepared to testify at the state Senate hearings on Atlantic Yards which Senator Bill Perkins was holding at Pratt. We were called by the senator’s office the night be before to inform us that we might, or might not, be called upon to testify; they knew they were going to have a very full afternoon. We didn’t supply oral testimony but this will supply you with the written testimony we turned in.

Some Manufactured Chaos Delivering Disrespect at the Hearing

To say that the hearings were chaotic would be an understatement. As commented upon at the hearing’s conclusion, much of it was characterized by people who attended (including two senators, Carl Kruger and Marty Golden, who sort of crashed the event) for the purpose of intentionally showing disrespect to the proceedings and who exhibited open hostility toward any legislative inquisitiveness about the vast resources going into Atlantic Yards or about what Forest City Ratner is expected to produce in return. This meant that throughout much of the afternoon men dressed like construction workers with hard hats and red mesh Day-Glo caution vests were standing up to shout and use steel whistles to drown out and/or indicate their opinion on what was happening.

Senator Perkins did not ask security to enforce order and the disruptions were tolerated except for an occasional request for more respect or to tone things down.

Construction Workers Really BUILD?

While the men looked like construction workers it may be that, rather than being supplied by the unions as so often happens, they were instead supplied by BUILD, the Ratner-created and financially supported Astroturf organization.* The best indication of this was that while there were several people who spoke on favor of proceeding with Atlantic Yards (or whatever the megaproject turns out to be), the caution-vested fellows where particularly emphatic about applauding the testimony of two individuals testifying who were actually from BUILD. The hard-hatted men were apparently on the clock. We noted that when one of their number inquired of someone else who seemed to be in charge whether it would be OK to leave, the other responded by holding up five fingers. From this we interpreted that they were committed to stay until 5:00 PM. That assessment seemed to be spot on when, at two minutes of 5:00, the entire group stood up and then exited the doors at exactly 5:00.
(* We can speak only in terms of what we saw INSIDE the building. We were let in the back door by Pratt University staff because they told us hard-hat demonstrators were blocking proper access through the front. When we arrived we wound up in one of the two overflow rooms, even though we possibly testifying, because the main auditorium had been packed with the hard hats. Somewhat later, when things thinned out we were invited into the main auditorium.)
A brief meeting of some of the members of this group outside the auditorium doors ensued, after which a few of them straggled back in, but after that it was considerably more quiet.

Trick Question

At one point earlier on we asked one of these men whether he didn’t think that, if so much effort had not gone into piling so many resources and so much benefit onto this single Ratner project, the public resources would have been distributed amongst a lot of projects throughout Brooklyn (including building in the Atlantic Yards/Vanderbilt Yards area) that would already be happening and providing good jobs. He was starting to agree that a huge amount of benefit was being piled onto Ratne,r saying something like “cause he’s the guy who got it” and then when he heard me use the word “disproportionate” halted himself and said that I shouldn’t be asking trick questions and that it wasn’t fair to be recording what he was saying.

Piling Extra Benefit on Ratner Vs. Taking the Project Back to the Drawing Board

Our Noticing New York testimony endeavors to cover a few points which we guessed that others might not be covering during the afternoon: the relationship of developer-driven upzonings and eminent domain, when special relationships with developers are allowed to supercede proper government process. We think this goes to the heart of why Atlantic Yards needs to be downsized and is also key to why the project must be taken back to the drawing board, redesigned and re-bid. Though the government officials at the hearing indicated that Atlantic Yards is not going to be downsized they clearly indicated that:

1. The project is going to be “value engineered” so that Forest City Ratner will be expected to deliver less to the public (one example being that Ratner will now only be required to construct a 7-train capacity train yard for the MTA rather than a 9-train yard)

2. Ratner is in line to be significantly financially accommodated by the government agencies involved and required to pay less than previously specified for the rights they will bestow upon him.

3. The agencies are quite likely going to be allowing Forest City Ratner substantial time to dawdle over the “decades” with respect to providing any public benefit. It seems that about the only thing that will be expected of FCR is that FCR benefit itself by getting a Nets arena underway in some form before the end of the year. The agencies are apparently willing to allow that no housing would be immediately built to go with the arena and the agencies are also willing to accommodate the idea that the first housing, as and when it would ever be built, would be front-loaded with a higher proportion of luxury and market-rate housing units.
In other words, the public agencies, presumably under the direction of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson to whom they are respectively accountable, seem content to let all of these things slide in the direction of further, even more disproportionate benefit to Forest City Ratner.
Other Testimony Piling On

Our testimony was about how Forest City Ratner has already piled too much benefit upon itself to the detriment of its neighbors and the general public. In terms of an inappropriate piling on of benefit to Forest City Ratner, our testimony was similarly themed to testimony delivered by Pratt urban planning professor Ron Shiffman and the Fifth Avenue Committee’s Michelle de la Uz. (The Fifth Avenue Committee is an important and committed provider of affordable housing in Brooklyn.) Mr. Shiffman testified (and we agree) about how Atlantic Yards would not actually be providing affordable housing because it would be taking subsidies away from other projects that would provide that housing. Ms. de la Uz. testified about how astoundingly inefficient Atlantic Yards is planned to be in term of using such housing subsidies as opposed to the programs of alternative providers, the Fifth Avenue Committee being one of them.

Hearing the “No Benefit” Oh-Pin-ion Drop

Senator Perkins commented after the hearing was over that the most important testimony was that provided by George Sweeting of the city’s Independent Budget Office. Senator Perkins noted that during that testimony “you could hear a pin drop” which he pointed out was quite something given the many people in the crowd who had come specifically to be raucous and disruptive. What we heard from the IBO was that the Atlantic Yards megaproject has changed enough so that, even though there are still further reductions that need to be taken into account in the calculated amount of benefit the project will provide, it is already clear that the reductions in benefit which are already known, identified and susceptible to calculation now “eclipse” (that means “wipe out”) the meager amount of “net public benefit” that the IBO had once been able to calculate that the project could deliver. (Technically, the calculations done so far extend just to the arena, as we noted all that will be built at first, but see the section above per the benefit of the housing and read on with respect to what we say about the zoning override.) In other words the project is NOT delivering any public benefit.

Agencies Carrying On By Rote

Hearing that the project is not delivering any public benefit (something many of us figured out long ago) reminded us how Ms. Lago, head of the Empire State Development Corporation and responsible for Atlantic Yards on behalf of Governor Paterson, once described how public agencies can get in the habit of continuing to engage by rote in programs that cease to deliver public benefit. She was, in fact, speaking specifically about her own agency though not speaking directly about Atlantic Yards. In other words, even Ms. Lago seems to appreciate that agencies need to know when to halt the momentum and break the inertia to take time to stop and think. (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.)

Atlantic Yards Report Account of the Hearing

Our own account of this hearing has already been preceded by a very thorough report by Atlantic Yards Report which we have not yet had time to thoroughly absorb. That account notes: “This will be updated” something we might do here, at least to add a few pictures. (See: Friday, May 29, 2009, Senate hearing: no tough questions for ESDC; MTA yields on yard; IBO calls arena a loss; arena 2012; raucous AY supporters make for 8/23/06 flashback)

Today’s Noticing New York Testimony

Here then is our own Noticing New York testimony supplied for the hearing today.

May 29, 2009

Senator Bill Perkins
Office of State Senator Bill Perkins
163 West 125th Street, Suite 912
New York, New York 10027

Re: May 29, 2009- Hearing on Atlantic Yards

Dear Senator Perkins:

This comment is being offered in the name of Noticing New York, an independent entity dedicated to the proposition that developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand.

I offer this testimony as an attorney experienced in real estate, as an urban planner and as former senior government official who worked for more than a quarter of century in the areas of public finance and development for the state finance authorities.

