Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shorely We Jest: Needed Amusement Musing

I would like to compliment our city Economic Development Corporation officials for what I was slow in realizing is the absolutely brilliant development plan they came up with when studying the situation at Coney Island. (See Noticing New York’s testimony on the subject.)

Plan is Brilliant Because. . .

(Do you think Noticing New York jests when it avows the following?)

For those of you not familiar with it, the plan proposes to take a publicly controlled waterfront shoreline asset (the Coney Island amusement park area) and convert it to a mixture of new housing, commercial space and waterfront public park. The old (historic) asset, the Coney Island amusement park area, would be judged to have outlived any arguable public purpose, benefit or use. Rather than hold on to an outmoded vision, the city would succumb, and acknowledge that the asset is not getting the use intended. They would then decommission the asset, in this case by no longer insisting on the antiquated use of it by the developer who is refusing to use the area in compliance with the existing zoning. (The area is zoned for amusement park use. Joe Sitt of Thor Equities has evicted the amusement operations of Astroland from the area though it doesn’t seem that he truly has a superior alternative amusement-area-compliant activity in mind for the property whose use he is striving to change. Other amusement area acreage is already being held vacant.) In essence, the asset which was formerly envisioned as providing a public benefit for a truly broad range of New Yorkers would be sold off as privatized housing and commercial development with nearby waterfront park and green areas. And, good news, people would move into the area, jobs would be created and property taxes would be paid.

Right Plan, Wrong Place: Right for the Sheridan

Great plan!- But NOT for Coney Island.- How about for the South Bronx and the Sheridan Expressway?

This week I cheered when I saw that the Congress for New Urbanism placed the 1.25 mile Sheridan Expressway, which stretches along the Bronx River, as Number 2 on its just released list of highways most in need of demolition to stimulate investment and good urban economics. (See: CNU Names Top 10 "Freeways Without Futures": Revived Neighborhoods and Waterfronts Ahead. I first caught the story on Streetsblog: America’s Least Wanted Highways, by Ben Fried).

Highway-Burdened Bronx

Tearing down the largely unused and redundant Sheridan would free 28 acres of prime land for waterfront development. Of all the city’s boroughs, the Bronx is by far the most seriously handicapped with slash upon slash of highway cutting through the fabric of the borough’s neighborhoods (a full slasher movie quota and then some). You hardly notice, for instance, the borough’s assets like its abundant parkland (25%, 7000 acres). The Bronx River is the same Bronx River that flows through the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. This past week. the Bronx and its prospects for development got an odd mention on the Stoler Report, Michael Stoler’s forum discussion program on New York’s real estate industry. The guest developers were commenting that there is no longer any stigma attached to living in the outer boroughs, no stigma associated with living in Brooklyn, no stigma living in Queens, and the Bronx. . . Well, there was a pause there. (Stoler programs are available on line.)

Because the Bronx is so sorely challenged, people do not quickly find and recognize the value of Bronx neighborhoods as they are doing all over Brooklyn. Tearing down the Sheridan Expressway is one of the most obvious quick fixes available to start making things a lot better. Sustainable South Bronx advocates the demolition, pointing out that removing the highway will have all the benefits ostensibly attributable to the city’s Coney Island plan, plus it will reunite South Bronx neighborhoods and start using a previously unused waterfront: These last two benefits especially are things the Coney Island plan does not provide.

A City Bereft of Sites to Develop?

When questionable real estate projects are pushed in this city, the argument is often made that the city is bereft of suitable alternative sites for development. The tantalizing availability of these 28 acres of Sheridan Expressway land challenges that myth. Noticing New York is aware of all sorts of sites that stand ready to be developed across the city. It is just a question of better direction of resources. In Coney Island itself there are so many opportunities for development that the idea of sacrificing the historic amusement park areas for not very many acres of development is unjustifiably senseless. (Without most New Yorkers being aware of what is happening, the city is working in tandem with a developer-owner to whittle Coney Island into non-existence (see maps). Most recently, our city officials’ unfortunate best judgment is that if it is between preserving a greatly diminished 16 or 9 acres for amusement use, that sliver difference of 7 acres ought to be shifted over to the ever more hefty “develop-it” side of the ledger. Meanwhile, the developability of many acres of Coney NOT comprising the public’s historic seaside amusement park will be ignored.)

The Coney Island development plan is a lousy plan for Coney Island but a great plan if you just transplant, tweak and adapt it a little for the South Bronx. So let’s take the plan on the road and take on the road.

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