Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hearing the Coney Island Narrative

(Carol Hill Albert, owner of the evicted Astroland that also used to run the city’s Cyclone roller coaster, testifying at last week’s hearing.)

We return now to the subject of last week’s hearing, held by Brooklyn Community Board 13, on the city’s proposal to shrink the Coney Island amusement area. Our Noticing New York testimony delivered at the hearing is available at: Our Noticing New York Testimony at Yesterday’s Community Board Hearing on City’s Proposed Coney Island Rezoning (Wednesday, March 4, 2009). Our prior testimony at the city’s Economic Development Corporation hearing held June 24, 2008 is also available at: Hearing on Proposed Coney Island Development (Friday, July 18, 2008).

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s other legacies may yet be scarce, but it seems he is intent on presiding over the dismantling of Coney Island to enforce the complete and total demise of the 150-year-old amusement park, something no politician or city official has heretofore been able to achieve, going back to Robert Moses’ destructive antipathy in the 1940s.

It has been widely commented by the Municipal Art Society and many others that the city’s proposal to shrink the Coney Island amusement area down to a nominal 9 acres is, for all practical purposes, a proposal to shrink the historic amusement area out of existence altogether. The proposed 9 shrunken acres is about a third the minimum size you would expect for a true and viable amusement area and far below any comparable amusement area existing elsewhere in the world. Such flea-speck amusement acreage for our greatest of cities could hardly accommodate cramming in just a few flea circuses as the central attractions. And flea circuses wouldn’t stand a chance: The Bloomberg administration would soon have them converted to flea markets and on their way to being a common mall. It is with good reason that people assert that a “malling over” of Coney is what the Bloomberg administration desires for Coney in its heart of hearts.

One thing that struck us at the hearing was the failure of a clear narrative to emerge. We wondered why. The hearing lasted from 6:00 PM until about 10:30. Usually at hearings fairly strong story lines present themselves, often along dichotomus lines, a developer’s story countered by the community’s. Here are some reasons we think the emerging narrative was not as clear as we think it ought to be.

1. Three (At Least Three) Competing Visions of Coney with Confusion About Which Are Very Similar or Different. Unlike most development battles where there are two principal visions competing to assert themselves, the developers’ and the community’s, in this case there are nominally at least three. That is the way the New York Times presented things in a recent major account providing an overview of current events: City and Developer Spar Over Coney Island Visions, by Charles V. Bagli, February 16, 2009. According to the Times story, a city vision not according with the developer’s vision was included in the mix to create three points of view. The headline selected for this article even made it seem that the two most important visions competing were, in fact, the developer’s and the city’s. However, the prominent caption for the picture that conspicuously began the story (“The city’s plan for a 9.4-acre amusement district. The Municipal Art Society wants it much bigger. A developer wants time-share hotels and big retailers.”) made it clear that there is actually a third vision promoted by the Municipal Art Society, and that the most important tension is between the developer’s vision of a rezoned commercial area and MAS’s desire to keep sufficient acreage zoned and set aside for amusements.

From the Times article one would likely have concluded that the developer was at one end of the spectrum with MAS was at the other, while the city’s proposal was very temptingly, for those inclined to “split the baby,” more or less in the middle. Not so. The city’s proposal is near enough to the developer’s so that it ought to be thought of as essentially the same. Even if the city’s proposal differs, it becomes a way station to the same result by virtue of its unworkability. Furthermore, it immediately rewards the developer/speculator for destroying amusements and refusing to plan, comply or invest in accordance with the zoning intended to preserve the area for amusement.

The city’s proposal is closer to the developer’s in other ways too, but the critical gulf in proposed amusement acreage makes the city proposal, quite different from the MAS’s, notwithstanding a New York Times editorial that says about the city and MAS proposals: “The surprise here is that the two plans are not drastically far apart.” (See: Editorial: Minding Coney Island, February 3, 2009.) That editorial urges that the city not continue to plan for the building of a “row of four hotels” that would “become a wall, blocking public access to” and squeezing the amusement area “into a narrow strip” . . . “that is simply too small to attract enough rides and attractions to bring back the big crowds.” We have written about a number of New York Times the horse-is-already- out-of-the-barn editorials that have, after the Times’ endorsement of his third-term-maneuvering, belatedly attempted to rein Bloomberg back into good behavior. (See: Saturday, November 15, 2008, The Mayor, The Times’ Timing, and a Proper Ordering.) We should probably add this editorial to that list which included other instances of serious city development concerns.