Atlantic Yards is such a spectacularly bad and indefensible project that it will take far more time than we have available for me to comprehensively lay out all its major flaws.* Instead, let me focus on three interrelated things: 1.) zoning, 2.) eminent domain, and 3.) the effect on the aforementioned two when special developer relationships are allowed to supercede proper government process.

(* As just an example of how deeply you can go into the subject of the project’s flaws we attach a copy of our Jane Jacobs Report Card assessment.)

1. First, it should be borne in mind that upzoning is the natural and conventional alternative to eminent domain when development of an area is desired. With upzoning the benefits of development in an area flow to the residents of that area. This process of development is unlikely to involve wholesale destruction and the organic nature of that process will likely provide greater opportunity to integrate the sensible preservation of historical and other worthwhile buildings valued by the community.

2. By contrast, upzoning is misused in connection with eminent domain. Atlantic Yards is a prime example (as is the Columbia University expansion) of the strong lure that exists for developer-driven eminent domain to be accompanied by significant upzonings that preferentially benefit the developer. Why? Because upzoning allows the developer driving the process to collect eminent domain windfall. Eminent domain accompanied by an upzoning redirects the benefits of the upzoning that would normally flow to the community to, in this case, Forest City Ratner.

3. Atlantic Yards, which involves a zoning override provides monumental testimony to how such a zoning override, when developer-driven, is immediately abused. You see this in the colossal density of Atlantic Yards. It is proposed to tower over its adjacent neighbors for which there is no comparable upzoning. In fact, because Forest City Ratner has with Atlantic Yards usurped disproportionate development rights, development rights that will not be available for distribution elsewhere and to other members of the community. For instance, because Forest City Ratner will disproportionately overburden the subways and infrastructure, other Brooklyn developments can’t take advantage of those assets. Because Atlantic Yards will infuse so much additional density to Prospect Heights and Fort Greene it will not be possible to distribute density to other sites in the vicinity. What planning sense does it make for Atlantic Yards to tower by many multiples over another brand new government-sponsored and -assisted project, Atlantic Terrace, which is just across the street? Why should the contemporaneously planned Atlantic Terrace stand ten-stories tall on one side of the street while immediately across it will be dwarfed by a fifteen-story tall illuminated animated sign on a building that will itself stand more than five times as tall?

4. Zoning needs to be done carefully and needs to be driven by government. The classic definition of zoning is that it is a societal compact implemented between neighbors through the mediation of government. In essence, everyone in a neighborhood agrees that they will mutually refrain from inflicting the damage of overbearing development on each other, collectively agreeing to restrain themselves to workable norms. When zoning is commandeered to be driven by a single developer, the norms by which society customarily lives cease to apply and the one-sided harm is obvious.

5. These abuses are all driven by special developer relationships that we advise you to look into. The irrationality of the decisions being made can only be explained in terms of the special relationships that are being allowed to take precedence over good procedure and governance. Therefore, when something does not make sense like Atlantic Yards’ unprecedented density or its peculiarly-shaped footprint, we urge that you question carefully and deeply the relationships that drive them.


Michael D. D. White

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Second, But Not Seconding, Opinion: A Stolerian Eyebrow Raised, Real Estate Professionals Say Coney Island Development Will Take “Generations”

What Keynes said about economics might also be said about efforts at urban development:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.
If you have given credence to the Bloomberg administration’s promise of a revitalized, redeveloped Coney Island, you might think about when that redevelopment will come. We were watching a panel of experts discuss Brooklyn real estate development the other day on the Stoler Report and they provided professional insight about how soon we will see redevelopment at Coney Island. The consensus was that redevelopment will be a long time in coming, “generations” in fact.

In this piece we are going to talk about two competing philosophies of urban development and what that means to Coney Island in terms of development decision-making that may happen soon and actual development that may only be happening very far into the future.

Defining a Generation

A generation is generally considered to be no less than fifteen years, even if you are talking about a “cultural generation” which is shorter than a “familial generation.” More typically these days a generation is considered to be more than 25 years, sometimes 30 or 35, while estimations of a biblical generation can run 40 to 70 years.

Even applying the shortest of these time periods (fifteen years), “generations” as predicted on the Stoler show becomes 30 years for two generations and 45 years for three generations. Talking in terms of that kind of time frame, you can see why there was also mention on the Stoler show that development of Staten Island might precede development on Coney.

City Planning’s Burden on an Immediate, Total Coney Redevelopment Plan

How does the notion that redevelopment of Coney Island might take 30-45 years or more square with statements of Amanda M. Burden, the Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning, that the city plans for Coney island “can’t be done piecemeal.” How does it square with Ms. Burden’s assertion that the plan for what is going to happen can only be done by this Bloombergian administration and can only be done this summer? And how does it square with Ms. Burden’s assertion that if this is not done now in this immediate non-piecemeal fashion we will be missing “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the only way for future generations to enjoy Coney Island?” (See: Tuesday, May 12, 2009, The City to the Public: “We’ve Got Your Coney Island: If You Want It Back, Better Do Exactly As We Say. . ”)

Maybe when Ms. Burden says that it is the “only way for future generations to enjoy Coney Island” we should asking which future generations she is talking about? Are those future generations she mentions those that will be born more than 45 years hence?

Two Competing Philosophies of Urban Development

This gets us into the discussion of the two competing philosophies of urban development we mentioned. There are those of us, Noticing New York included, who believe in organic development.* Organic development works from the community level up, building upon what is. Often it is gradual, but perhaps the more important thing is that it doesn’t admit or pretend to hew to a specific rigid timetable. It moves flexibly at a natural pace. Because it is flexible and organic there is great opportunity to make continual adjustments as things change over time, correcting for error and taking advantage as previously unanticipated opportunities materialize.

(* See: Wednesday, February 25, 2009, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #11: Project Will Be Developed Gradually Working with City Fabric? NO, Thursday, April 2, 2009, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #15: Project Has Building Age Diversity with a Close-Grained Mingling? NO and Tuesday, November 11, 2008, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card.)

By definition, gradual organic development serves the living, serving them where it finds them in life. In essence the community then owns its own development with the existing residents partaking in and benefitting from the evolution of the community. Think of the way that the arrival of artists a help transform and lead communities forward.

There is another form of development that comes from the top down, and is accompanied by a philosophy that an idea of what the future city will be can be implemented springing full blown from a master-planner’s head like Athena, fully grown and armed springing from the brow of Zeus. This form of development is not so much to serve “the living” as described above but is more typically justified in terms of an envisioned “long run” when “we are all dead.” That is because such top down master-planning so often commences with programs of unnecessary destruction like those being exercised by Forest City Ratner at Atlantic Yards, where the community’s own naturally unfolding participation in its own development is wrested away. It seems as if these top-down development visions cannot be pursued without giving imported megadevelopers mega-monopolies over huge swaths of neighborhood. Cannot be pursued? Or, is it instead that the current popularity of such plans with officials of the Bloomberg (and Paterson?) administration is because these schemes implement exactly such monopolies accompanied by the transfer of wealth from the majority to a privileged few?

Meanwhile the Lost Generations

There is no mistaking the parallel between Coney Island which will realistically take “generations” to develop and Atlantic Yards which according to Marisa Lago, responsible for the project as the head of the Empire State Development Corporation, will take “decades.” Ms. Lago, in making remarks at a breakfast interview, commented on the “new realism”government is now adopting with respect to such developments. (We suppose this is in contrast to an old fantasticalism?) Ms. Lago said that what she referred to as “transformational projects” take enormous spans of time, comparing the Atlantic Yards Ratner monopoly to the 25 years of Times Square redevelopment and 40 years of Roosevelt Island development. (Both those developments involve multiple developers and are, in fact, are still ongoing. Neither involved shutting down any sections of the city.) (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.)

