Coney Island's Invisible Towers

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When crowds thronged Coney Island for the annual Nathan's hot dog eating contest on July 4th, they found a boardwalk amusement strip that was, for the umpteenth year in a row, undergoing a summer of change and transition.

There is the new: go-carts and a new roller coaster for the "Scream Zone" that the Luna Park amusement park added last summer; and the start of a new pavilion alongside the Parachute Jump, where the old B&B Carousell (second "l" now enshrined as a historic typo), relegated to storage since 2005 and painstakingly restored at city expense, will once again whirl next spring.

There is the disappeared and the disappearing: Henderson's Music Hall, where Harpo Marx made his stage debut, was demolished two winters ago by landowner Thor Equities; this spring, it was replaced by a nondescript one-story structure that, lacking tenants, was instantly boarded up with plywood. And barring an unforeseen reprieve, this will be the final summer for both Denny's ice cream and the Eldorado bumper cars, each of which is expected to see its Surf Avenue storefront razed for new construction — or at least occupied by new businesses — in the near future.

It's another step in the remaking of the Brooklyn beachfront that began in 2003, when the city launched a rezoning process to transform the diminished yet still-popular summer destination into what it hoped would be a year-round hot spot for both residents and entertainment-seekers. In the years since, what seemed like the beach's inexorable slow slide into decay — a bathhouse burned down one decade, a derelict rollercoaster razed the next —turned into a whirlwind of change, as developers and longtime neighborhood property owners alike began smelling greenbacks in the air, and the 46-year-old Astroland amusement park and many longtime boardwalk businesses were pushed out in the rush to make way for promised glitzier attractions.

Yet amidst all the noisy mermaid-filled debates that accompanied the rezoning battle, it's been easy to forget that the amusement district proper — a beachfront strip of rides, carny games and skeeball parlors that over the decades has shrunk to a relict dozen or so acres — was never the main target of the city's rezoning efforts. Though the storefronts along Surf (including the homes of Denny's and Eldorado) were slated for high-rise hotels on the city's rezoning renderings, much of the focus of the Coney Island Development Corporation (spun off by the city Economic Development Corporation in 2003 to oversee redevelopment plans) was to the west, where the city's stated intent was to bring mixed-use housing and retail towers to the vacant lots that have littered Surf Avenue since they were cleared for urban renewal in the 1960s. Click here to see a map of the rezoned area.

"It's a neighborhood with a significant amount of poverty, very few jobs and lots of abandoned lots," said city Economic Development Corporation (EDC) president Seth Pinsky after the rezoning was approved by the City Council in 2009. The hope at the time was that by dropping some high-end residents into Coney Island, as well as new storefronts along Surf Avenue that could host restaurants, movie theaters and other year-round attractions, local residents could finally have access to more than the seasonal jobs that have traditionally accompanied the summer beach season.

Three years later, though, there is little sign of the condo messiah arriving anytime soon. A single apartment building on the boardwalk at West 32nd Street was begun two winters ago, but today remains unfinished. Nearby, Coney Island Commons, a mixed-income coop complex that will include a new YMCA-run community center, has blown past its original summer 2009 target completion date — thanks to delays in finalizing financing and community agreements, according to developer Jerome Kretchmer — and is now slated for an opening in 2013.

Among the actual lots rezoned three years ago, meanwhile, Thor's plywood-bedecked single-story building is the only sign of new construction. In particular, the "Coney West" lots just west of the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium, which in city renderings appeared as modern glass-and-brick towers fronting tree-lined boulevards, remain much as they have for decades: empty expanses of dirt and gravel, used as ad-hoc parking lots if anything at all.

Some of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the collapse of the housing bubble, which struck just as the city put the finishing touches on its rezoning plan. Yet even if demand for beachfront condos rebounded tomorrow, many longtime residents warn that it would still take years, if not decades, of sewer and electrical upgrades before Bloomberg's residential dreams could become reality.

"Before they put up one major building, they basically have to rip up the entire peninsula, and put in stormwater lines and sewage lines," says Ida Sanoff, a former Community Board 13 member who has become the beachfront's most dedicated environmental watchdog.

