Bloomberg's Coney Gambit Leaves Thor Up Sitt Creek
by Neil deMause
The reverberations from Mayor Bloomberg's bombshell announcement that he intended to remap Coney Island's amusement district as parkland were still echoing Thursday night when neighborhood denizens piled into Our Lady of Solace Church on Mermaid Avenue to hear Coney Island Development Corporation president Lynn Kelly give her board—and the public—the lowdown on the city's plans.
The upshot, two hours of Powerpoint later: Bloomberg is moving ahead with plans to revamp the amusement district, but Joe Sitt's condos-by-the-boardwalk plan is off the table—and the city plans on salting the earth to make sure things stay that way.
How the latest plans would work, in a nutshell: The eight-acre, city-owned parking lot west of the Cyclones ballpark, which is currently mapped as city parkland (as is the stadium), would be demapped and readied for developers to turn into housing, parking garages, and stores. To meet the legal requirement that at least as much parkland be created as is eliminated, all 15 acres of land from the ballpark to the Cyclone, and from the Bowery to the boardwalk, would become public parkland. State legislation, explained Kelly, would be required next spring to "alienate" the parking-lot site; the city would then transmogrify the amusement district into new parkland via its ULURP land-use process.
"Parkland," in this case, wouldn't mean trees and grass. Rather, the city envisions finding developers to seed the new park with rides, restaurants, and performance space—in other words, pretty much exactly what's there now. Kelly said the city plans on acquiring the property from its existing owners via "friendly negotiations"; if any choose not to sell, she told the Voice following the board meeting, they would have the option of keeping their land with its current C7 zoning designation, which likewise prohibits anything other than amusement uses.
By and large, existing Coney amusement operators were cautiously thrilled. Sideshows by the Seashore operator Dick Zigun, whose newly purchased building falls outside the parkland-designated zone, called the city's plan "very bold and wonderful." Denos Wonder Wheel Park owner Dennis Vourderis told the Voice following Bloomberg's afternoon announcement that it sounded "pretty good, as long as they address our concerns," adding that "we've been told that the city will not be taking our property, and that we will have the opportunity to stay." (Though Kelly and Brooklyn city planning director Purnima Kapur made several references to finding a "single entity" to oversee the new park area, Kelly stressed that "we're not looking for a gated, pay-one-ticket - we're not looking for that. We're looking for someone that could say to the different owners, 'Maybe you get three rides for this price.' How that takes its shape, whether it's a management company, an operator, a developer, we haven't determined yet.")
"It's very bold an innovative for a city to come to the rescue of an amusement area like this," Carol Hill Albert, operator of Astroland, said prior to the CIDC meeting. "I'm hopeful that it will be fair to the current landowners"—Albert is not one, having sold out to Sitt's Thor Equities last fall—"but the potential is really amazing."
Which leaves Sitt, the self-proclaimed "Joey Coney Island" who has insisted that the only way he'll build on his land is if he gets to erect apartment towers by the boardwalk —something that would be expressly prohibited in either parkland or a C-7 zone. Sitt issued a statement yesterday afternoon pronouncing himself "disappointed" at the rezoning plan, and promising—or possibly threatening—to "work with the Bloomberg Administration, Councilman [Domenic] Recchia, Speaker [Christine] Quinn, our Albany representatives and local leaders to do what's best for the people of Coney."
Moreover, as Pratt Center director Brad Lander points out, the parkland ploy has a benefit that a mere amusement-only rezoning wouldn't accomplish. Once the new parkland was in place, he says, the only way it could be eliminated would be to get the legislature to demap it again—meaning "it would be much harder for a future administration to rezone."
This would all but eliminate any hope on Sitt's part that he could hold out and wait for a new mayor, such as Thor pal Anthony Weiner, to ride to his rescue in 2010.
"It's a fascinating deal," says Christian DiPalermo, director of New Yorkers for Parks. "Overall this is a win for parkland, because we're getting more acreage out of this. And I think it's a win for New Yorkers because you're preserving Coney Island." One possible question is whether the notion of a "park" that consists mostly of buildings will pass legal muster; DiPalermo, though, notes that "lower courts have ruled that a water park is a permissible use [on Randall's Island], so we're anticipating that amusements would be too."
While the city issued renderings yesterday that featured a blocks-long roller coaster and what looked like a Parachute Jump on steroids, there's little reason to believe that whatever its chosen developers ultimately choose to build will look remotely like this. In any event, the next step is public hearings (the first will be on Monday, November 19 at Coney Island Hospital), with the goal of completing the seven-month ULURP process by early 2009. "This is absolutely the beginning," Kelly stressed when CIDC board member Zigun asked about some of the plan's details at last night's meeting. "It may have taken a long time to get to this point, but it's absolutely the beginning."
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