What makes Amanda Burden think that this particular summer because she is with this particular administration she is somehow equipped to see generations into the future to know exactly what Coney Island needs? Better than the community? What makes her think that she can peer generations into the future so well that it is appropriate for her to warn the Municipal Art Society not to propose thoughts on alternatives even before that sage and august organization has spoken its mind? (See: Tuesday, May 26, 2009, Who Took My 27 Acres? City Officials Confuse the Dialogue.)

Meanwhile, after the destruction and after the dispossession of the community, accommodating transfers to favored developers, the public is left with the lost generations while everybody waits.

What's Happening In Brooklyn on the Stoler Report

The Stoler Report where Coney Island was discussed, What's Happening In Brooklyn, was recorded on April 28, 2009 and first broadcast May 12, 2009.

Michael Stoler’s guests consisted of the following Brooklyn Developers: Donald Capoccia of BFC Partnes, Louis Greco of Second Development, David Kramer of The Hudson Companies and David Von Spreckelson of Toll Brothers City Living.

In terms of the timing of big real estate projects and how long they take, it is perhaps worth mentioning, before we get into the subject of Coney Island, that in the entire show of “What's Happening In Brooklyn,” Atlantic Yards, the project which is consuming unjustifiable resources disproportionally greater than of any project in the entire city, got absolutely no mention at all. That then would seem to say that Atlantic Yards is an example of a project that ISN’T “Happening In Brooklyn”at the moment despite the resources it is sopping up and notwithstanding the waste laid to Prospect Heights.

During the discussion of Coney Island it was program host Michael Stoler who summed up what he was hearing the others say by speaking of Coney’s development taking “generations.” We suggest that you do take a good look at the way in which he raises his eyebrows when he says this; body English can be remarkably eloquent. It is also worth noting that the discussion, most particularly Lou Greco’s remarks, involves expecting Coney’s development to inevitably proceed in a relatively organic way. Mr. Greco, a Brooklyn boy, also speaks appreciatively values Brooklyn’s history and Coney’s special strengths. The strength that gets discussed the most is the infrastructure of Coney’s easy accessability via mass transit. This easy accessability to Coney and its seashore is one reason we have said Coney is the city’s seaside equivalent of Central Park and should be treated with comparable respect. We know it wouldn’t make sense to shrink and sell of sections of Central Park when the city is growing. Right?

The last thing we should note is that there are clear hints, which we will come back to discuss, indicating that, were the city not now interfering, Coney might already be enjoying a comeback all on its own.
The Stoler Report discussion of Coney Island begins just after the program hits the 22-minute mark (22:46) and Stoler links the question of Coney to the variability neighborhoods that are on the edge of desirability, mentioning Harlem. The conversation moved fast, sometimes overlapping, given the enthusiasm of the participants to express their thinking.

MS: Let’s move a little. . . We’ve spoken about a number of parts of Downtown Gowanus, everything and their relative. .. What’s your thoughts about Coney Island? Anyone want to say anything? Because, Don, you know, was truly a visionary, you know, when you went to Harlem, and you started building in Harlem a number of years ago before anyone thought anyone would move to Harlem. Now nothing is selling in Harlem. It’s getting a little difficult over there. . . .

DC: That’s another place I was glad we were there in the beginning.

MS: Thank God you were there. So what’s your thoughts about Coney Island?

DC: We have a designation out in . . . Edgemere? Edgmere, I think it is called. It’s out in the Rockaways.

MS: That’s the Rockaways. We’re talking Coney Island.

DC: Where is that? That’s not Coney Island? I used to spend a lot of time there.

MS: Where is it? Wrong Borough!

DK: I mean my feeling. . .

LG: You should understand Brooklyn and its history. OK? Because we started talking about hotels. Downtown Brooklyn, back around World War II had tremendous hotels, I mean it had the largest hotel in the world.

MS: It had the Bossert.

LG: Well it had the Bossert, but the St. George was the world’s largest hotel. You had the Stratford Arms. I mean there were unbelievable hotels in Downtown Brooklyn and the same thing with housing in the neighborhoods, Park Slope, Clinton Hill.

MS: And you had the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island where somebody was murdered.*

(* See also this)

LG: Coney Island was a major resort community. And the reason for it is because we had the infrastructure. And the fact we went through social engineering changes all through the 50s and 60s which put Brooklyn back a long way. It has come a long way forward. So it would only be natural that the resources of Coney Island in conjunction with the infrastructure that we have in Coney Island, that you will see redevelopment in Coney Island because it is a hell of a lot easier to get out to Coney Island than it is to get out . . . Now, I am not saying its going to be the Hamptons, but it certainly is a viable alterative for the people who are living in Brooklyn to get on. . .
DVS: I think its going to be a while.

DK: You think it’s going to be a second-home community?

MS: No, it’s not a second-home community.

LG: Maybe not a second-home community, but my children, my eighteen-year-old twins, they get on the train and they go out to Coney Island. They don’t go out to the Rockaways. They don’t go out to Jones Beach like I did as a child.

MS: But first of all to take the trains out the Rockaways is rather difficult. Coney Island is train friendly, its commuter friendly. .
DVS: It’s still a shlep. It’s a long way. I don’t think there has been a market rate project there in something like 50 years.

LG: It’s going to start as a resort community first. And just like everything else, after the resort community comes the commercial will come and after the commercial will come, the residential will develop. It’s like any other. . Go out to the Hamptons. That’s how that Hampton started. Go out to the North Fork.

MS: So, it sounds like it is going to be a couple of generations. (Rasing his eyebrows portentously.)

LG: It’s a long ways.

DK: I don’t think you can put the Hamptons and Coney Island in the same real estate sentence.

LG: It was the epicenter . . .

DK: The Hamptons’ prices are getting hit. I don’t think Hamptons prices are heading for Coney.

DC: I think you’ll see action sooner in Staten Island than Coney Island. The North Shore of Staten Island. You’ve got this whole market, this pent up market in South Brooklyn, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, young people who do want to stay close to that area and will be willing to make that five to ten minute drive.

MS: That bridge, that bridge,. . .

DC: NO. They are very used to it. That area . . .

MS: . . . that commute is a little bit difficult going over that bridge.

Twin Thoughts

What we heard in Mr. Greco’s remarks that inspired hopes for Coney Island’s natural recovery was his remarks about his own children: “my children, my eighteen-year-old twins, they get on the train and they go out to Coney Island. They don’t go out to the Rockaways. They don’t go out to Jones Beach like I did as a child.” We think that Coney, if allowed to, will recover its grandeur in part because of its excellent mass transit access that was talked about. We agree with Mr. Greco that its recovery will come organically, one thing leading to another over time.

We probably don’t agree that the important first stage of that process will begin with Coney as a “resort community” unless that is a synonym for “amusement community.” We do think, however, that the important first stage of the recovery may have already begun and be represented in the pull that is exerting itself on Mr. Greco’s eighteen-year-old twins that now draws them out to Coney Island though Mr. Greco himself (a generation ago?) did not similarly travel to Coney.

Part of Coney’s pull will always be the beach. As New Yorkers rely progressively less on automobiles and more on subway trains, Coney is certainly preferentially more accessible than the Rockaways or Jones Beach. But Coney also has another pull that is not likely to be duplicated; not just the tradition of amusement and the infrastructure for a world class amusement park but a burgeoning home-grown creative culture. All the elements are there to incubate it, including (absent the recent real estate speculation fomented by the city) what would be vast affordable spaces that could readily be put to use. Haven’t we seen that artists have historically led most of the faster paced revivals of important neighborhoods in the city?

