Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Second, But Not Seconding, Opinion: A Stolerian Eyebrow Raised, Real Estate Professionals Say Coney Island Development Will Take “Generations”

What Keynes said about economics might also be said about efforts at urban development:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.
If you have given credence to the Bloomberg administration’s promise of a revitalized, redeveloped Coney Island, you might think about when that redevelopment will come. We were watching a panel of experts discuss Brooklyn real estate development the other day on the Stoler Report and they provided professional insight about how soon we will see redevelopment at Coney Island. The consensus was that redevelopment will be a long time in coming, “generations” in fact.

In this piece we are going to talk about two competing philosophies of urban development and what that means to Coney Island in terms of development decision-making that may happen soon and actual development that may only be happening very far into the future.

Defining a Generation

A generation is generally considered to be no less than fifteen years, even if you are talking about a “cultural generation” which is shorter than a “familial generation.” More typically these days a generation is considered to be more than 25 years, sometimes 30 or 35, while estimations of a biblical generation can run 40 to 70 years.

Even applying the shortest of these time periods (fifteen years), “generations” as predicted on the Stoler show becomes 30 years for two generations and 45 years for three generations. Talking in terms of that kind of time frame, you can see why there was also mention on the Stoler show that development of Staten Island might precede development on Coney.

City Planning’s Burden on an Immediate, Total Coney Redevelopment Plan

How does the notion that redevelopment of Coney Island might take 30-45 years or more square with statements of Amanda M. Burden, the Chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning, that the city plans for Coney island “can’t be done piecemeal.” How does it square with Ms. Burden’s assertion that the plan for what is going to happen can only be done by this Bloombergian administration and can only be done this summer? And how does it square with Ms. Burden’s assertion that if this is not done now in this immediate non-piecemeal fashion we will be missing “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the only way for future generations to enjoy Coney Island?” (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. . ”)

Maybe when Ms. Burden says that it is the “only way for future generations to enjoy Coney Island” we should asking which future generations she is talking about? Are those future generations she mentions those that will be born more than 45 years hence?

Two Competing Philosophies of Urban Development

This gets us into the discussion of the two competing philosophies of urban development we mentioned. There are those of us, Noticing New York included, who believe in organic development.* Organic development works from the community level up, building upon what is. Often it is gradual, but perhaps the more important thing is that it doesn’t admit or pretend to hew to a specific rigid timetable. It moves flexibly at a natural pace. Because it is flexible and organic there is great opportunity to make continual adjustments as things change over time, correcting for error and taking advantage as previously unanticipated opportunities materialize.

(* See: Wednesday, February 25, 2009, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #11: Project Will Be Developed Gradually Working with City Fabric? NO, Thursday, April 2, 2009, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #15: Project Has Building Age Diversity with a Close-Grained Mingling? NO and Tuesday, November 11, 2008, Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card.)

By definition, gradual organic development serves the living, serving them where it finds them in life. In essence the community then owns its own development with the existing residents partaking in and benefitting from the evolution of the community. Think of the way that the arrival of artists a help transform and lead communities forward.

There is another form of development that comes from the top down, and is accompanied by a philosophy that an idea of what the future city will be can be implemented springing full blown from a master-planner’s head like Athena, fully grown and armed springing from the brow of Zeus. This form of development is not so much to serve “the living” as described above but is more typically justified in terms of an envisioned “long run” when “we are all dead.” That is because such top down master-planning so often commences with programs of unnecessary destruction like those being exercised by Forest City Ratner at Atlantic Yards, where the community’s own naturally unfolding participation in its own development is wrested away. It seems as if these top-down development visions cannot be pursued without giving imported megadevelopers mega-monopolies over huge swaths of neighborhood. Cannot be pursued? Or, is it instead that the current popularity of such plans with officials of the Bloomberg (and Paterson?) administration is because these schemes implement exactly such monopolies accompanied by the transfer of wealth from the majority to a privileged few?

