Monday, November 17, 2008

The Coney Island Crowd: Plans Unveiled Tonight

We are convinced that Coney Island has a great future in store, building on its amusement area history.

The BAM Reveal of Coney Plans Tonight, Yes Tonight (Monday)

For that reason, everyone should want to be at tonight’s Imagine Coney event being presented by the Municipal Art Society; 6:30 PM at the BAM Cafe upstairs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. While MAS set it up so that you can make reservations (online) it was announced at one of the community charrettes that this is a more-the-merrier event and there is enough room so that they are suggesting that people bring all their interested friends. You will probably be safe going and bringing a lot of friends at the last minute.

The event will be the big reveal of plan a MAS collected design team has put together for Coney Island’s future. A website was set up and two public meetings (charrettes) were held to collect ideas, one on Coney and the other at the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. We were at both.

Go and be thrilled and inspired. If you want, you can also do some homework first. The Imagine Coney site where the public can contribute suggestions has a lot of background and a write-up of suggestions already made. We also strongly suggest that you spend some time reading the Coney Island Visions report prepared by the Center for an Urban Future, undertaken in partnership with the Municipal Arts Society when it kicked off the Imagine Coney campaign. The report is a tight, thoughtfully edited compilation of the ideas of cultural, civic and design leaders contributing new ideas for Coney Island’s future.

Attention That Coney Island Deserves- - but Amanda From the City Is Prickly

As it deserves, Coney Island seems to be getting everybody’s attention, which is what is needed to save it. The ideas emerging are exciting. We like, for instance the idea of a Steeplechase Park-type ride that would traverse and visit a revitalized aquarium attraction. We hope that what is developed takes advantage of the opportunity to grow a strong local brand with a lot of edgy New York artist-style creativity.

While this kind of high-powered attention is exactly what will save Coney Island, City Planning Chairman Commissioner Amanda Burden made a strangely prickly statement to fend off the attention that community, the Municipal Art Society and the Center for an Urban Future are bringing to bear. Rather than recognizing that this will be the salvation of Coney Island, Ms. Burden was instructing MAS to back off, saying that unless MAS functioned only within the extreme constraints of control she wanted to dictate that:

. . . the Coney Island amusement area that we know and love will cease to exist.
(See: Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Back In the Coney Island Saddle?)

Dragging the City Along in the Right Direction; Another Debate With Amanda

At this point we are all worried that the city will have to be dragged every step of the way to a plan that will save Coney. There is every reason to be suspicious that the city either through its ill-motivation or incompetence, will be proceeding hell-bent on a course towards its destruction.

Even what may be considered to be good deeds get and deserve questioning. The city spent $11 million dollars to buy an acre of amusement park land. The motivation was questioned by the Brooklyn Paper in an editorial that generated an urban planning debate with a defensive Ms. Burden: Bloomy’s Coney baloney, October 16, 2008.

. . . . the real-estate deal is actually the first step in a process that will likely lead to a further weakening of Coney’s amusement zone. Here’s how:

Coney Island’s amusement area is currently zoned so that only amusements — rides, games of chance, Shoot the Freak booths and landmarks like the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel — can operate there.

* * * *

Yet the Bloomberg Administration wants to rezone the area as “park land” and then lease the land to amusement companies or a single theme-park operator to create a revitalized Coney Island with exciting new rides and outdoor and year-round indoor attractions

* * * *

And therein lies the problem.

Under questioning from The Brooklyn Paper, city officials admitted this week that if the area is rezoned as “park land,” virtually anything can be built there. The city zoning resolution does not require “park land” to be set aside as green space, to be devoid of commercial activity or, indeed, to be off-limits to housing development.

Actually, all it does is put such “park land” under the sole control of the mayor’s office. No rezoning hearings or public review process will kick in if the city later wants to build a hotel or a conference center or housing or a shopping mall in the so-called “People’s Playground.”

* * * *

Clearly, this week’s one-acre land purchase and the scheme to rezone the area as “park” isn’t about “saving” Coney Island — it’s about putting nine acres of prime Boardwalk-front land under mayoral control, wresting it away from a private developer whom this mayor simply does not like.

* * * *

The city did not need to buy that piece of land to “protect” the amusement zone; indeed, the site is currently home to the already-successful Deno’s Wonder Wheel park and, more important, could only be an amusement park, given the current zoning.

But once the area is rezoned as “park land,” all bets are off.
Ms. Burden wrote a letter to the editor contradicting the editorial’s analysis (City plan not Coney baloney: The Brooklyn Paper mailbag, October 30, 2008):

. . .While the city does propose to “map” the nine-acre open amusement area as parkland, it is not true that “virtually anything can be built” in mapped parkland. In fact, designation of property as “mapped parkland” permanently prohibits hotels, condos, convention centers and other similar commercial uses.

State legislation that will be sought by the administration will allow for a long-term lease of mapped parkland for amusement-related uses only, to promote the vitality of Coney Island’s amusement area while ensuring that incompatible uses can never be developed there.