Our Piecemeal Suggestion to the City

Here is the simple idea we offer the city. Proceed gradually, organically and piecemeal. Build Coney up while making it a priority to save and preserve its historic assets and avoid unnecessary destruction.

Use the vacant land first and don’t start by making vacant what hasn’t been vacant before. That includes doing what was intended, and using for traditional amusements, the parkland that the city holds for that exact purpose but now uses instead as parking. That includes not allowing (dare we say “encouraging”) the eviction of Astroland for no good purpose. It includes using the empty land where the Thunderbolt roller coaster formerly provided seaside amusement fare.

Proceed piecemeal so as to avoid irreversible mistakes. The best prime seaside amusement park land should NOT immediately become the very first land to be taken away from the public and sacrificed to build high-rise hotels. If hotels are going to be built, they can be built as once before, further inland. The recommendation of the community and the Municipal Art Society to shift the siting of hotels only to the other side of Surf Avenue would make an extraordinary difference while preserving the shape and space of a viable seaside amusement area. Use other (preferably vacant and unused) land to prove the value of hotels to Coney and thereby postpone the ultimate day of reckoning when people must determine what value those hotels actually have relative to the amusement area. Why? Because once sacrificed, the amusement park land cannot be reclaimed or expanded. The time to rezone seaside amusement land for hotels should only come only if and when hotels have been so successful that there is no more room for them anywhere else, and perhaps not even then.

Yes, proceeding piecemeal, organically and flexibly can also accommodate compromise and flexibility in the other direction as well. The next new expensive and capital intensive roller coaster to be built doesn’t have to be built, and probably oughtn’t to be built on land from which someday someone might want to have it removed. For the time being, such land can be used for other more portable amusements. Many amusements are portable as were those rides evicted from Astroland. Bottom line though, given that we are dealing with a transformational process projected to take generations, postpone (in fact, substantially postpone) that fateful point of no return when the Coney Island amusement park area is condemned to be a few small acres and never again any larger.

Proceed piecemeal because you don’t need an entire full blown 47-acre rezoning to build an important new roller coaster at Coney and prove the benefit of such attractions. Proceed piecemeal because the financing and resources do not actually currently exist to take advantage of almost any of the future possibilities such a rezoning is supposed to provide.

Proceed piecemeal because one thing that is proven and time-tested is the resilience of Coney amusements and the amusement park community and their ability to weather hard times and adversity. They have already weathered economic hard times such as are being served up to us now.

Proceed piecemeal to maintain flexibility and avoid mistakes because in a process that will take “generations” you can’t see far enough into the future to know what is coming no matter what crystal ball Amanda Burden believes entitles her to reject ideas she has not even yet heard as she did with the recommendations from MAS.

Proceed piecemeal and gather your amusement park rosebuds while yee may, because by avoiding unnecessary destruction and eviction, by building upon what currently exists, you provide certain and undeniable benefit for those New Yorkers now alive. Conversely, to prepare for the future through destruction, reduction, eviction and preclusion of other opportunities involves a preoccupation with untested betterments that are envisioned only in the “long run” wherein, as Keynes reminded us, “we are all dead.” -

- You might say then that selecting between these two philosophies of development involve what are essentially life and death decisions. Take your pick.

Note: There is a brand new resource regularly posting new information about Coney Island issues which we suggest you check out: Amusing the Zillion (A former carny kid casts an insider’s eye on the amusement business, Coney Island, and fun spaces in between)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who Took My 27 Acres? City Officials Confuse the Dialogue

How big should an amusement park be? How do you count acres? If you didn’t have a good sense for the answer to either of these questions you might want to rely on the advice of an expert you trusted to say how many acres an amusement park ought to be. For a lot of us, that’s where the Municipal Art Society comes in. We rely on MAS’s expertise, the impartiality of their nonprofit-motivated assessments, and their time and commitment to be the first to carefully scrutinize important issues about the building of the city. When the Municipal Art Society speaks, we listen.

Well then, if you have listened carefully to the Municipal Art Society you know that, after their study of the possibilities for Coney Island’s future, the amusement park area shouldn’t be less than a minimum of 27 acres, would you then favor or disfavor a city rezoning plan the primary goal of which was stated to be:

to create a new and enhanced 27-acre year-round vibrant open and accessible amusement district.
Surprise! If you favored that rezoning plan, you would be favoring a plan that proposed an amusement park area less than half of what the Municipal Art Society was recommending, a plan with only 12.5 acres of the amusement park area called for MAS. By the same token if, informed by MAS, you attempted to perform the role of a good citizen and wrote a letter to the City Planning Commission saying that you wanted to see a 27-acre amusement park area in Coney Island, the City Planning Commission might self-servingly take your letter and count it as support for the city’s proposed rezoning which MAS opposes because, once again, the city plan, at a paltry 12.5 acres, proposes less than half the minimum acreage for actual amusements at Coney Island that the Municipal Art Society said is essential if Coney Island amusements are going to survive the proposed shrinking of amusement life at Coney.

Why is support for a minimum of 27 acres NOT support for a minimum of 27 acres? It has to do with a little game of terminology the city seems to be consciously playing. Something we might refer to as a “razzle” as we will further explain. It doesn’t seem like the city wants you to know what it is proposing to do at Coney Island. The city probably doesn’t want the public to know to just how small the size it intends to shrink the once-great Coney amusement area because then the public might oppose selling all those amusement acres to real estate developers and land speculators for blander uses of the seashore.

The Municipal Art Society Proclaims That Coney Island Amusements Should, at a Minimum, Be About 27 Acres

The Municipal Art Society assumed the role of advocating for the preservation of Coney Island’s amusement park area in June of 2008 after the city, in April, abruptly and unexpectedly shifted course in the formulation of its development plan to drastically shrink to a vestigial few the number of amusement park acres that would be left. (See: Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Back In the Coney Island Saddle?) The city was proposing as few as 9 acres of open-air amusements.

MAS in commenting on the environmental impact statement said (supplying their own emphasis).

We are not aware of any other amusement areas of a comparable scale that come close to achieving the number of visitors that is the market for a revitalized Coney Island or even Coney Island today. We are concerned that the proposed area set aside for open-air amusements is of insufficient size and that as a result this revitalization effort will not be successful.

MAS went further, holding community design charrettes, and on November, 17, 2008, as part of its Imagine Coney, MAS unveiled recommendations for Coney’s future. (See: Monday, November 17, 2008, The Coney Island Crowd: Plans Unveiled Tonight.) Its recommendations included advice that Coney’s open-air amusement acreage not be reduced below a minimum of approximately 27 acres. Specifically, MAS released the results of a study it had commissioned by Robert Charles Lesser & Co. which did a series of calculations to recommend the minimum acreage set aside for such uses be 26.5 acres, a figure that commonly rounds up to 27 acres. (Click to enlarge image.)

City Planning’s Burden Primed Ahead of Time to Reject MAS’s Call for More Amusement Area

City Planning’s Chief Amanda Burden was already primed to resist the MAS recommendation for a larger amusement area. Two weeks before MAS released its recommendation, the Observer ran an article reporting that Amanda Burden warned the Municipal Art Society to stay out of things. (See: Burden To Municipal Art Society: Don’t Mess With City’s Coney Plans, by Eliot Brown, October 27, 2008)

Ms. Burden sent the following statement to the Observer, stating that it was imperative MAS not challenge the boundaries for the amusement area that the city in its about-face had so recently released to the world and stating that Coney Island’s very survival depended upon letting City Planning have its way without delay (emphasis supplied):

As part of the public planning process, the City has engaged in scores of meetings with a wide variety of local and citywide stakeholders in shaping its current rezoning proposal for a year-round 27-acre amusement district with outdoor and enclosed amusements. We of course welcome innovative ideas for a 21st century destination that keeps and enhances Coney Island's unique edgy character and open accessibility.

