Tuesday, July 14, 2009

City’s Coney Island Plan: Our Skepticism of Times Editorial Credulity

Monday’s New York Times editorial on the city’s plan for Coney Island has one absolutely brilliant paragraph in it:
We like the Municipal Art Society’s idea of doubling the size of the amusement area and removing hotels from the south side of Surf Avenue. This way, when visitors get off the subway, they will meet sunlight and open air, not a high-rise barricade.
(See: A Plan for Coney Island, July 12, 2009.)

That one paragraph ought to be sufficient to communicate that the city’s overall plan is itself none too brilliant.

Wheat Is the Fix, Chaff Is the City Plan

The extracted paragraph above describes the core components people say are needed to “fix” the city’s Coney Island plan. There are other aspects of this “fix” not mentioned in the Times paragraph, like protecting Coney Island's historic buildings.

When you come right down to it, the aspects constituting the necessary fix would be the best part of the city plan if it ever passes, may be even the only good part. Most of the Times editorial is marred by far too much credulity respecting the benefits the city plan might actually have. That plan could also be destructive. We believe it is more likely to leave a hole in the ground if, as we must skeptically suggest, the city plan is destined to succeed in far fewer ways than touted.

Times Credulity

Credulity on the part of the Times sounds like this:
This is the year the place [Coney] could get moving again, if the City Council approves an ambitious redevelopment proposal from the Bloomberg administration. It calls for revitalized year-round amusements, badly needed apartments and new retail and commercial development. Coney Island is not just a decrepit carnival — it’s a community starving for civic amenities, affordable housing and jobs, all of which could flourish amid the tacky splendor of a reborn seaside paradise.
“This Is the Year”?

First off, when the Times says “This is the year” that Coney “could get moving again” it seems oblivious to the fact that Coney’s resurgence, at least as envisioned by the city, is likely to take generations, which is what real estate processionals are saying. (See: Thursday, May 28, 2009, A Second, But Not Seconding, Opinion: A Stolerian Eyebrow Raised, Real Estate Professionals Say Coney Island Development Will Take “Generations”.) As for starting on that plan now or starting soon, we are in a recession where financing for these kinds of mega-ventures is likely to be especially hard to come by and a where one of the major and currently improbable aspects of the city plan, hotels, will be impossible to finance.

Is Affordable Housing Badly Needed in Coney Island?

More subsidized affordable housing is concentrated in Coney than almost any other neighborhood in the city. Seth Pinsky, the city’s Economic Development Corporation president, testified before the City Council the first of this month that 1/6th of all Coney residents are in NYCHA housing. Many more residents live in other forms of subsidized hosing. We wonder if the Times is forgetting this when they suggest that Coney badly needs apartments because the neighborhood is “starving for . . . . affordable housing.”

At the City Council hearing Mr. Pinsky bemoaned that the average commute of Coney residents was exceptionally long: 45 minutes. We suspect that more housing is likely the only thing (if anything) that the city is really thinking will be built at Coney in the relatively near term. But if the city adopts a plan that makes it a priority to build more housing at Coney, doesn’t that simply bloat the number of New Yorkers with these troubling long commutes?

Can the Housing in the City Plan Actually Be Built?

If the Times is going to praise goal of building housing as a component of the city plan, shouldn’t the Times have mentioned that the city’s hope to build such housing currently faces a serious roadblock? The city wants to build almost all of the housing it plans to build on land currently mapped as parkland. It was mapped as parkland to preserve it for amusement use but the city is not using it that way. The housing can’t be built unless the legislature in Albany “demaps” the land. That is unlikely to happen, at least in this legislative session. So much for the idea that “this is the year.”

Housing That Is Actually Needed

Noticing New York is in favor of building housing in Coney but the affordable housing we have suggested building there is what we have referred to as next-step-up affordable home ownership program housing (including the program’s accompanying rental units) which would be attractive to residents of Coney’s other subsidized housing who were doing well enough to move out (and up), thus freeing up the units they vacate for others. That next-step-up housing could be done as infill and would not necessitate the sacrifice of amusement and seaside acres. That sounds like several wins at the same time to us.

Destroying a Traditional Source of Jobs

The Times values the city plan because it describes the community as “starving for . . . . jobs.” But the city plan fails to take advantage of the amusement industry as the traditional sources of jobs in the community. Rather than capitalize on what the amusement industry could offer, the city prefers to besiege the entertainment community, maginalizing it in an ever-shrinking cloister until it is eliminated entirely through attrition. The few remaining landmarked rides that may remain will serve as little more than gravestones.

Strengths of the Amusement Industry: A Point of Agreement

We have pointed out that with the current climate of economic adversity it seems to be a strange time to attack and undermine Coney’s amusement industry that we have described as remarkably “resilient.” The Times seems to agree with us: It describes Coney’s amusement attractions as “indestructible”:
[Coney’s]. . not dead yet, of course: landmarked rides like the Cyclone rumble on, and a few funkily indestructible carny attractions survive, along with the boardwalk, the hot dogs and the sea and sky.
While the tone seems to suggest that these things come so easily they perhaps need not be valued, isn’t it the opposite? Aren’t these the strong essences around which Coney’s resurgence ought to be planned:
● Landmarking its is historic assets (which the city refuses to do)
● The indestructible, resilient, funky carny attractions
● The boardwalk (deemphasized and underutilized by the city plan)
● The hot dogs (the city plan would encourage the destruction of Nathan’s)
● The sea and sky (refer back to the opening paragraph we extracted at the beginning of this post and the quote from the Times about changing the plan so arriving visitors may “meet sunlight and open air, not a high-rise barricade.”)
The city undervalues the strengths of Coney on which it can build and the Times does not seem to have picked up on this.