Mapping the open amusement area as “parkland” is the best way to ensure that Coney Island’s amusements are protected irrespective of economic pressures — something existing zoning has failed to do. . .
While the city is off on the wrong track and needs to be questioned, the Brooklyn Paper is probably wrong and Ms. Burden right about whether “condos” could be built on park land even if some of what can and can’t be done will be determined prospectively by state legislation. It is more difficult to say who exactly is right about possibilities when it comes to the array of other possible uses the paper says might be permissible. Noticing New York has already suggested that perhaps it would be appropriate to use eminent domain to create an amusement district (much larger than “nine-acres”) and that would certainly entail public ownership, probably by the city. We think that zoning is likely not the way to go. Still, the Brooklyn Paper’s overall theme of being distrustful of mayoral control with lack of public review should not be dismissed, especially with this developer-oriented Mayor and administration. The Mayor certainly likes control over almost everything, but he is not the ideal candidate to get that control. Perhaps the land could be park land still protectively zoned for amusement use?

The initial parcel purchased by the city is only 1 acre at a cost of only $11 million dollars so it is only a cookie crumb of the overall picture. Without knowing the answer, we do find ourselves wondering why ULURP hasn’t been mentioned if the city is acquiring the acre of land in question.

Tale of Two Coney Island Charrettes: It Is Not Just the Amusement

A vital future as an amusement area is not the end of the story. The MAS presentation will probably focus on design and the culture of the amusement area. The two community charrettes MAS held were somewhat different. The second, held at the Brooklyn Library, involved community participants from throughout the region who focused primarily on the design and the culture of the amusement area. The first, involving many more local Coney Island residents focused on these same concerns but also on community residents' needs.

Coney and Affordable Housing

The local community has many needs associated with the fact that Coney Island is filled with a lot of affordable housing of various kinds. It is not very income-integrated when it comes to higher levels of income.

Affordable housing is almost invariably a carrot that comes into play when people debate prospective development plans these days. One thought on what would make sense in terms of developing housing in the area would be to think in terms of next-step housing, housing that would be attractive to people already living in Coney Island families who might want to move into housing that was a step up.

The New York City Housing Partnership programs may be building exactly the right kind of housing for this purpose. The housing involves at least one residential unit that is owner-occupied. There can be associated rental units which the owner rents out. The program can also build multi-family housing consisting of owner-occupied condominium or co-op units. The program is perfect for scatter-site infill building wherever there are vacant lots or where owners of smaller structures are willing to sell. Use of the program would probably also contribute to safety in the neighborhood, something else local residents are expressing an interest in.

No Sense in Selling Off the Community Jewels as an Enclave

What doesn’t make sense when it comes to dealing with a community striving to do better is to take away its primary asset, especially when like Coney Island, that asset could be a thriving income- and identity-producing asset. It should not be sold off as a luxury housing plus ill-conceived shopping mall enclave. The Coney Island amusement area acres are the community crown jewels. Those crown jewels can give the community income and identity but they are held in trust for the entire region. It makes no sense for anyone to sell them off for luxury housing and a shopping mall that could be produced anywhere and has no organic relationship to the beach that it will wall off.

One Other Thing to Think About

There is one other thing. It may be a temptation to think just about the Coney Island amusements while forgetting about the community’s social needs. It can be difficult to go from thinking about roller coasters and parachute jumps in one moment to roach control and AIDs education and treatment in another. There is something else that is sometimes difficult to remember. As low-lying ocean front, Coney Island, like neighboring Far Rockaway, is quite vulnerable to a hurricane.

There was a big Category 2 storm that devastated Far Rockaway and the Jamaica Bay in 1893. It washed away resort hotels and what was once an entire recreational island (Hog Island). (See: The Gowanus Lounge, Friday, June 01, 2007, In Honor of Hurricane Season: The Hog Island Story.) It has been a long time since a hurricane affected the area (Hurricane Donna brought several feet of water to Far Rockaway) but with global warming/weirding, the odds are up. Storms do come up this way. You only have to go back to 1938 to find a Category 5 storm that made landfall on Long Island as a Category 3 storm and devastated new England and Providence, Rhode Island.

Perhaps impractically we are busy building a lot in the Rockaways, including subsidized housing that is unlikely to do well in the event of a storm. Some thought should be given to what we build in Coney Island in terms of what will stand up to a storm or can be replaced afterward.

Coney Island Crowd

At the community charrettes people kept talking about how they like to people watch the crowds at Coney Island. They also always said they liked the Mermaid Parade. I kept track but between the two charrettes I only heard complimentary mention of the Astro Baseball stadium once.

Now it's Coney Island’s off-season, but you may get a crack at Coney Island people watching if you are there tonight. The added benefit is that once the city gets the idea that there is a crowd moving in this direction to save Coney Island, the city might get on the ball.

Some Other Worthwhile Posts of Imagine Coney (all from Atlantic Yards Report)

Sunday, November 16, 2008
Initial results of Imagine Coney to be presented tomorrow

Wednesday, November 12, 2008
In Coney Island Visions report, new ideas, express dreams, and AY avoidance

Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Imagine Coney? Here are three ideas: amusement museum; eating contest Hall of Fame; and street hoops haven

Tuesday, November 04, 2008
As Coney plan teeters, MAS enlists international experts for whirlwind workshop

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