However, it is imperative that the rezoning process and timeline not be jeopardized by any reconsideration of our proposed rezoning boundaries or urban design parameters. After two scoping sessions and significant public input, we expect to begin the public approval process in early 2009, which will culminate in a vote on the plan by the City Council in the summer of 2009. It is imperative that this rezoning proceed expeditiously, otherwise the Coney Island amusement area that we know and love will cease to exist. We welcome ideas about how to best design, structure and program a year-round amusement district with an open and accessible Amusement Park as its centerpiece.
City Administration Rejects MAS’s Call For Larger (27-Acre Minimum) Amusement Area: Their Method? Confusion

The City administration, including Ms. Burden, her Department of City Planning and the Coney Island Development Corporation rejected MAS’s call for a larger amusement area that more than doubles what the city was proposing to approximately 27 acres, but they did not do so in direct and clear terms. At the beginning of this post (though not mentioning her by name) we included a quote from Ms. Burden’s deputy, Purnima Kapur, the Director of City Planning's Brooklyn Office, speaking at the recent “Which Way Coney Island? A Symposium on Its Future,” at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. There Ms. Kapur, speaking of the goals for the city’s Coney Island redevelopment plan, said:

The primary one is to create a new and enhanced 27-acre year-round vibrant open and accessible amusement district.
27 acres? That sounds like MAS’s recommendation, but where MAS has been proposing preservation of a minimum of 27 acres of Coney’s traditional open-air amusements Ms. Kapur is proposing, though it doesn’t immediately sound like it, only 12.5.

(For three other posts we have done about exactly what city officials said at the Wednesday, April 29, 2009 NYU symposium and exactly why they oughtn’t to be believed see: Tuesday, May 12, 2009, The City to the Public: “We’ve Got Your Coney Island: If You Want It Back, Better Do Exactly As We Say. . ” Saturday, May 16, 2009, City Is Rezoning So Coney Island’s Lower-Income Residents Will Have Place to Buy Back-to-School Shoes, Clothing and Stationery? Right. Sure Thing! And Tuesday, May 19, 2009, City Officials in Their Own Words on “Creating” a Coney Island Amusement Area: We Will Do Again What Hasn’t Worked Before.)

Of course the first sleight-of-hand in Ms. Kapur’s formulation is to substitute MAS’s reference to “open-air amusements” to “open and accessible amusement district.” They are not talking about the same thing. “open-air” becomes “open and accessible” in Ms. Kapur’s formulation and “amusements” are replaced by Ms. Kapur’s “amusement district” or sometimes her “new” “amusement park district.”

After MAS Calls For a Minimum of 27 Acres of Amusements, City Launches Its New “27 Acre” Campaign

To be fair, we are told by one of the people most knowledgeable about the competing visions for Coney Island that it is possible to find a reference in city administration documents to the calculation of a 27-acre district that dates back to June 2008. Nevertheless, what happened after MAS identified its study figure that a minimum of 26.5 acres (or, rounding off, a minimum of about 27 acres) was needed for amusements at Coney to remain viable is interesting and, we believe, very significant.

The MAS recommendation was released just before Thanksgiving. Following the New Year’s holiday, on January 20th, 2009 City Planning issued its first press release referring to the fact that it planned “an open and accessible 27-acre indoor and outdoor amusement and entertainment district stretching along the famed boardwalk from the Parachute Jump to the New York Aquarium.” By referring to the open-air boardwalk and Parachute Jump and perhaps also to the aquarium which has many open-air features, the casual reader might not readily notice that “open and accessible” and “entertainment” was not referring to traditional “open-air” Coney Island amusements. The reader would be especially inclined NOT to notice the city’s intent to severely shrink the Coney Island amusement park area, given that the title of the press release included this phraseology (emphasis supplied): “City’s Comprehensive Strategy to Save and Expand on Amusements.” Very clever! It does sound rather like the expanded amusement area MAS was calling for. See: City Planning Begins Public Review on Rezoning of Coney Island: Part of City’s Comprehensive Strategy to Save and Expand on Amusements as Year Round Destination and Revitalize Surrounding Neighborhood, January 20th, 2009.

Whereas the “27 acre” figure had never previously been mentioned by a city administration press release, the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) now followed suit and a slew of city administration press releases followed, regularly working in some featured mention of the city’s 27-acre concept. It apparently became a theme for the press offices promoting the city’s plan to harp on.

See, for example, just a few days later: City Announces Acquisition of Astroland Rocket Ship Rescue of Endangered Coney Island Artifact is a Symbol of the City’s Commitment to the Redevelopment of the Storied Amusement Destination (January 29, 2009). Emphasis is supplied where quoted below:

Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Robert C. Lieber, NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) President, Seth W. Pinsky and Department of City Planning Commissioner Amanda M. Burden today . . . The Rocket will become a permanent and iconic part of the 27 acre redeveloped amusement district in Coney Island.
See also these examples:

Statement by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on First Public Approval of Coney Island Revitalization Plan, (March 11, 2009):

The City's plan will expand the amusement district to 27 acres . . .
Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber and Premier Rides, Inc. President Jim Seay Launch The Coney Island Amusement Advisory Panel: City Officials Will Work with Industry leaders to Plan Interim and Long Term Amusement Uses and Restore Coney Island as a world Class Destination (March 31, 2009)

Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Robert C. Lieber, and Premier Rides, Inc. President Jim Seay today announced the Coney Island Amusement Advisory Panel, a group of leading amusement industry experts that will help structure and expedite the City’s plans for interim amusements at Coney Island in Summer 2010. The panel will also assist the City in continued planning efforts for a permanent amusement operation and development of a 27-acre amusement and entertainment district at Coney Island.
Statement by Mayor Bloomberg on Borough President Markowitz's Approval of Coney Island Revitalization Plan (April 29, 2009)

"Marty Markowitz shares our view that the time is now to restore Coney Island's heyday, enlarge and enhance the famed amusement district, and create jobs and housing for residents. Our plan will reverse the trend of disinvestment in the amusement district and expand it to 27 acres.

As we said, it sure makes the shrinkage sound like an enlargement, doesn’t it?

To be clear, when MAS called for 27 acres of traditional Coney Island amusements MAS was taking into account that in addition to these 27 acres there would be the 16 additional acres where the city is planning to put other things such as hotels and which the city is now referring to as part of the so-called expanded 27 acre “amusement district.”

Identifying the 27 Acres: Where Are They? Don’t Ask

We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to see how readily the 27 acres the city is talking about could be identified. In other words, when press releases (as per the one immediately above) are freely throwing around the notion that the “amusement district” will “expand” “to “27 acres,” is it just an abstract notion or is there something specific that is easy to refer to? We wanted to see the 27 acres mapped out and clearly identified. Finding such a clearly identified map of the 27 acres on the web turned out not to be exactly easy.

We figured that since the administration press releases were now routinely referring to the 27 acres that Ms. Kapur and city administration officials were constantly referring to in their public appearances, the best people to call for a map with a clear reference to the map’s depiction of the 27 acres would be the press departments representing those city administration officials working on the Coney Island plan. We called the press departments for City Planing and for the CIDC.

The CIDC representative referred us to the Department of City Planning’s web site (where we had not been able to find exactly what we were looking for- we provide the same link) and also said we could refer to CIDC’s own site and gave us a link to the CIDC press kit.

Press releases notwithstanding, the CIDC does not seem to have a map of the 27 acres. We found this image on the CIDC website. You might think it is supposed to be the 27-acre amusement area but it isn’t, even though it is accompanied by these words: “Enlarge the amusement area from its current 10 acres to 27 acres.”