Meanwhile the Lost Generations

There is no mistaking the parallel between Coney Island which will realistically take “generations” to develop and Atlantic Yards which according to Marisa Lago, responsible for the project as the head of the Empire State Development Corporation, will take “decades.” Ms. Lago, in making remarks at a breakfast interview, commented on the “new realism”government is now adopting with respect to such developments. (We suppose this is in contrast to an old fantasticalism?) Ms. Lago said that what she referred to as “transformational projects” take enormous spans of time, comparing the Atlantic Yards Ratner monopoly to the 25 years of Times Square redevelopment and 40 years of Roosevelt Island development. (Both those developments involve multiple developers and are, in fact, are still ongoing. Neither involved shutting down any sections of the city.) (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.)

What makes Amanda Burden think that this particular summer because she is with this particular administration she is somehow equipped to see generations into the future to know exactly what Coney Island needs? Better than the community? What makes her think that she can peer generations into the future so well that it is appropriate for her to warn the Municipal Art Society not to propose thoughts on alternatives even before that sage and august organization has spoken its mind? (See: Tuesday, May 26, 2009, Who Took My 27 Acres? City Officials Confuse the Dialogue.)

Meanwhile, after the destruction and after the dispossession of the community, accommodating transfers to favored developers, the public is left with the lost generations while everybody waits.

What's Happening In Brooklyn on the Stoler Report

The Stoler Report where Coney Island was discussed, What's Happening In Brooklyn, was recorded on April 28, 2009 and first broadcast May 12, 2009.

Michael Stoler’s guests consisted of the following Brooklyn Developers: Donald Capoccia of BFC Partnes, Louis Greco of Second Development, David Kramer of The Hudson Companies and David Von Spreckelson of Toll Brothers City Living.

In terms of the timing of big real estate projects and how long they take, it is perhaps worth mentioning, before we get into the subject of Coney Island, that in the entire show of “What's Happening In Brooklyn,” Atlantic Yards, the project which is consuming unjustifiable resources disproportionally greater than of any project in the entire city, got absolutely no mention at all. That then would seem to say that Atlantic Yards is an example of a project that ISN’T “Happening In Brooklyn”at the moment despite the resources it is sopping up and notwithstanding the waste laid to Prospect Heights.

During the discussion of Coney Island it was program host Michael Stoler who summed up what he was hearing the others say by speaking of Coney’s development taking “generations.” We suggest that you do take a good look at the way in which he raises his eyebrows when he says this; body English can be remarkably eloquent. It is also worth noting that the discussion, most particularly Lou Greco’s remarks, involves expecting Coney’s development to inevitably proceed in a relatively organic way. Mr. Greco, a Brooklyn boy, also speaks appreciatively values Brooklyn’s history and Coney’s special strengths. The strength that gets discussed the most is the infrastructure of Coney’s easy accessability via mass transit. This easy accessability to Coney and its seashore is one reason we have said Coney is the city’s seaside equivalent of Central Park and should be treated with comparable respect. We know it wouldn’t make sense to shrink and sell of sections of Central Park when the city is growing. Right?

The last thing we should note is that there are clear hints, which we will come back to discuss, indicating that, were the city not now interfering, Coney might already be enjoying a comeback all on its own.
The Stoler Report discussion of Coney Island begins just after the program hits the 22-minute mark (22:46) and Stoler links the question of Coney to the variability neighborhoods that are on the edge of desirability, mentioning Harlem. The conversation moved fast, sometimes overlapping, given the enthusiasm of the participants to express their thinking.

MS: Let’s move a little. . . We’ve spoken about a number of parts of Downtown Gowanus, everything and their relative. .. What’s your thoughts about Coney Island? Anyone want to say anything? Because, Don, you know, was truly a visionary, you know, when you went to Harlem, and you started building in Harlem a number of years ago before anyone thought anyone would move to Harlem. Now nothing is selling in Harlem. It’s getting a little difficult over there. . . .

