Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back In the Coney Island Saddle?

This is about new possibilities for the public vision of Coney Island’s future. We will start by talking about horses (not Coney Island’s old Steeplechase Park horses.)

Thrown from a Horse Intentionally

If you get thrown from a horse, advice is to get back in the saddle immediately. And if you ride, chance is that you will get thrown once. (Above, is an image of a joke T-shirt you sometimes see in horse circles.)

I know a story about a Long Island seaside stable where the trail guide knew how to throw people off their horses on purpose. Our guide friend claims he would regularly do so when he had the sort of wise-ass riders who, refusing to stay in line, would race ahead when he was supposed to be setting the pace for a group canter. When this happened he would lead the group to an area where there was a particular sudden sharp bend in the trail. He’d then quickly rouse the group to a canter and let the wise-acres shoot ahead. Result? The horses who knew the trail’s sharp turn would go one way; the riders flew another. I believed the guide’s story because he could show us the hole in the bushes of pressed-down grass and weeds where the wise-acres landed when they met their comeuppance.

Coney Island Community Unhorsed

I couldn’t help thinking of this story in June of this year when the New York City Economic Development Corporation held hearings on a plan essentially to end Coney Island’s history as an amusement area. (See: Friday, July 18, 2008, June 24, 2008- Hearing on Proposed Coney Island Development.) It was pretty terrible that the EDC would propose the end of Coney Island. (We have commented that the EDC proposal seems to deny that our city might be growing. As an agency that should promote growth, it seems contrarian for the EDC to want to sell off, rather than develop what should be the city’s premier amusement district.) What was worse was that the EDC had just acted, much like the trail guide of my story, to throw the Coney Island community out of the development saddle.

As many community members testified at EDC’s June 24, 2008 hearing, until a short time before that hearing the community had been participating in a long-labored, consensus-driven plan for Coney Island’s future. The community may have been making a few too many compromises in terms of giving up amusement park area for standard forms of other bland development, but those compromises were being made temperately and with restraint by the community on a considered basis. EDC abruptly substituted another plan, essentially bringing to an end the respected history of Coney as an amusement park area.


One of the great things about the Coney Island community is that is has a lot of wise-ass and outrageous characters, but it doesn’t seem that the community was being the least bit wise-ass in the way they were trying to formulate and negotiate their future. The community didn’t deserve to be thrown. The wise-ass who is not up to straightforwardly negotiating what he wants and who behaves with disregard for the community is developer Joe Sitt. EDC’s last-minute turnaround seemed designed to throw the community out of the saddle and put Joe Sitt in it. Needless to say we are suspicious of the Mayor’s EDC as being too much an extension Joe Sitt’s goals. We are also suspicions of the Coney Island Development Corporation for the same reason. We don’t believe any of the developer hype that they have become a conduit of. (The pictures of squoozed-in high-rise amusement rides that no one intends to finance clinches this.)

Municipal Art Society on a White Horse

I suspect that when all is said and done we may discover that the Coney community is scrappy enough to fend for itself. The June hearing was very well-attended and overwhelmingly negative toward what the EDC proposed. Nevertheless, it is good news that the Municipal Art Society has recently ridden in on a white horse. (See: Tuesday, November 04, 2008, As Coney plan teeters, MAS enlists international experts for whirlwind workshop.) The MAS initiative, Imagine Coney, will use a charrette process to create a new vision for Coney Island’s future. Visions have extraordinary power and Coney Island is renowned throughout the city and the world. People will be paying a lot of attention to that vision, wanting the best for Coney Island and wanting an amusement park future for the area consistent with the greatness of its history.

MAS Benefits & Resources; Eminent Domain?