Though we spent half of last week trying, we were never able to get a City Planning representative to identify a map clearly showing the 27 acres. After talking with the CIDC representative we got some confirmation of what we suspected, that this image (see below- Click to enlarge) on the City Planning site shows the 27 acres.

(Purnima Kapur, the Director of City Planning's Brooklyn Office)

Indeed, here is Ms. Kapur speaking at the NYU symposium:

Coney East, the section in Blue, is the area that encompasses the current amusements, and this is the area which will be the new 27-acre amusement district.
On the other hand, it could easily have been this encircled acreage which, though similar, is not the same. (see immediately below- Click to enlarge) And we caution you that there are so many mapped versions of what land will be providing amusements that there could be all sorts of other confusion.

Razzling The Numbers

Since an amusement area is in issue, maybe it is appropriate to describe the way the city provides acreage numbers as a sort of “Razzle” game, sometimes also refereed to as “Razzle Dazzle.” A “Razzle” is an old carney game and we understand that some of the carney amusement community people see that this is exactly what the city is doing, throwing out numbers that most people are having problems keeping straight in their minds.

The point of a Razzle is, after all, that the mark playing the game doesn’t keep straight in his mind the numbers that are being thrown out by the Razzler. The numbers are meant to be incomprehensible to the mark, who is supposed to believe the Razzler’s patter claiming that a win is almost within reach, with just one or two more plays designed to empty the player’s pockets. In the case of the Coney rezoning the city’s goal is to to reduce the total number of Coney Island amusement acres. Just remember that as you read further.

What’s Real: Reduction of Coney Amusements

The city is proposing to de-map 9.3 acres of “parkland” that was supposed to be preserved as amusement area and replace it with two separate broken-up sets of acreage (like the Yankee Stadium park swap). According to Ms. Kapur at the symposium:

One is an acre and half community park, which will be a neighborhood park open to the new and the existing Coney Island community. And then on the other side is a 9.3 acre amusement park which will be mapped along the boardwalk and this will become the centerpiece of the new amusement district that we are proposing to create for you.

Ms. Kapur refers to the “9.3 acre amusement park” (9.39 actually) as the “centerpiece of the new amusement district that we are proposing to create for you.” “New” is an interesting adjective in this regard because while 9.3 acres of what was supposed to be preserved as amusement acreage is being de-mapped, the “9.3 acre amusement park” is not new at all. It includes the city-owned Cyclone which already sits on a substantial portion of that acreage.* It includes the Wonder Wheel and the approximately one acre of land the city has is acquiring to lease back to the family who originally owned the Deno’s Wonder Wheel for their kiddie park. What was until a few months ago Astroland won’t be “new” amusement area under the city’s plan, but it is almost as if the developer/land speculator Joe Sitt (Thor Equities) has been working with the city’s PR people to promote the rezoning plan (totaling 47 acres in all) because Sitt’s eviction of Astroland from its 3.1 acres last fall makes it easier to argue that the city is fighting for more amusements than would otherwise be there given the recent Astroland eviction.

(* The city drawings- see picture before last above as an example- appear to show that West 10th street accessing the area along side the Cyclone will be converted to a narrow strip of newly mapped parkland. It is not clear whether it will still be used as a road or whether a new road outside the mapped parkland will be created providing the access into the area. The amusement area propsed by the city also apparently includes land on the other side of the Cyclone used for parking. )

Consider How Small

Below is an image showing how small the city’s actual proposed amusement park area will be. We obtained this months ago from the CIDC at a Municipal Art Society event and included it in one of our posts. (We are not sure that it is any longer available through the CIDC.) Use the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel as a reference for scale and you will note how little land is left for any similarly major amusement rides.

Here is another comparative reference: Coney’s existing New York Aquarium is 14 acres. Based on the acreage resources devoted under the city’s plan, future New Yorkers are more likely to think of going out to Coney for the 14-acre aquarium than for the 9.3-acre amusement park. In fact, the aquarium is sometimes considered a coordinated part of a 22.3 acre area (the Hennessey Triangle) consisting of the aquarium and the 5.3 acre Asser Levy Park (Seaside Park). There is also the 1.8 acre Asser Levy Recreation Center, Pool and Playground.

(* There is currently community controversy about how much amplified event noise should be allowed in Asser Levy Park on the weekends because of the institutions in near proximity. See: Tuesday, May 26, 2009, A closer look at the Borough President's budget, his marquee Coney project, and the off-books funding via the mayor's office.)

Even if you include the 2.2-acre Steeplechase Plaza park and Cyclone together with the 9.3 acre amusement park area, these combined areas are outmatched by the aquarium’s 14 acres. It is worth remembering that the 14 acres of the aquarium was itself once all amusement park land (Dreamland) that was sacrificed and never replaced to create the aquarium. Similarly, what was supposed to be amusement area acres were sacrificed and replaced by the Keyspan Ballpark and its surrounding parking lots, which as Ms. Kapur points out are used:

for the 38 days that it is in season and there is a game going on there. For most of rest of the year they remain vacant or very sparsely utilized.
More shrinkage: Until relatively recently, the Thunderbolt roller coster occupied more seaside acreage beside Keyspan Ballpark. It was torn down illegally by Mayor Giuliani in 2000, apparently to please a Mets official. The Keyspan Ball Park is played in by a New York Mets farm team. (See: About New York; Giuliani Razed Roller Coaster, And the Law, by Dand Barry, October 4, 2003.)

According to the above New York Times article, demolition of the Thunderbolt was “goosed” along by someone from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which is now one of the agencies importantly involved in leading the city’s effort to eliminate Coney Island amusement acreage. (It has been noted that there can be some basic problems of perspective when “development” officials are involved with providing the public with parks and recreation, another example being Brooklyn Bridge Park.)

The proposed Steeplechase Plaza is to replace currently existing outdoor playing fields wedged into the awkward small space left between the Keyspan ballpark and the boardwalk. There is room enough to fit in the old carousel that is in storage. There is at least one frightening rendering available of a city-competition winning building that would enclose some of this previously open acreage. (See: Monday, March 05, 2007, Coney's "Steeplechase Plaza" Moving Forward.)

Razzling Questions

Here is an interesting Razzle Dazzle question: Since the 2.2 acre Steeplechase Plaza immediately abuts the “27-acre amusement district” why isn’t it and its acreage included in the city's official amusement district so that people would then be talking about a 29.2 acre district?

Here is another question of that ilk: Why is Steeplechase Plaza abutting the“27-acre amusement district” not included in it while at the other end, the Cyclone is? They both go into the city’s calculation of the actual traditional open-air amusement area at 12.5 acres. Here is how Ms. Kapur formulated it at the NYU symposium:

The 27 acre amusement district consists of a new park we are mapping which, when combined with the Steeplechase Plaza on one side and the existing Cyclone on the other, is twelve and a half acres of parkland that then becomes a beachfront amusement park.
Taking a crack at a little amplifying translation we come up with the following version of the above (helping by doing some of the math):

The 27 acre amusement district consists of a new [9.39 acre amusement] park we are mapping which, when combined with the [2.2 acre] Steeplechase Plaza on one side [excluded from the 27 acre amusement and entertainment diestrict]and the existing [.91 acre] Cyclone on the other, [which is included in the 27 acre amusement and entertainment district] is twelve and a half acres of parkland that then becomes a beachfront amusement park [of which 10.3 acres are included in the amusement and entertainment district] . [Leaving a total of 16.7 acres, 62%, in the 27 acre amusement and entertainment district that are not traditional open-air amusements.]
We Are Not Amused: 16.7 Acres MAS and the Amusement Community Do Not Consider to Constitute a Preserved Amusement Area

The city fabricates its confusing eyewash 27-acre figure by including in the “amusement park district” acreage that could and probably will be used for hotels, indoor movie theaters and restaurants. The city says that hotels would be “limited to Surf Avenue.” As big buildings, hotels would no doubt take up much of the 27 acres. MAS and the community have argued that while hotels could still be located on Surf Avenue, “There should be no hotels south of Surf and east of Keyspan Park” because they “would obstruct sight-lines to the beach,” “encroach on the already limited area devoted to amusements” and “compromise some of the few remaining historic buildings in Coney.” (See: Monday, April 20, 2009, All Eyes Are On. . . . Coney Island.)