DC: That’s another place I was glad we were there in the beginning.

MS: Thank God you were there. So what’s your thoughts about Coney Island?

DC: We have a designation out in . . . Edgemere? Edgmere, I think it is called. It’s out in the Rockaways.

MS: That’s the Rockaways. We’re talking Coney Island.

DC: Where is that? That’s not Coney Island? I used to spend a lot of time there.

MS: Where is it? Wrong Borough!

DK: I mean my feeling. . .

LG: You should understand Brooklyn and its history. OK? Because we started talking about hotels. Downtown Brooklyn, back around World War II had tremendous hotels, I mean it had the largest hotel in the world.

MS: It had the Bossert.

LG: Well it had the Bossert, but the St. George was the world’s largest hotel. You had the Stratford Arms. I mean there were unbelievable hotels in Downtown Brooklyn and the same thing with housing in the neighborhoods, Park Slope, Clinton Hill.

MS: And you had the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island where somebody was murdered.*

(* See also this)

LG: Coney Island was a major resort community. And the reason for it is because we had the infrastructure. And the fact we went through social engineering changes all through the 50s and 60s which put Brooklyn back a long way. It has come a long way forward. So it would only be natural that the resources of Coney Island in conjunction with the infrastructure that we have in Coney Island, that you will see redevelopment in Coney Island because it is a hell of a lot easier to get out to Coney Island than it is to get out . . . Now, I am not saying its going to be the Hamptons, but it certainly is a viable alterative for the people who are living in Brooklyn to get on. . .
DVS: I think its going to be a while.

DK: You think it’s going to be a second-home community?

MS: No, it’s not a second-home community.

LG: Maybe not a second-home community, but my children, my eighteen-year-old twins, they get on the train and they go out to Coney Island. They don’t go out to the Rockaways. They don’t go out to Jones Beach like I did as a child.

MS: But first of all to take the trains out the Rockaways is rather difficult. Coney Island is train friendly, its commuter friendly. .
DVS: It’s still a shlep. It’s a long way. I don’t think there has been a market rate project there in something like 50 years.

LG: It’s going to start as a resort community first. And just like everything else, after the resort community comes the commercial will come and after the commercial will come, the residential will develop. It’s like any other. . Go out to the Hamptons. That’s how that Hampton started. Go out to the North Fork.

MS: So, it sounds like it is going to be a couple of generations. (Rasing his eyebrows portentously.)

LG: It’s a long ways.

DK: I don’t think you can put the Hamptons and Coney Island in the same real estate sentence.

LG: It was the epicenter . . .

DK: The Hamptons’ prices are getting hit. I don’t think Hamptons prices are heading for Coney.

DC: I think you’ll see action sooner in Staten Island than Coney Island. The North Shore of Staten Island. You’ve got this whole market, this pent up market in South Brooklyn, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, young people who do want to stay close to that area and will be willing to make that five to ten minute drive.

MS: That bridge, that bridge,. . .

DC: NO. They are very used to it. That area . . .

MS: . . . that commute is a little bit difficult going over that bridge.

Twin Thoughts

What we heard in Mr. Greco’s remarks that inspired hopes for Coney Island’s natural recovery was his remarks about his own children: “my children, my eighteen-year-old twins, they get on the train and they go out to Coney Island. They don’t go out to the Rockaways. They don’t go out to Jones Beach like I did as a child.” We think that Coney, if allowed to, will recover its grandeur in part because of its excellent mass transit access that was talked about. We agree with Mr. Greco that its recovery will come organically, one thing leading to another over time.

We probably don’t agree that the important first stage of that process will begin with Coney as a “resort community” unless that is a synonym for “amusement community.” We do think, however, that the important first stage of the recovery may have already begun and be represented in the pull that is exerting itself on Mr. Greco’s eighteen-year-old twins that now draws them out to Coney Island though Mr. Greco himself (a generation ago?) did not similarly travel to Coney.