We are inclined to say that the Coney Island community wants to preserve Coney Island as an iconic amusement area that capitalizes on its unique historic characteristics and that the community therefore is aligned behind the hope offered by the Municipal Art Society’s vision. We would like to say so ringingly and without qualification. The reasons we can’t will be obvious as we discuss other reasons (listed below) we suppose why the emerging narrative lacks some of the clarity it should have.

2. Candidate Community Voices from Which a Narratives Might Emerge: The Unusually Difficult Challenge of Having A Community Voice That Is Split Three Ways (At Least Three). The local Coney Island community is a split one. When we think of the Coney Island name we probably associate it first with amusements, and associated with those amusements is an amusement area community that goes back more than a hundred years. That is the community that has historically been associated with the commerce of the area. But starting in the 1940s, amusements cleared out of the area were replaced by Robert Moses with low-, moderate- and middle-income housing. While there is one private, gated neighborhood in the community, Seagate, a fairly substantial portion of the overall residential community has incomes at the lower end of the spectrum and a fairly low level of retail is supported. While the Coney Island amusement community supports amusements, much of the lower-income residential community focuses first on things they hope will address the hardships of being low-income; job creation, affordable housing and social services. Noticing New York has commented before on what might be best in terms of providing additional housing in the area and it needn’t involve a contraction of the amusement areas. (See: Monday, November 17, 2008, The Coney Island Crowd: Plans Unveiled Tonight.) Similarly, the community’s desire for jobs is likely best satisfied and consistent with maintaining a large viable amusement area.

There is a third community voice that needs to be listened to. In one regard this is why the Municipal Art Society is so important. Coney Island is a resource that doesn’t belong solely to the local community. Like Central Park or Prospect Park, the spectacular beach and its associated amusement area belongs to all city residents. The other residents of the city constitute the third community voice that needs to be listened to. There is a land use doctrine pertaining to waterfront and public waterways. They belong to all the public and the public shouldn’t be shut out by the assertion of intervening claims of private ownership that place the beach and waterfront inaccessibly behind walls. Through substantial public investment, Coney Island is spectacularly well endowed with extraordinary subway lines that make the area accessible to the entire city. The history of Coney Island is there for all New Yorkers to embrace and honor.

3. Community Members Negotiating With the City Who Need to Speak Their Mind. Members of the community testifying included a fair number of individuals who are extraordinarily dependent upon negotiations they are engaged in with the city. They are negotiating with the very same city officials responsible for proposing the city plan. We noted individuals who “officially” endorsed the city plan, but then were widely applauded for speaking in more abstract terms about how the amusement area should be maximized.

4. Community Members Negotiating With the Developer Who Need to Speak Their Mind. Many members of the community will likely remain members of the amusement community only if they can negotiate to successfully renew leases for their businesses with the developer/land speculator. The developer/spectator has a history of requiring confidentiality clauses in its leases prohibiting hos tenants from publicly commenting on the developers development of Coney. Do we expect these individuals to show up to testify and how readily can these individuals speak their minds?

5. City Recently Altered Its Plan Abruptly. The current city plan is not the plan the city was previously promoting. The previous plan had much more in common with the current Municipal Art Society plan. The old city plan was supported by significant knowledgeable community leaders like Dick Zigan, who do not support the new city plan. The abrupt change meant that the Municipal Art Society didn’t participate in early discussions to promote better alternatives. As we were arriving at the hearing it was commented to us by another community member how late MAS had shown up if they wanted to be effective. But MAS did show up immediately, without delay, as soon as they were actually needed, which was not until the city radically altered its plan.

6. Misimpression “Zoning” Equals Development. An urban planner was sitting by me at the hearing. After the umpteenth time a low-income community member got up to say that the city plan needed to be approved because the neighborhood needed the hotels, housing and amusements envisioned in the city plan, the planner said to me, “Don’t they understand a zoning change is not investment? You don’t magically zone something into existence. Don’t they understand that, in this economy, no money is going to be invested for years and the land will still be vacant?” Indeed, the irony is that this challenging economy would be hospitable to the continuation of the kind of amusements that for years have been at Coney Island, providing a certain level of employment and economic activity. Absent developer speculation, current economic conditions would probably even be hospitable to moderate growth of such amusement fare at Coney. Rewarding developer speculation with a rezoning will only convert active amusement areas that now provide jobs into land that lies fallow for the duration of the downturn. And while you can’t zone something into existence (particularly in this economy) you certainly can zone something out of existence. (See: Crain’s March 09, 2009, Doubts mount over city's Coney Island plan, Opponents find multiple failings with the long-awaited plan, even as people on all sides of the issue fear that nothing will get built.)