Ms. Kapur at the NYU symposium makes things sound almost palatable, but remember that permission to build a water park doesn’t mean a water park will actually be built instead of a run-of-the-mill movieplex, or that what could be “open” would actually be open instead of “enclosed.” Ms. Kapur:

Complementing that is area to the north which is also amusement area and is being zoned through a special district to allow for a range of open and enclosed amusements, rides, but also bringing in uses such as restaurants that are not permitted here today, movie theaters, water parks, Imaxes, and also hotels that would be limited to the Surf Avenue frontage, also limited to locations in the corners.
To Be Really Razzled With Acreage Numbers

Forewarned is forearmed. See if you can withstand this: Everything we have written above should make clear that the city is selling a reduction and near elimination of amusements at Coney- But, even knowing that, don’t the following descriptions by Ms. Kapur at the NYU symposium make it sound like something completely different?

One is an acre and a half community park, which will be a neighborhood park open to the new and the existing Coney Island community. And then on the other side is a 9.3 acre amusement park which will be mapped along the boardwalk and this will become the centerpiece of the new amusement district that we are proposing to create for you.

* * * *

The way we have strategically located this park property, it starts to create a network of parks starting all the way from Ocean Parkway, through the boardwalk to Asser Levy Park to the New York Aquarium, the new proposed amusement park district, the Keyspan Park and then finally ending in Highland View Park* which is the new neighborhood park we are proposing to create. This is a network of 60 acres of active amusement, entertainment, publicly accessible areas within the Coney Island system. And alongside the beach which is more than a hundred acres here and the three-mile-long boardwalk this really starts to create a nexus which becomes the amusement and entertainment center.

So how exactly would this amusement district work? The 27-acre amusement district consists of a new park we are mapping which, when combined with the Steeplechase Plaza on one side and the existing Cyclone, on the other is twelve and a half acres of parkland that then becomes a beachfront amusement park. Complementing that is area to the north which is also amusement area and is being zoned through a special district to allow for a range of open and enclosed amusements, rides, but also bringing in uses such as restaurants that are not permitted here today, movie theaters, water parks, Imaxes, and also hotels that would be limited to the Surf Avenue frontage, also limited to locations in the corners.
(* Highland View Park is a proposed disconnected park three block north of the Keyspan Ballpark.)

Coming Round To The Current Irony: MAS Now “Appears” To Want Fewer Amusement Acres Than City Administration

Whereas the city’s statement about what it wants in terms of amusement acreage have gotten progressively more challenging to understand, MAS has tried to simplify what it is saying, but look at the unfortunate result. MAS recently decided to round off, when stating to the public, the 26.5 figure for the minimum amusement park acreage it is calling for. You could round 26.5 to either 26 or 27 since it ends “.5" though common method rounding would have you round up to 27. Also, since the figure stated is a “minimum figure” that is another reason to round up. In actuality, MAS was, for a time, generally rounding the figure down to 26 in its public discussions and, more recently, has rounded down to the nearest 5, stating, for instance at the NYU symposium, the minimum acreage figure should be “25 acres.” Still, it is important to remember that MAS is calling for what is the bare minimum of what it thinks is a viably sized amusement park area. Almost every other premier amusement park around the world is substantially larger.

The ironic effect of MAS’s simplified rounding down of its figure to 25 acres is that this number, while more clearly distinct from the city’s “27-acre amusement district” now appears to be calling for less than the city is calling for, even though MAS is actually calling for an open-air amusement area more than twice as large as what the city is calling for. Give yourself a pat on the back if you are following all of this. It certainly means that the press has had an uphill battle in expressing things clearly.

What the City Doesn’t Want You to Know: It Is Shrinking The Coney Island Amusement Park to Its Likely Extinction

We said at the outset that we don’t believe the city wants you to know what it is proposing to do at Coney Island. We don’t think the city wants the public to know to what a tiny vestigial remnant it intends to shrink the once-great Coney amusement area because then the public would almost certainly oppose the selling of all those amusement park acres. Isn’t the city growing? Why then should the city be eliminating the resource of a great amusement park? Why should the city seemingly be doing everything in its power to see that a historic amusement park is sold off to real estate develop developers and land speculators for blander uses of the seashore less accommodating of the public or our imaginations?

The Municipal Art Society called for the a minimum of 27 acres of traditional style amusements at Coney: We think the city’s somewhat sneaky rejoinder to MAS’s recommendation speaks volumes. When someone confuses the issue and doesn’t take a debate on squarely and directly we think it is a fairly good indication that they know they are on what should be the losing side of an argument.

So here is a confusing piece of advice for you: When the Municipal Art Society says create 27 acres of amusements, listen. When the city says create a 27-acre “amusement park district” disregard what they are saying. And when YOU say there should be 27 acres of amusement park at Coney Island, emphasize “at a minimum” and “as called for by the Municipal Art Society, an organization we can trust.”

By the way, those alternative replacement uses the city envisions substituting for Coney’s amusements may be generations in coming even if the amusement area is put asunder now . . . But that is material for a future Noticing New York post.

Note: There is a brand new resource regularly posting new information about Coney Island issues which we suggest you check out: Amusing the Zillion (A former carny kid casts an insider’s eye on the amusement business, Coney Island, and fun spaces in between)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

City Officials in Their Own Words on “Creating” a Coney Island Amusement Area: We Will Do Again What Hasn’t Worked Before

(Amanda Burden at NYU Coney Island Symposium)

Under the Bloomberg administration, Coney Island’s amusements are disappearing fast and the primary feature of the city’s rezoning plan for the area is, in fact, to purposely shrink the Coney Island amusement area even though that area is readily recognized by all, even those same city officials, as Coney’s greatest asset. Is it possible that this shrinking could actually make sense because, as the city is indicating, it will use a new tool, acquiring and mapping parkland in Coney Island that will allow it to succeed in preserving Coney Island amusement. Nope: Been there; done that. This is something that failed when it was previously tried.

Once More We Use City Officials’ Own Words at a Symposium to Question Their Coney Rezoning Plan

This is our third post in which we are questioning the city’s planned rezoning of Coney Island, carefully examining the remarks of City Planning officials speaking Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at “Which Way Coney Island? A Symposium on Its Future,” at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

In this post, once gain we find that, listened to carefully, city officials’ own words inherently contradict and undermine what they are saying.

In our first post of this series we suggested that the idea that the city is eliminating amusement acreage in order to “create” an “amusement district” should not be believed because elimination of amusement acreage has always been harmful to Coney’s amusement industry before and, empirically, the city’s plan to “save” the amusement area has had exactly the opposite effect in the five years it has been pursued. Meanwhile, city “parkland” is not used for amusements as once promised but for parking lots (and the city is even proposing to de-map it.) Lastly, the city seems indifferent to preserving historic Coney Island icons. (See: Tuesday, May 12, 2009, The City to the Public: “We’ve Got Your Coney Island: If You Want It Back, Better Do Exactly As We Say. . ”)

In our second post we pronounced as suspect several of the city’s stated goals about serving the poor, particularly the city’s claim that by eliminating the waterfront amusement areas it hopes to create improved local shopping opportunities for the neighborhood’s lower-income residents. (See: Saturday, May 16, 2009, City Is Rezoning So Coney Island’s Lower-Income Residents Will Have Place to Buy Back-to-School Shoes, Clothing and Stationery? Right. Sure Thing!)

