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. . ”

We were at “Which Way Coney Island? A Symposium on Its Future,” at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Wednesday, April 29, 2009 where we heard some things about the way the city is telling its Coney Island story as it tries to eliminate a substantial amount of Coney’s amusement area through a rezoning. We also have suggested response to the city. Your letters need to be sent to the City Planning Commission.

A. Burden Opening: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity, This Administration, This Summer Only

Amanda M. Burden, the Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning, made the first guest presentation. (BTW: While most of us might think of Ms. Burden as a linchpin in the Bloombergian development establishment, the city’s nyc.gov website says that Ms. Burden is an apparently self proclaimed “civic activist.” That has to leave people wondering what all the rest of us opposing Bloomberg style development are supposed to call ourselves?)

The city’s Coney Island rezoning proposal converts Coney Island amusement areas to commercial space and apartment buildings. Before Bloomberg maneuvered the City Council into overriding two voter referendums so as to grant him an extension of term limits, the city administration’s official spiel was that its Coney Island rezoning had to be passed this summer because a subsequent administration (Anthony Weiner’s?) would likely do something far more destructive. Now that conventional wisdom is predicting that Bloomberg will get his third term (if for no other reason than the lack of candidates running against him), the city has had to change its sales pitch. Ms. Burden offered the current version of the city’s new spiel.

Ms. Burden described the city plan for Coney Island as “a comprehensive plan” that “is really finely calibrated.” She then said (emphasis supplied):

And it can’t be done piecemeal. Next week City Planning will have its hearing on Coney Island. I hope people come and testify and recognize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Because another administration would never undertake this very, very complex plan. If it doesn’t succeed this summer this administration will never undertake it again. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the only way for future generations to enjoy Coney Island forever and in perpetuity as the magic that it always was and can be and that will serve the neighborhood of Coney Island as an economic generator with housing for all people and jobs and a beachfront destination for the entire world.

Of course, the idea that “it can’t be done piecemeal”is eminently debatable. We think a gradual, steady building up of Coney based on current amusements is exactly what is called for. The notion that there can only be an all-or-nothing proposition simply serves to get the city off the hook in dealing with the urgency of taking the action that it can and should take now. For instance, the city owns Coney Island acres, mapped a s “parkland,” that for a long time it has allowed to be parking lot areas that detract rather than contribute to the Coney experience.

Ms. Burden seemed to be very nervous during her presentation and we noticed that she left immediately after finishing her remarks so that she was not available to engage with either the evening’s panelists or the audience afterward. Leaving, she turned things over to her deputy, Purnima Kapur, the Director of City Planning's Brooklyn Office.

Ms. Kapur: Identifying the Recent Accelerated Loss of Coney Amusements in the Last Four or Five Years and A Cause

Ms. Kapur spoke about the recent accelerating loss of Coney Island amusements in the last four or five years. Interestingly she did so without identifying what we think has been its obvious cause, something about which she also spoke without making a connection between the two.

Here is Ms. Kapur on the accelerating decline of Coney Island amusements in the last four or five years (emphasis supplied):

But as we started to look at the history of this amusement area, what we realized is how much it has declined from its heyday which was about a century ago when there were three active vibrant amusement parks in the vicinity of each other. Over the years through the course of the 20th century* and then going into the 1970s** gradually these amusement parks have been disappearing. That pace of disinvestment and loss of amusements has accelerated really deeply in the last four or five years with speculative land transactions that have gone on. Last fall the last remaining large amusement park called Astroland was shut down and today when you go to Coney Island there is less than three acres of active amusements, Deno’s Wonder Park which has the Wonder Wheel is the last remaining park to remain there with some uses along Surf Avenue and Mermaid Avenue.
(* This was when Robert Moses replaced many acres of active amusements and associated jobs with housing occupied by people in need of jobs. ** This was when the city took title to active amusement area land that had formerly been Steeplechase Park, turned it into “parkland” theoretically to ensure future amusement area use and then never followed through in using that land for amusements even though they kicked out the amusements that were there.)