MAS has significant resources it can bring to bear for which to be thankful. MAS is also likely to bring a more effective, less developer-friendly attitude to the process. MAS is often receptive to the use of eminent domain, although, as we have previously expressed, we believe that MAS needs to organize it thoughts on what are the good and the bad uses of eminent domain. (Their understanding of how badly eminent domain can be abused is unusually well-informed.) Coney Island may present one of the exceedingly rare instances where use of eminent domain is appropriate to create a redeveloped public amusement park. (Right now we have a developer buying up land zoned for amusement park use, refusing to act as if the zoning should apply.)

In “Sitt”ing Not So Pretty (Saturday, October 4, 2008) we summed it up thus:

The city has been willing to pursue eminent domain in some highly inappropriate and abusing ways. By contrast, its use in this situation to create a public park and to counter the effects of intentional blight and the unwillingness to comply with the zoning would be quite defensible. Attending a Municipal Art Society panel discussion about Coney Island, “Coney Island at the Crossroads,” I got into a conversation with city development officials and was told that the city did not want to threaten eminent domain. I was told the city prefers “friendly negotiations” with the developer. (See: Friday, September 19, 2008, the “Wednesday Evening” section of Contrivance in the service of creating blight, real blight- Listen again- REAL blight)
Results by Zoning Regulation vs Investing in the “Public Realm”

More recently we were at another MAS panel discussion, Growing Greener Cities, that reinforced another point we made about the actions being taken in Coney Island. See: Atlantic Yards Report: Monday, November 03, 2008, Overdevelopment, zoning, and the public realm (and AY).

During the evening, the well-known urban planning professor and textbook writer from Yale, Alex Garvin, suggested that we should stop using the regulation of zoning as a tool to create the things that we want in the city. (Garvin’s thinking has often been respectfully cited or paid for by NYC decision-making officials.) The alternative to regulation that Garvin advocated a number of times throughout the evening is direct investment in what Garvin referred to as the “public realm.” Quoting from the Atlantic Yards Report:

“We have an obsolete way of doing that in this city--it’s called zoning,” Garvin declared. “I defy you to tell me that by regulating”--he showed a slide of buildings on Second Avenue in Manhattan--”that that gets you a greater city, or a sustainable one.”

* * * *
Garvin thinks we must spend public money on the public realm, "the quality of life of a great city,” including streets, squares, transportation systems, schools, public buildings, and parks.
In "Sitt"ing Not So Pretty we went on to make much the same point:

Rather than avail itself of the blunt tool of eminent domain to assure that there will be the desired amusement park use, the city is proposing to do something that sounds rather preposterous to me: The city is proposing to take the same tool of zoning that it can’t (or doesn’t choose to) make work and sharpen it. Since the city can’t get Sitt to comply with the zoning to provide the amusement fare for which the area is currently zoned, the city is working on “rewriting” the zoning requirements to provide with greater specificity exactly what the city wants in the way of amusement fare. Truly though, the more significant change is actually that the `sharpened’ zoning would apply to a significantly reduced area, only 9 acres. (We have suggested that the Coney Island plan not be used in Coney Island at all: Sunday, September 28, 2008 Shorely We Jest: Needed Amusement Musing)
As Atlantic Yards Report noted (see the reference to the “ubiquitous Michael D. D. White”), we asked Professor Garvin about a number of debated developments now underway. We specifically included Coney Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park in our list. We asked about the need to invest in the public realm versus the questionable idea of achieving results in Coney through zoning regulation. (Mr. Garvin’s answer wound up focusing on a different project, a favorite proposal of his, to emphasize the superior value of public realm investment.)

The City Going Along for the Ride?

Is the city willing to go along with the MAS Imagine Coney initiative? We think the city may be getting the message. Two weeks ago it was reported that the city spent $11 million to buy one acre of the Coney Island amusement area. (City buys a key Coney parcel, by Mike McLaughlin, October 16, 2008, The Brooklyn Paper) The site was reported to include the site of the famous Wonder Wheel but the Wonder Wheel is actually just next to what was purchased.

It is probably reading too much into too little to say that the city is going along and there is more to the story.

Is City Staying on Course “Bloomberg Limited”?

Whatever course the city is on, the city was willing to throw the community out of the saddle once before. The city may have purchased an acre of land but right now the Mayor is much in need of reacquiring some of the public good will he sacrificed with unprincipled power plays to extend term limits so that he can have a third term. We have written a number of pieces on this, our latest being Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown (Tuesday, November 4, 2008). Mayor Bloomberg’s maneuvering was more objectionable since it involves a deal structured to make the extension of limits particular only to Bloomberg.

Interestingly, Mayor Bloomberg was putting out a story that specifically linked the fate of Coney Island to his remaining time in office. The idea was that a Coney Island development deal had to be put to bed before the end of the Bloomberg administration or something a lot more terrible was going to befall the community. Doesn’t this seem rather absurd? We suppose that since Bloomberg might now have a third term, the bogeyman would be fended off? So people should vote for him?- Notwithstanding the purchase of a (symbolic?) acre, the city also has a long way to be dragged before it will be in the right place on Coney Island. (There are a number of pictures in this post that show how small the city was making the amusement area- Refer to the Cyclone for a size reference.)

It appears that the city is reluctant to be dragged anywhere at all. The Observer ran an article reporting that Amanda Burden, invoking her title as Planning Director of the Department of City Planning, 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 (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.

We suggest that: 1.) Ms. Burden’s reference to “scores of meetings with a wide variety of local and citywide stakeholders” means little given the city’s abrupt and unilateral abandonment of the original plan towards which those meetings were working, 2.) Ms. Burden’s imperative about NOT considering in any way altering timelines, proposed rezoning boundaries or any supposed “urban design” is imperious nonsense, and 3.) Ms. Burden’s similarly imperious and rather peculiar threat that “the Coney Island amusement area that we know and love will cease to exist” unless her inflexible demands are met doesn’t make Amanda sound like someone inclined to “know or love” Coney Island. (BTW: This was a week after the City Council voted to specially extend Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s term limits- So what is the “summer of 2009" date all about?)

Selling the Public Realm: Does Bloomberg Administration Sell Out Community’s for a Price?

The city’s willingness to throw the community out of the saddle so that it could be Sitt’s seat instead is representative of something we regret we did not raise more specifically with Professor Garvin the other night. Yes, Garvin feels we should be investing more in the public realm. We agree. Moynihan Station is a sublime example of investment we should be making in the public realm. (Garvin has also previously indicated that public funds for making these public realm investments, "the peoples’ property" should be redirected from non-public realm resource-stealing projects like Atlantic Yards, "other people’s property".) A corollary to the precept that we should be investing in the public realm is that we should not be giving up the investment in the public realm that we currently have. But this is exactly what the Bloomberg administration seems disposed to do in situation after situation. Coney Island, heretofore has been example of exactly such an impulse.

In the case of Atlantic Yards we are selling off streets and avenues. The extreme and inappropriate density is another example of selling off a public realm asset (See the Atlantic Yards Report discussion of Garvin’s ideas on density). The Rudin/St. Vincent’s Hospital real estate deal is essentially selling off a section of the Greenwich Village Historic District to create a real estate subsidy with real estate developer Rudin as one of the beneficiaries. A similarly disconcerting move is now afoot with respect to reconfiguration of the South Street Seaport Historic District.

We can’t even bemoan that the city is being sold off in bits and pieces “to the highest bidder” because in so many of these divestitures there is no bidding at all.

Advice for the Community? Get Back in the Saddle and Take the Reins!

Advice for the community? Get back in the saddle. Create and publicize a strong vision that will control whatever the turns in the path or whoever is the next Mayor. Be thankful for the assistance of the Municipal Art Society, but don’t fully cede the process or the creation of the vision. As Atlantic Yards Report notes, MAS sometimes looks to be effective through compromise. It is the strength of the community’s vision that pulls the reins to the right side of any possible compromise. There are times, of course, when a truly superb vision should not be compromised.

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