7. Misimpression That Shrinking the Amusement Area Gives the City New Powers to Require Amusement Area Acres To Be Amusement. It is astounding that the city is simultaneously selling the idea that it will be able to force the owners of amusement area acreage to use those acres for amusement fare if the amusement area is made smaller while asserting that it can’t have such possible control over the owners of amusement acreage if it is not so reduced. What is the theoretical basis of these now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t city official powers? And yet, we note that some members of the press have reported the city’s version of how it has these abracadabra powers as if it were actually true. That is one reason the press is having problems constructing a reasonable version of the narrative to explain things to the public. The fact is, as we testified, that if the amusement acreage is reduced you have more problems, rather than fewer. With a shrunken amusement area the economics now work harder against the owners of the remaining amusement acres. And at the same time they will be more enticed to think that the sweep of rezoning will continue and that their acres will follow suit with those that have been converted to nonamusement use before.

8. Appropriation of Terms. In order to have a clear debate that defines issues it is necessary to have a common language to speak it in. In the case of Coney Island, the city interferes with such clarity by appropriating the terminology its opposition is using, distorting it to mean something else. The traditional Coney Island amusement community speaks of preserving Coney Island as an “iconic,” “edgy” and unique amusement park. City officials, whose interest in preservation is scant and who want to severely shrink the amusement acreage while probably dispossessing and replacing most of the existing amusement industry community, adopt exactly the same terminology, saying that they too want “iconic”and “edgy.” They want “edgy”?

The most recent example of the city confusing the debate is its response to the Municipal Art Society’s publicized analysis that there should be at least “27 acres” of amusement area, instead of the city’s planned-for 9, in order for amusements to work. (Note that is a minimum.) Without altering its plan at all to respond in earnest to the MAS’s analysis, the city simply started talking about how their plan provided “27 acres” of amusement area. They did this by simply altering their own method of calculating amusement park acreage to include acreage, such as the Coney Island Aquarium, that was not previously considered amusement park.

Including the aquarium as amusement park acreage is cruel in its insensitivity. The aquarium project, where Dreamland once stood, is more often noted for the fact that it is where Robert Moses, who was hostile to Coney, reduced the available acreage for more traditional amusements, demolishing more amusements than was actually needed to build the aquarium.

9. Feints and Misleads. There are things that, as likely intended, confuse the narrative. Coney Island developer/speculator Joe Sitt (Thor Equities), in a down economy, raises rents when other real estate owners in the economy are lowering their rents. Sitt also publicizes the fact that in the same down economy he is offering to buy more property in the area at a price substantially above its actual worth. Since he will probably never actually buy that land we will discount these announcements as tactics. Also, while the city is shutting down Coney, nobody apparently wants to be blamed for its destruction. That means that the city is doing things like moving to protect the Astroland Rocket and talking about finding the evicted Astroland a new home, but these actions are difficult to accept at face value. It is probably more meaningful to observe that the city has proposed to evict world-famous Nathan’s, one of the businesses that is still providing a strong anchor and identity for the amusement area, including its annual well-publicized hot dog eating contests.

10. An Alliterative Drama, the Sitt vs City “Fight”: Does it Aid In Understanding or Distract? Drama readily catches our attention but in the case of the well-publicized animosity between the city and Coney Island developer/speculator Joe Sitt (Thor Equities) does attention to that drama really help clarify the narrative? What difference does it make if, in the end, the city plan is similar to Sitt’s and rewards Sitt for his attacks on amusements designed to shrink the amusement area? And what does difference does it make if the city has already once, in an abrupt and secretive maneuver, altered its plans to make its plans much more like Sitt’s? Besides, Sitt is always, before things conclude, in a position to sell out his position to someone who isn’t “having a fight with the city.”

11. Job Wanted? We heard at least one young fellow testifying in favor of the city plan who sounded like he was motivated in part by the hope the city would hire him to work on the amusements it might build. While the Municipal Art Society is presenting an alternative better vision is it not within their mission to similarly hire people to implement it.