Here is Ms. Kapur on that which exactly coincided with that accelerating decline during the last four or five years: The launching of the city plan to supposedly “save” Coney Island amusements (emphasis supplied):

This is a plan that is an interagency effort. Many city agencies under the leadership of the Department of City Planning and the Economic Development Corporation have been working a long time to develop this plan. It started about five years ago with the formation of the Coney Island Development Corporation and the mayor’s strategic plan that was issued for Coney Island. Since that time the city and its partners have been engaged in a very intensive outreach at the community level to local stakeholders, with property owners, with amusement operators and the plan that I am going to present today is the result of that intensive outreach.
We don’t think it could be more obvious that the real estate speculation blamed for the recent accelerating destruction of Coney Amusements began with the launching of the mayor’s strategic plan and the “outreach” to property owners about the planed rezoning and reduction of amusement acreage.

Kapur on Leadership of Her Agency City Planning and EDC

The last above quote from Ms. Kapur is valuable for what we intend to discuss in a minute: She talks specifically about how the mayor’s strategic plan is an “interagency effort” of "many city agencies under the leadership of" her agency “the Department of City Planning and the Economic Development Corporation.”

In a moment we will see how Ms. Kapur seems to disavow that “leadership” when pressed by fellow panelist, Dick D. Zigun of the Coney Island Side Show (with a little help from a question we asked).

Dick Zigun: Why Won’t the City Take Obvious Actions To Help Coney?

Our ears perked up when, during his presentation, Dick Zigun asked about the way the city was NOT doing things it could be doing to send critical signals about the city’s commitment to a long-term preservation of an iconic Coney Island:

To the City: While you are dealing with Thor [Thor Equities a developer/land speculator], Yes, you are making little changes and we appreciate that. But. . . Where is Amanda [Amanda Burden, Ms. Kapur’s boss, who we noted earlier left, leaving Ms. Kapur in charge.]? There are some substantial things that infuriate us that you are not doing.

OK: So, on your slides you show us the Shore Theater and you talk about how important an icon that is. Now, you know my organization spent the money, hired the consultant, did the application to Landmarks Commission where it is sitting and sitting and sitting. And all it needs is a phone call from Amanda or from [City Councilman] Dominic Recchia to get it calendared at the Landmarks Commission and that has not happened.

You show slides and talk about how important Nathan’s is and yet your own plan upgrades the Nathan’s property to fifteen stories and in your environmental impact statement you concede that, although you are not calling for the demolition of Nathan’s, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the value and taxation of real estate and your own study says that in ten years Nathan’s Restaurant is likely to be demolished and replaced by a theme Nathan’s in a fifteen-story building when all you have to do is call for fifteen stories on that property with a setback of two stories on Surf Avenue, and yet you have not done that! Why aren’t you doing these things? It would mean a great deal to us.

It would not only mean a great deal to Dick Zigun and company, it would tell everyone else in the city that preserving historic Coney is a priority. Envisioning the destruction of Nathan’s as the city plan currently does (even if it does not call for it) sends the opposite message. (See: January 22, 2009, Dog gone? Nathan’s could be victim of Coney success, by Mike McLaughlin, The Brooklyn Paper.)

Our Question Follows Up About Whether the City Really Sees Saving Coney As Urgent When the time came for the audience to ask questions we thought back to what Mr. Zigun had said about what the city was not doing to save Coney Island and we questioned the city’s real sense of urgency. All of the factions . . . the city, land speculator Thor Equities, Taconic Development, the Municipal Art Society. . . have adopted the amusement community’s theme and language about saving a vibrant, iconic, edgy, open, accessible amusement district. Therefore with the same language being used, it becomes a question of looking beyond words to see what people are actually doing and spotting the real differences in the several proposals. Here is what we (MDDW) asked, which generated a long, and we think telling, exchange between Mr. Zigun (DZ) and Ms. Kapur (PK):