City Officials on Mapping Amusement Area as City-Owned Parkland to Preserve Them
At the symposium, Amanda M. Burden, the Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning, described the city’s proposed acquisition of Coney land to map as parkland as key to preservation of the amusements. Ms. Burden (emphasis supplied):

In the amusement area there are several aspects that we must consider. One is that the open amusements are critical to the identity and the marketability of Coney Island and zoning cannot, and has not, preserved the amusements. The only way to preserve the amusements in perpetuity is for the city to take control of the twelve acres on the boardwalk where the open amusements are located.

(Purnima Kapur, the Director of City Planning's Brooklyn Office)

Ms. Burden handed things off to her deputy, Ms. Kapur, the Director of City Planning's Brooklyn, who elaborated. Ms. Kapur said (emphasis supplied):

Why the parkland, why is the parkland mapping important? If you look at the history of this city and the history of most cities, parks are created by the city government, state government for the benefit of the larger community. Parkland mapping is a tool that has been used to create this public benefit, from Prospect Park to Nellie Bly which is a small amusement area, even the Cyclone which is there today on city-mapped parkland. Rye Playland in Westchester, which is an amusement park, is also a mapped park. Mapping a property as parkland gives it protection in perpetuity, because it is not just about going in and changing the zoning in that case. Once a park is mapped parkland you have to alienate* it and replace it with equivalent parkland in New York City to be able to alienate* that. Without the parkland designation we feel strongly that the amusements will not be protected, they will continue to get eroded and the city will not be able to step in and create this amenity on the beachfront keeping it public, keeping it accessible and keeping it an amusement district for generations to come.
(* i.e. sell it.)

Preserving the Amusement Park for the Benefit of the Larger Community

We have previously argued that the Coney Island amusement area is essentially a special form of important parkland that, like Central Park or Prospect Park, serves the entire city. We have argued that if the city is truly growing, as many (including the Bloomberg administration) say it is, the city should not be shrinking such a key city asset. (See: Saturday, July 19, 2008, June 24, 2008- Hearing on Proposed Coney Island Development.)

(BTW: We note that Ms. Kapur describes the three-acre Nellie Bly amusement park in Brooklyn as “a small amusement area.” At twelve acres the city’s proposed Coney Island amusement district would not be all that much larger. The Municipal Art Society recommends more than double that, 25 acres for the amusement area, at a minimum. 25 acres would still make Coney one of the smallest premier amusement parks in the world and still a fraction of what it once was.)

A City Official on How Mapping Amusement Area as City-Owned Parkland Has Not Worked

Would mapping amusement area as city-owned parkland work to preserve the amusement area as Ms. Burden and Ms. Kapur seem to say? Would it ensure that the area used for amusement is not eroded? Would it protect it in perpetuity?

Mapping amusement area as parkland was tried before and it didn’t work. Here are Ms. Kapur’s own words at the symposium (She is pointing to a map when she refers to the “grey”):

One important part of this development is the parks strategy. What we are proposing to do, the two parcels that you see in grey, currently are parking lots. They are asphalt-covered parking lots used by the Keyspan Ballpark for the 38 days that it is in season and there is a game going on there. For most of rest of the year they remain vacant or very sparsely utilized. But they are New York City mapped parks under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction. We are proposing to de-map those as parkland and create two new parks in its place.
The reason these sparsely utilized parking lot acres (9.3 acres) are parkland is that when they were acquired by the city they were supposed to be protected and thereby preserved for use as Coney Island amusement area. Instead, we see that their misuse has been allowed to contribute to the erosion of the amusement area. What we see then is that “mapping” is not necessarily a protection at all. It doesn’t mean that the area will be used as a park or for amusements. It doesn’t guarantee that the land won’t subsequently be de-mapped and used for development just as proposed under the city’s current plan.

Some Pro and Some Con on the Idea

We are not wholly opposed to the acquisition of amusement land for amusement purposes by the city. The Municipal Art Society favors making the amusement area parkland in this fashion. They have studied the issue and their judgment is usually good and worth endorsing. But it is important to realize that this idea, which has not worked before, is not a panacea or guarantee. What matters most is the sincerity and commitment of the city and this is what we question here just as we have in our two prior posts reporting on the symposium. We note that others, particularly the Brooklyn Paper in editorial positions it has taken, advocate against city ownership of the land and believe that acquisition and mapping of parkland will not only be useless but unnecessarily expensive since the city will have to pay land speculators for the land. (See: November 20, 2008, Editorial, More Coney baloney, The Brooklyn Paper and April 19, 2008, Editorial, A good Coney compromise, The Brooklyn Paper.) We also wonder whether the city will be spending paying those speculators too much.

The Brooklyn Paper thinks that regulation through zoning will reduce the cost of providing the amusement area. (We think that if the city enforces the area’s current amusement zoning it would also reduce the cost of any possible acquisition by the city, whereas the city’s pursuit of the rezoning has likely increased the cost of such acquisition.)

City Officials on How Zoning Will/Will Not Work to Preserve Amusement Area

The Brooklyn Paper thinks that regulation through zoning is the answer, but we quoted Amanda Burden above saying “zoning cannot, and has not, preserved the amusements.” Here again we have an example of something that hasn’t worked previously that the city now says WILL work for it in the future under its new plan. What will be different to make that so? Who knows, but here is what Ms. Kapur said at the same symposium after Ms. Burden spoke (emphasis supplied):

So how exactly would this amusement district work? . . . . twelve and a half acres of parkland that then becomes a beachfront amusement park. Complementing that is area to the north which is also amusement area and is being zoned through a special district to allow for a range of open and enclosed amusements, rides, but also bringing in uses such as restaurants that are not permitted here today, movie theaters, water parks, Imaxes, and also hotels that would be limited to the Surf Avenue frontage, also limited to locations in the corners.
If zoning for amusements hasn’t worked in the past, why will it work when the city’s new plan is implemented? If it will work in the future, why can’t it be made to work now? Why does the city threaten that unless its plan to shrink the amassment area is passed now, this summer, that the amusement area is doomed and that no other salvation is possible?

The City Proposal Shrinks to Nothing New

In the end, we don’t see that anything new or unique will be implemented to save the Coney amusement area if the city’s plan to shrink the amusement area is passed. We see it only as a question of whether the city has a sincere commitment to use the tools it has to save the amusement area, something that could be done without shrinking that area.

Still Possible to Send Written Testimony to City Planning Commission

The City Planning Commission is still taking written testimony on its proposed Coney Island plan; testimony should be submitted soon. (Though yesterday, Monday, May 18, 2009 was the deadline for testimony relating to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but other important testimony can still be submitted.) See their hearing procedure notice for instructions.

The City Planning Commission needs to be told that there are certain minimum alterations that need to be made to their plan for the Coney Island we know and love to survive. For a list of the minimum revisions that should be made to the city’s proposed plan, reflecting what is recommended by the amusement community and its ally, the Municipal Art Society, see: Monday, April 20, 2009, All Eyes Are On. . . . Coney Island.

We suggest you write and demand a better plan for Coney Island, one that would be sincere and effective.

(Note: There is a brand new resource regularly posting new information about Coney Island issues which we suggest you check out: Amusing the Zillion (A former carny kid casts an insider’s eye on the amusement business, Coney Island, and fun spaces in between)