12. Construction Union Testimony. During the hearing we heard the construction worker testimony you usually hear at hearings for major projects these days and which we have come to regard as meaningless. Construction unions send their members to testify whenever union work is promised, no matter how remote the prospects are. Those testifying don’t weigh the benefits of such projects to the public though they often perfunctorily profess to do so. For the unions, everything automatically hinges on the promise of union involvement. Furthermore, by definition, the union focus is on the short-term on the construction phase not on long-term jobs or long-term community benefit. Construction workers are happy enough with any project where there is work for them. That could even be a churn, tearing down something of value to rebuild something not much different. In trying to discern a clear narrative, most of what they say can be dismissed as static. They often speak in terms of providing jobs to people who are never given jobs.

13. Coney Island History Needs To Be Remembered and Is Not A Sound Bite. Part of the problem with the Coney Island story that needs to be told is that it is a story involving history needing to be remembered. It is an extended story line as opposed to a sound bite. Before people dismiss Coney as hopelessly run down, they need to know that Coney has been under attack from destructive real estate developers for decades, going back to the days of Robert Moses so that what you see is not the result of a inevitable natural decline. What you actually see is resilience in the face of attack. Our own testimony refers to the destruction of viable amusements as an attempt to force a zoning change dates back to 1966 when Fred Trump destroyed Steeplechase Park for exactly this reason.

We are old enough to remember having ridden the horses of Steeplechase Park. Many are not. And even though we remember Steeplechase Park, we need to read about the real estate machinations that put Steeplechase Park asunder because we were too young to have understood what was happening back then. People should know about the battles that were won and should be honored. Going back to the 1950s battles have been fought and won to keep the amusement area from shrinking further, but they haven’t been fully honored. Who will remain to recount relevant history as the winners of those battles themselves become history or are evicted from the amusement area? Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In 1979 the city purchased the former Steeplechase Park site in order that it would remain amusement just as it is now proposed that the city should now buy Coney Island property to preserve its amusement use. The end result of the city’s 1979 purchase is that the land is NOT now used for amusement and the city’s handling of the property probably did more to frustrate the return of amusements than to facilitate it.

14. Lack of Clear Consensus on Some Real Estate Ownership Questions. Some of this is technical but there is a lack of consensus on some questions of real estate ownership and control. As noted above, city ownership of acreage intended to be amusement is not always a salvation. Ownership offers opportunity for greater control but this comes in all sorts of gradations with all sorts of fee ownership and leaseholds variations being possible. The Brooklyn Paper advocates against city ownership of land, feeling that zoning and regulation would be preferable because it would be less expensive. On the other hand, the Municipal Art Society is inclined to hope that amusement areas will be acquired and owned by the city.

The next question is how the city acquires the property. While Noticing New York is almost never in favor of eminent domain we feel it is appropriate here since it is essentially a public park. It is far more appropriate than almost anywhere else eminent domain is being used in New York these days. The city previously seemed highly reluctant to use eminent domain against someone in the big-developer club. (See: Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Coney Island Plan Might Need to Seize Land, by Rich Calder, March 9, 2009.) Clearly there are questions about what use of eminent domain would be appropriate and fair. Developer/Speculator Sitt has created bright by destroying amusements, but it would not be fair to use eminent domain against the family that owns Deno’s Wonder Wheel. That family landmarked the Wonder Wheel to preserve it and they have been vigilant in preserving amusement in the area and complying with the zoning.

15. Confusion as to Urgency Tied in with Conjectured Wagers about Politicians. It is generally good legal advice not to trust someone with whom you are negotiating who wants to rush you as you make your decision. Both the city and developer Joe Sitt are promulgating a mythical sense of urgency that Coney must be rezoned without delay or further reflection. Why? What is going to happen in this economic environment? Sitt seems to offer his own destruction of amusements as a reason for urgency. The city was peddling the notion that the community needed to consummate a deal while the Bloomberg administration was still in office because a subsequent mayoral administration would be more on the side of Mr. Sitt and less on the community’s. Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and City Councilman Domenic M. Recchia, Jr. were held up as a special bogeymen in this regard. That was before Bloomberg procured an extension of term limits to run for a third term. It also unleashed Recchia to run for a third term. Now the city says the community must act fast because the city’s hands are tied in dealing with Sitt until there is a rezoning. Really now?