Open-air Seasonality vs. Indoor “Amusements”

The Times praises the city plan for calling for “revitalized year-round amusements.” But Coney needs to be appreciated for its seasonality, for the “sea and sky,” “sunlight and open air.” The danger is that if this is not respected Coney could be transformed into synthetic interior mall game arcades that are not likely to attract visitors to Coney when they failed to attract visitors to Times Square. Even worse, the city’s idea of non-open air amusements is most likely purely a guise for banishing the resilient and indestructible open-air amusements and building tall buildings that blot out the “seaside paradise” that the Times suggests can be “reborn.”

We are in favor of extending the season at Coney and there can be some year-round attractions. That is one reason the Shore Theater should be preserved, a step the city has been unwilling to take. We say start with preservation of things of recognized value; don’t focus on destruction first.
Civic Amenities, New Retail and Commercial Development

Preserving and putting the Shore Theater to use would also be an obvious step toward providing the “civic amenities” for which the Times says the community is starving. We have written about the city’s suspect goal of “new retail and commercial development,” (aside from the fact that it will not be built soon) especially to the extent that the city portrays that its goal is to do so for lower-income families. (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!)

Praise in the Ballpark?

There is more that we disagree with in the Times editorial. It says, “There’s a nice ballpark.” Not really. The ballpark is awkwardly placed. It is in the middle of what was supposed be amusement acreage, making it difficult to use the land on either side. Its long, monotonous blank walls are surrounded by seaside land that has been unnecessarily tuned into a bleak parking lot that should have been put somewhere else. And did the ballpark lead to the Thunderbolt roller coaster being torn down? The ballpark exemplifies just another of the city’s continuos efforts to keep subtracting from the amusement area.

Skeptical of Recchia Skepticism?

While it fails to be skeptical of the city plan itself, the Times is skeptical of City Council member Domenic Recchia’s skepticism of the city plan:

Much depends on Domenic Recchia Jr., Coney Island’s councilman, who has been skeptical of the city’s plan while stoutly defending the interests of landowners, like his friend Mr. Sitt.
Bringing Thor Equities’ Joe Sitt into the discussion always tends to confuse the picture. It is true that Mr. Sitt’s land speculation has been very destructive to Coney. It was also something that the city caused to come about. (See: Tuesday, June 30, 2009, Destroying Coney: By Planning to Shrink Coney City Plays Into Sitt’s Land Speculation Schemes.)

Mr Sitt could very quickly be out of the picture. All it would take is for the city and Sitt to agree on a price for the city to acquire Sitt’s land. That is something that is quite likely even if the city’s own actions have driven up the price of Mr. Sitt’s exit. Skepticism of the city plan will become all the more important upon Mr. Sitt’s departure. Unfortunately, that may be the time when find Mr. Recchia’s skepticism of the city plan fades away.

What we are very likely to get without appropriate skepticism on the part of the City Council and the public is a city plan that is not fixed, a city plan where visitors to Coney will, in fact, be met by “a high-rise barricade” and will NOT be greeted by “sunlight and open air.” We are likely to get a Coney without a viable open-air amusement area, a Coney that turns out to be more a hole in the ground than anything else. Because, without skepticism we will have gotten a plan that was worse than no plan at all.

1 comment:

stephenpeluso said...

I am a volunteer with Save Coney Island. The city claims they are revitalizing the area but their plan would devastate Coney Island as an amusement destination. Shrinking the area zoned for amusements from 60 acres to 9 or 12 to make way for corporate retail and high rises will kill Coney for good. What is left after the bulldozers come will not survive because the area will not be large enough to draw the big crowds necessary to make an amusement area profitable. Coney Island currently attracts millions of visitors a year who seek fun, nostalgia, and the beach. They do not come for high end shopping or to admire the architecture of a luxury condo. If the area is shrunk again by the city to such a small degree it is only a matter of time before it disappears for good. Coney can be a very profitable very viable tourist destination if handled correctly but for some reason the city has never been interested in that. The city has always preferred to evict rides in favor of some other scheme (horribly managed projects, an abandoned ice rink, casinos that never came to be, luxury condos etc.) In the past, these grand plans have always resulted in a loss of amusements and jobs for the creation of empty lots and deteriorating/abandoned structures. Don't let it happen again. The resilience of Coney's remaining amusements is a testament to the appeal of Coney Island as an amusement area. Tell the city to retain the existing amusement area and build whatever else in the many empty lots they created over the past 5 decades.

Call City Council and tell them to FIX THE PLAN - DON'T SHRINK CONEY!!!!!!

First call,
Coney representative Dominic Recchia 212-788-7045
Speaker of City Council Christine Quinn 212-788-7210

Then be sure to call your local councilmember and tell them too!!!!

Go to this link and plug in your zip code to find out who your councilman is! Then tell them FIX THE PLAN!!!!!