It's an investment that the city says it's willing to make — eventually: The EDC is now openly talking about a "30-year plan" for redevelopment. The price tag, according to city figures, could run close to half a billion dollars, making it one of the most expensive city redevelopment projects of the Bloomberg era. And even then, it's an expensive gamble by the city that the promised construction will ever arrive.

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If Thor Equities' Joe Sitt was the developer that Coney fans loved to hate — the man who evicted Astroland, who threatened to build high-rise apartment buildings and hotels right on the boardwalk — then Taconic Investment Partners were the designated good guys. With none of Sitt's bluster, the real estate investment firm quietly bought up several blocks of vacant lots along Surf Avenue — one, bought by Sitt for $13 million, cost Taconic $90 million less than a year later — and announced plans to work with the city to bring in mixed-use condo towers at a respectful distance from the amusement zone.

Taconic officials were amiable and readily accessible at the time, but have since all but disappeared from public view; company officials did not return numerous calls and emails for this article, and its websitenotes only that "Taconic is in the process of evaluating the economics of a planned development for some or all of our holdings."

The city, meanwhile, is moving slowly on the infrastructure upgrades that it will take to support the new buildings, when and if they arrive. The first phase — a set of new storm sewers and ungraded sanitary pipes along W. 15th St. and a short stretch of Surf Avenue — is currently in the design phase, with work set to start in the fall and a target completion date of 2015. Two more phases will expand into surrounding blocks, but not until 2022. A total of $140 million has been budgeted for new sewer and water lines between West 12th Street and West 21st Street, according to EDC.

But the peninsula's infrastructure needs, according to longtime locals, go far beyond the few square blocks around the Taconic properties. "Everything south of Surf Ave., there's no storm water lines in," says Sanoff. "You're going to have a lot of paved surfaces, and where is all that stormwater going to go?" Already, she says, "If you walk the beach here after a heavy rain, it's just littered with poop bags" that dog owners have thrown into the sewers — and which have popped back up when stormwater backs up.

"The whole peninsula is in need of [infrastructure work]," says CB13 district manager Chuck Reichenthal. "You can't put up highrise hotels, buildings, or anything else, when what exists now has flooding problems."

Brian Gotlieb, who served as chair of Community Board 13 from 2002 to 2006, says he expects that the city would have moved more quickly on sewer upgrades if developers were champing at the bit to put shovels in the ground. Even so, he worries that sewers are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to needed infrastructure upgrades. "Coney Island has always had problems with brownouts and blackouts," he says, predicting a need for major electrical upgrades. (EDC says these will be handled by ConEd on an as-needed basis.) And then there's the eventual demand for schools to educate the children of all those condo dwellers if and when they arrive.

What the total cost would be, no one can say. The city Independent Budget Office projects a total city expense of $277 million on land acquisition, park and boardwalk reconstruction, and other neighborhood capital projects through 2013; add in the $140 million budgeted by the Department of Environmental Protection for sewer work, and the total price tag is at $417 million. (If you include the $39 million Keyspan Park and $250 million Stillwell Avenue subway terminal — first put in motion when Rudy Giuliani was touting Coney Island and as the next Times Square — total public expense on the rebuilding of Coney rises to more than $700 million.) And that's not even factoring in any increased costs of protecting a newly developed beachfront from the ravages of climate change: In 2007, Rohit Aggarwala, who was then running Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC project to plan for the city's future growth, called a five-inch rise in water level by 2030 "a moderate scenario"; a University of Arizona sea-level mapping toolprojects that in a worst-case scenario, Coney Island could be reduced to three disconnected islands by the end of this century. (The rezoning does require that local streets be raised to guard against sea-level rise, according to EDC, but specific plans—and budgets—will be worked out only "as sites are developed.")

This is par for the course in city redevelopment efforts, says Hunter College planning professor Tom Angotti. "I don't know of anyone who systematically calculates costs in New York City," he says. "The infrastructure that does get built is a very pragmatic response to either developer needs or community opposition." In other cities, he notes, "when you have a significant negative impact, then there's a whole discussion of whether new infrastructure is needed — here, it doesn't get discussed."

