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)

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