16. Cute Kids Testifying. There were some extremely personable youngsters who testified at the hearings to great applause from everyone, including those in the amusement park community. The kids had apparently worked hard on their essays in school and the amusement park community applauded them even if a number of them seemed to have gotten off track, probably influenced by misappropriated and misrepresented themes promulgated by the city. These kids are talented. Someone should give them more reliable information about what the city is up to in their community.

17. Messages from the Press Telling Us What the Story Is. Coming up with a clear narrative is a challenge for everyone. We don’t think that press has yet sorted through what it needs to do to zero in on a clear story of what is going on at Coney. To a large extent the press has bought some of the misleads that have been put out by the city. Until the press gets the story straight it will be sending out messages from the sidelines that add to the confusion. We thought this was particularly evident when we watched a number our best reporters covering Brooklyn talk about Coney Island recently on Reporter Roundtable. (See: Episode 219 which is currently the most recent.)

18. Serious Thought About Amusement. You know that right-brain/left-brain stuff? It occurs to us that understanding the Coney Island is a challenge that involves using different parts of the brain all at the same time. It involves thinking seriously about amusements. It involves a lot of left brain, logical, sequential, rational and analytical and objective thinking about what it takes to just have fun, which is an intuitive art and essentially subjective, random and right-brain. The good news is that right-brain people can be brilliant at telling stories and therefore at coming up with resonant narratives.

Where to Go For A Narrative?

So what is the true narrative about what is happening in Coney Island and where should one go to find it? We think the Bloomberg administration is happily (or haplessly) presiding over the destruction of the Coney Island amusement area after having unleashed and failed to manage a destructive speculative wave of real estate ownership changes. It unleashed those changes when, it announced in 2003 that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had an interest in “revitalizing” Coney Island as a possible site for the 2012 Olympics. The result? Under the auspices of Bloomberg, what was once the largest amusement area in the United States is now coming to naught.

At the hearing we were particularly impressed with the testimony of Charles Denson, who is the author of Coney Island Lost and Found and the Executive Director of the Coney Island History Project. Beforehand we also found ourselves referring to Coney Island Lost and Found when we prepared the portion of our testimony about Fred Trump’s unnecessary and unproductive destruction of Steeplechase Park when he attempted to force the city to rezone amusement acreage by destroying the park.

The bones, blood and flesh of a good, clear narrative are available. The Coney Island amusement area community is posting their testimony on line and there is value in reading what is being said. See: The Coney Island Message Board posts.)

Those are our thoughts for now. We wait with interest to see how these thought may be taken into account in the narrative the community is building.

Before We Leave: A Breaking News Update

Before we conclude this post we will report some breaking news. The land use committee of Community Board 13 will consider the Coney plans tonight. It may or may not make modifications to a multiplicity of recommendations its land use committee reportedly adopted Monday night. While starting with the city’s plan, those recommendations apparently back developer/speculator Joe Sitt’s plan in a number of ways. That includes an opposition to the use of eminent domain and allowing big box retail. It should be noted that Sitt’s Thor Equities has been politically busy recently, including spending a lot on lobbying (See post #17 on the Coney Message Board for a list of an aggregated $246,359 in lobbying figures.)

Other recommendations are consistent with recommendations of the amusement area community and the Municipal Art Society, including that proposed hotels should be moved north of Surf Avenue so as not to crowd amusement areas and that the historic Shore Hotel should be preserved. It is not presently clear what the board’s verdict will be on shrinking or keeping the size of the amusement area viable. (See post #21 on the Coney Message Board and reporting on other recommendations, March 10, 2009 Coney Island CB13 panel backs — and bucks — the mayor on Coney rezoney, by Mike McLaughlin, The Brooklyn Paper.)

(Below, some our ancestor relatives visiting Coney Island more than a few years ago.- A reminder that the Coney Island amusement area is 150 years old.)

1 comment:

strongartist said...

the people that can not except change for coney island should take a real good look around what is there today it is horrible it needs to be reborn wilh new amusements,new ideas and a whole new look the past washed out with last nites tide,there is a new dawn coming to coney island so deal with it .i wish you would not crap on US construction workers(unionized workers we are the ones who gave all of you the weekend,chech out the history) how else are you going to spend time in C.I. many people in the past promised to revitalize coney,but nothing ever came to life ,but now there are real actions in motion and you got people crying no,no,no, leave it alone come on folks get real .to save coney island is to do it up and do it right ,let your unionized construction workers build history once again in this great empire state right now WE NEED JOBS!!!