* * * *

If there's an upside to the city's deliberate pace, it's that if the market for Coney condos never recovers to pre-crash expectations, then taxpayers save the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to build the infrastructure to support the influx of new inhabitants. (The $95 million the city spent to relieve Sitt of his stretch of the amusement district, though, is a sunk cost.) The downside is that then the last ten years of upheaval on Coney Island has failed to achieve its primary goal.

It would also mean the death of hopes that the rezoning drama will ultimately produce jobs for the impoverished blocks to the west, a cul-de-sac known as the West End that sports some of the highest unemployment rates in the city. During the rezoning battle, a coalition calling itself Coney Island CLEAR, made up of representatives of several city unions and a handful of locals (most prominently Rev. Connis Mobley of the West End's United Community Baptist Church), lobbied for job guarantees for local residents as part of the rezoning.

Gotlieb, who served on CLEAR's board, says that the hope was that new development would bring not just jobs — which in Brooklyn as often as not employ people outside the immediate neighborhood— but training opportunities to help residents plan for careers. And while the CIDC has helped some people get building certifications, he says, so far there's been little to build. "Once the economy took a turn that it did, nobody was doing a heck of a lot."

For now, the city is publicly professing patience, with an EDC spokesperson saying that an timetable for the Taconic properties "is determined by the private developer," adding, "We’re less than three years into a 30-year redevelopment plan and significant progress has already been made. We’re confident the 2009 rezoning lays out a practical pathway going forward."

Looked at another way, though, this round of predictions of a reborn Coney Island has been going on for almost a decade, and its biggest booster is only a year and a half from departing City Hall. If the long history of failed plans for the neighborhood — from the post-war urban renewal plans that first created today's vacant lots to Ed Koch's late-'70s promises of beachfront casinos — tells us anything, it's that in Coney Island, nothing is a sure bet.

This piece originally appeared at The Brooklyn Bureau.

Photo By Pearl Gabel.



















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Coney Island's Invisible Towers

I'm 62 and grew up in the "Coney West" area Neil deMause discusses. While Coney Island was well past its heyday in the 1950s, it remained a viable lower-middle class neighborhood -- largely Jewish and Italian, with many black families -- consisting largely of two- and three-family houses built around the time of World War I. Enter professional city planners and urban renewal. A low-income housing project built in 1954 on the bay side of the peninsula was joined by a smaller middle-income development along the oceanfront toward the end of the decade. The big change, however, arrived in the early 1960s with the development of two massive middle-income projects (one owned by Donald Trump's father) on the eastern border of Coney Island, which pushed a poorer, more troubled population into the western area. The jump in crime, plus condemnation of block after block of housing to accommodate Robert Moses' plans to build more high-rise low-income projects (the dominant form of housing in Coney Island today), decimated the neighborhood. Whether or not the city invests hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure, nothing will happen to turn Coney Island around unless we acknowledge a few truths: first, the idea of the local population looking to the Coney Island economy to help pull it out of poverty is ridiculous. Even when the amusement area was thriving, most Coney Islanders took the subway to jobs in downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan each day, just like residents of other Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx neighborhoods. Second, the current housing stock in Coney Island -- bleak, brutalist projects -- is not the kind of brownstones-awaiting-rebirth environment of Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant, or the chic grit of Williamsburg or Long Island City. Simply and distastefully put, middle class people, especially those with young children, don't want to endanger their families by living in crime-ridden poor neighborhoods dominated by housing projects and failing schools. In that sense, despite its fantastic geography, Coney Island is no different from East New York or South Jamaica. No amount of goverment tinkering is going to induce middle-class or upwardly striving working-class people to move there. Third, after five decades of fabulously expensive failed government planning and meddling, don't you think we should have learned that government redevelopment plans don't work (except to line the pockets of politically connected real estate developers)? The best thing the city could do would be to give local residents money to move to closer-in neighborhoods with easier access to jobs, auction off all the land and houses it owns in Coney Island to the highest bidder, and let the new owners bulldoze the place and start over. Whatever springs up -- 21st century versions of middle class Brighton Beach (maybe something like the redeveloped Arverne), upscale Manhattan Beach, working class Breezy Point or any other oceanfront community dominated by private ownership -- will be better than what's there now.