MDDW: I am looking for the real differences because I notice that there is a tendency for everyone to adopt very similar sounding rhetoric about the amusement areas. So the real differences are that the Municipal Art Society is proposing the largest amusement area. Why, in terms of real differences. . . I understand that the city is proposing temporary things this summer, but with all this urgency when we say that it has to be “this administration and this summer,” why can’t we have urgency about some of the permanent things: So the questions that were asked about the Shore theater and having Landmarks act now: respecting the preservation of Nathan’s, why can’t there be an urgency about acting to do those things? Otherwise it sounds like a threat, this business of: “this administration,” “this summer,” right now!
PK: I cannot speak for the Landmarks Commission about the urgency for landmarking the Shore Theater as it currently is built, is built to a higher FAR than we currently are rezoning the area for, so there is no incentive for it to be torn down.
DZ: But why don’t you make the phone call that I’m asking for?

PK: I wish I could simply just make these phone calls.

DZ: You can. You can. You are the city!

PK: I think you give me credit for more power than I have.*

DZ: Amanda can’t? If Amanda can’t, the mayor can.

PK: I think that our plan lays out the importance of all of these things and retaining them in this area. We will let the Landmarks Commission make the decision about its landmark’s eligibility.

(*Ms. Kapur seemed rather upset at this point.)

(Image of Shore Theater above from Coney Island USA at ConeyIsland.com)

We Interrupt This Exchange To Bring In Landmarks Commission Chairman Tierney

The above exchange continues further, particularly about Nathan’s, and we will return to it momentarily. First, we want to switch to a follow-up by interjecting a relevant exchange we had with Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney last week when we attended the recording of the WNYC special “The Places That Bind” with Rosie Perez, in which Mr. Tierney participated as a panel guest.

The Places That Bind, which is about the stresses our communities are under from development, will be broadcast:

Saturday, May 16: 7am on 93.9FM
Sunday, May 17: 9pm on Am 820

We recommend you tune in. We will discuss the show further after it is broadcast. After the show was recorded, we had a chance to ask Commissioner Tierney (RT) a question we (MDDW) were unable to ask during the show. Here is our exchange (emphasis supplied):

MDDW: When a neighborhood has goals for preserving its heritage, to what extent does the Landmarks Preservation Commission coordinate with other agencies like City Planning and the Mayor’s Office?

RT: A lot. Always. Definitely, work all the time with Amanda Burden. I work with CAU, I work with who handles the community assistance unit, with the community boards. We get very. . . We have our own community meetings where we have not only elected officials but other parts of city government. We are working with them all the time.

MDDW: In this regard, if the Coney Island heritage is important to the city, and City Planning acted on it. . . had a hearing on it yesterday . .

RT: Right.

MDDW: Why hasn’t Landmarks moved to preserve the Shore Hotel? [correction Shore Theater.*]

RT: The Shore Hotel is on our list. We are looking at it.

(* A possible very desirable adaptive reuse that people hope will be considered for the Shore Theater is as a boutique hotel.)

Ergo it seems odd that although Ms. Kapur says that her agency is leading a many-city-agency “interagency effort” and although Chairman Tierney says that he “Definitely” works “all the time with Amanda Burden,” Ms. Kapur says that somehow Ms. Burden or the mayor can’t make a phone call to stress to the Landmarks Preservation Commission the importance the landmarking of the iconic Shore Theater has to the future of Coney Island as an amusement area.