Part of Coney’s pull will always be the beach. As New Yorkers rely progressively less on automobiles and more on subway trains, Coney is certainly preferentially more accessible than the Rockaways or Jones Beach. But Coney also has another pull that is not likely to be duplicated; not just the tradition of amusement and the infrastructure for a world class amusement park but a burgeoning home-grown creative culture. All the elements are there to incubate it, including (absent the recent real estate speculation fomented by the city) what would be vast affordable spaces that could readily be put to use. Haven’t we seen that artists have historically led most of the faster paced revivals of important neighborhoods in the city?

Our Piecemeal Suggestion to the City

Here is the simple idea we offer the city. Proceed gradually, organically and piecemeal. Build Coney up while making it a priority to save and preserve its historic assets and avoid unnecessary destruction.

Use the vacant land first and don’t start by making vacant what hasn’t been vacant before. That includes doing what was intended, and using for traditional amusements, the parkland that the city holds for that exact purpose but now uses instead as parking. That includes not allowing (dare we say “encouraging”) the eviction of Astroland for no good purpose. It includes using the empty land where the Thunderbolt roller coaster formerly provided seaside amusement fare.

Proceed piecemeal so as to avoid irreversible mistakes. The best prime seaside amusement park land should NOT immediately become the very first land to be taken away from the public and sacrificed to build high-rise hotels. If hotels are going to be built, they can be built as once before, further inland. The recommendation of the community and the Municipal Art Society to shift the siting of hotels only to the other side of Surf Avenue would make an extraordinary difference while preserving the shape and space of a viable seaside amusement area. Use other (preferably vacant and unused) land to prove the value of hotels to Coney and thereby postpone the ultimate day of reckoning when people must determine what value those hotels actually have relative to the amusement area. Why? Because once sacrificed, the amusement park land cannot be reclaimed or expanded. The time to rezone seaside amusement land for hotels should only come only if and when hotels have been so successful that there is no more room for them anywhere else, and perhaps not even then.

Yes, proceeding piecemeal, organically and flexibly can also accommodate compromise and flexibility in the other direction as well. The next new expensive and capital intensive roller coaster to be built doesn’t have to be built, and probably oughtn’t to be built on land from which someday someone might want to have it removed. For the time being, such land can be used for other more portable amusements. Many amusements are portable as were those rides evicted from Astroland. Bottom line though, given that we are dealing with a transformational process projected to take generations, postpone (in fact, substantially postpone) that fateful point of no return when the Coney Island amusement park area is condemned to be a few small acres and never again any larger.

Proceed piecemeal because you don’t need an entire full blown 47-acre rezoning to build an important new roller coaster at Coney and prove the benefit of such attractions. Proceed piecemeal because the financing and resources do not actually currently exist to take advantage of almost any of the future possibilities such a rezoning is supposed to provide.

Proceed piecemeal because one thing that is proven and time-tested is the resilience of Coney amusements and the amusement park community and their ability to weather hard times and adversity. They have already weathered economic hard times such as are being served up to us now.

Proceed piecemeal to maintain flexibility and avoid mistakes because in a process that will take “generations” you can’t see far enough into the future to know what is coming no matter what crystal ball Amanda Burden believes entitles her to reject ideas she has not even yet heard as she did with the recommendations from MAS.

Proceed piecemeal and gather your amusement park rosebuds while yee may, because by avoiding unnecessary destruction and eviction, by building upon what currently exists, you provide certain and undeniable benefit for those New Yorkers now alive. Conversely, to prepare for the future through destruction, reduction, eviction and preclusion of other opportunities involves a preoccupation with untested betterments that are envisioned only in the “long run” wherein, as Keynes reminded us, “we are all dead.” -

- You might say then that selecting between these two philosophies of development involve what are essentially life and death decisions. Take your pick.

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)

No comments: