Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

When Trump caught wind of a rumor that the grand old lady of Coney might be landmarked under the city's new preservation laws, he moved fast. Hastily scheduling another demolition, he paused only long enough to hold a party inside the park the night before the wreckers were due. To make sure he drew some publicity, Trump invited six leggy showgirls and handed all his guests bricks—bricks they were invited to hurl through the legendary, painted glass trellis that housed most of Steeplechase.

The supposed standoff between Sitt and the city continued for months, animated with many threats and dire warnings. Thor was reportedly demanding $130 million for its Coney Island holdings, which the city reportedly considered extortionate. Sitt and Dom Recchia played their parts as well as any two grifters who ever worked the midway, with the Councilman alternately denouncing the developer as a "heartless person who only cares about money" and comparing him to the Gestapo, insisting, "I am not doing no private developer's bidding" . . . and ultimately pleading, "Thor Equities is saving the city millions of dollars. They assembled all this for you. . . . You made promises and commitments to Thor Equities that you are not living up to here."

Then, suddenly, it was over. A deal was reached. The city would buy up just 6.9 acres of Thor's holdings, for an astounding $95 million—a price that approached that of top Manhattan frontage. Thor would keep the rest of its land and the right to develop it, although it was only rezoned to allow "hotels" as well as amusements. The agreement was presented as a great victory for the public, a deal that would now allow the CIDC's incredible plans for transforming Coney Island to move forward.

Photograph courtesy Michael Saliba
Luna Park, in all its glory, circa 1910
Photograph courtesy Charles Denson Archive /
Luna Park, in all its glory, circa 1910

The devil, as in any good razzle, lay in the sleight-of-hand. The rezoned amusement area would allow—theoretically—freak shows and rides and tattoo parlors. But it would also allow major indoor entertainments, such as bowling alleys, restaurants, clubs, movie theaters, and shopping galleries—the sorts of businesses that would utterly transform the nature of Coney, making it much like anyplace else in the city.

The CIDC defended its plan by identifying hotels as a "significant piece" of the revamped amusement district, vital to luring "year-round tourism" and "24/7" business to the area. Under the new zoning, four hotels as high as 30 stories tall can be built between Surf Avenue and the sea—with Thor retaining the rights to develop three of them. But this only raises another question: What will make "tourists" venture out to Coney Island in the middle of winter?

Bowling alleys? Movie theaters? Or, perhaps, casinos, Ed Koch's witless proposal for reviving Coney back in the 1980s?

Or perhaps nothing at all. Both the city and Sitt now insist that they can build absolutely nothing but tourist hotels on these sites—not condos or even time-shares.

"It's against the law," Joey Coney Island protests when it is suggested that any hotels built on Coney might be converted to condos or time-shares, sometime in the very near future. "Can they? Listen, if you want to ask, you know, 'Can somebody kill somebody?' Yes, physically they can. But it's against the law."

But as we've just witnessed, zoning regulations are a tad more flexible than the laws against murder. Once Sitt or some other developer erects 30-story "hotels" that stand vacant and moribund throughout the long winter months, is the city really going to sit back and let them go bankrupt? Order the towers torn down?

Or will our elected representatives once again fall in line, throw up their hands, and allow the "hotels" to become residential towers?

Hotels or not, the towers would transform the very nature of Coney, especially combined with the lots Taconic now holds, which are also eligible for 30-story residential towers—26 of them in all. These could be a very far cry from the bright-green low-rises the CIDC's video now imagines. Such a conglomeration of skyscrapers—potentially thirty 30-story towers in all—would form an enormous wall around the old amusement district, turning it into a gigantic seaside development, garnished with a few token carny rides. If, that is, residents paying top dollar for their condos would tolerate any amusement rides at all, disturbing their sleep and their views.

So at last came the big reveal, the end of the razzle. All opposition to the plan was immediately steamrolled in the usual, efficient style of the Bloomberg administration.

City Planning Chief Amanda Burden warned the Municipal Arts Society against raising any objections: "It is imperative that the rezoning process and timeline not be jeopardized by any reconsideration of our proposed rezoning boundaries or urban design parameters. . . . It is imperative that this rezoning proceed expeditiously, otherwise the Coney Island amusement area that we know and love will cease to exist. We welcome ideas about how to best design, structure, and program a year-round amusement district with an open and accessible Amusement Park as its centerpiece."

After this unelected official imposed the limits of what public comment would and would not be tolerated, unelected CIDC head Kelly laid down the law to the small operators and the preservationists, intoning that the city "might never have this chance again to save Coney."

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