Back to the Zigun/Kapur Exchange

Here, picking up from where we left off, is the rest of the Zigun/Kapur Exchange. We think that Mr. Zigan scores more points, but we let you evaluate for yourself the ways in which Ms. Kapur justifies the city’s inaction with respect to preserving Coney Island icons:

PK: I think that our plan lays out the importance of all of these things and retaining them in this area. We will let the Landmarks Commission make the decision about its landmark’s eligibility. As far as Nathan’s is concerned, Nathan’s is owned by Nathan’s. This is not a property that, you know, if we rezoned, they have reason to uproot themselves and go somewhere. They have been in the neighborhood for a very, very long time. There’s a business, you know, incentive to keep them there. And we do have setbacks actually, on Surf Avenue, which, you know, with your sort of encouragement and assistance we have brought down to forty feet on Surf Avenue.

DZ: Point of clarification, . . .

PK May I finish first?

DZ: Let’s just stick with Nathan’s: It’s owned by the Handwerker family and leased to Nathan’s, and your own impact statement says you are creating an environment, an economic condition that ultimately will lead to the demolition of a two-story building.

PK: That is not what our EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] says. What our EIS says is that there is a development potential to actually add to the Nathan’s building. There is nothing saying that Nathan’s should be demolished. The property that Nathan’s owns actually extends deep into the block and there is nothing stopping them from building additional buildings that set back from Surf Avenue. It doesn’t say that you have to demolish Nathan’s to actually make it.

DZ: No, but there is an economic encouragement that will ultimately lead to that.

PK: I don’t believe so.

DZ: Why don’t you offer a setback on that one particular piece of property?

PK: Calling for . . ., unless that is a landmarked building, calling for that setback there doesn’t make any planning sense.

DZ: But it makes sense as to what Coney Island is about and saving another icon. Like the Cyclone, like the Wonderwheel, Nathan’s is important.

PK: We totally agree with that and think that Nathan’s is financially viable and the owner of their own business and we hope, you know, our anticipation is that it will continue to be there.

DZ: It is NOT owner-occupied. The Handwerker family owns it and leases it to the corporation which is no longer their business.

PK: But this is their flagship store. This is where Nathan’s started. They have a business incentive to keep it as business owners.

Entrusting Coney’s Future to the City: In the End Doesn’t it Lead to The End of Coney?

(Image of Nathan's from Brooklyn Paper story. NNY's Image of Astroland rocket below.)

The city is asking us to entrust Coney Island and its future to their plan, a plan that involves hacking away at Coney’s amusement area acreage for more Bloombergian real estate development. We find ourselves feeling rather like we have received a ransom note after a kidnaping. We are being told we have to approve the turning over of more acreage for Bloombergian-style real estate development if we ever want to see our beloved Coney Island in good health again. We even find ourselves wondering if Coney’s severed body parts, like the Astroland rocket, will wind up being returned to us piecemeal. We don’t trust the kidnappers who created the jeopardy in the first place. Jeopardy began with the introduction of the mayor’s “strategic plan” and his administration’s “outreach” to property owners. That, we believe, led quite clearly to the sudden wave of real estate speculation. After that, there is little disagreement: Everyone attributes the recent accelerated decline of the Coney Island amusements to that speculation.

With kidnappers you frantically try to discern evidence fo good faith, desperately hoping that you will find it, but we don’t see any real evidence of good faith on the city’s part. The city already holds “parkland” that was supposed to be used for amusement area, but the city uses it as parking lots. The city doesn’t act to preserve iconic sites at Coney; it only holds them hostage, perhaps never to be released. All we seem to know for sure is that the city wants commercial real estate development. The bargain the city proposes that amusement areas be shrunk as acres are peeled off for other uses is one that has never before worked for Coney’s good health or the preservation of the amusement areas. And though it hasn’t worked before, the city says: “Trust us.” Many kidnapings wind up unhappily. The ransom is paid and the kidnapped does not survive. That is our fear here.

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. (May 18, 2009 is the deadline if it relates to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement though other testimony can be submitted later.) 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 send your own note in response to the ransom note we have received from the Bloomberg administration and that you demand that those specific listed changes, at a minimum, must be made, because we demand that our Coney Island be returned to us alive and healthy.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Thank you for this thorough reporting. Please continue it.