Last Saturday, the 23rd annual Mermaid Parade drew record throngs to Coney Island for Brooklyn’s yearly celebration of homemade spangle and semi-nudity. With Corona-swigging hipsters commingling with the polychromatic crowds that populate the beach on most summer weekends, the parade has become the defining feature of a Coney Island that is beginning to reclaim its throne as the city’s locus of low-budget populist entertainment.
But Coney Island’s success, some fear, may prove to be its undoing. Both a city redevelopment agency and a private developer are sniffing around the suddenly hot amusement district, and the result could be a makeover that leaves the home of the Cyclone dramatically altered.
“To be nostalgic for the Coney Island we have known the past 20 or 30 years, which is an emaciated shell of its former self, is wrong—you want things to be built in Coney Island,” says Coney Island USA director Dick Zigun, founder of both the Mermaid Parade and Sideshows by the Seashore. His worry, he says, is that because of the direction the process is heading, “the people who have put their hearts and souls in, the smaller operators in this amusement park, are going to get screwed.”
Once a mile-long strip of carnival rides and other budget-priced attractions, Coney Island’s amusement district shrunk to a handful of blocks by the 1960s, as Robert Moses-spawned housing projects and vacant lots replaced such landmarks as Luna Park and Steeplechase Park. In recent years, though, as the city has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into neighborhood improvements—a refurbished boardwalk, the Brooklyn Cyclones ballpark, and the soaring new Stillwell Avenue subway terminal—planners both public and private have begun eyeing the area as ripe for a makeover.
The first to get involved was the Coney Island Development Corporation, formed two years ago by the city to explore ways to “revitalize” the area. What this means, says CIDC president (and City Hall development official) Josh Sirefman, is “finding ways to balance capitalizing on Coney Island’s extraordinary allure as an oceanside location, while also looking for opportunities to create year-round activity.” Early drafts of the master plan include rezoning parts of the amusement district (mostly vacant lots across Surf Avenue from the stadium) to allow for low-rise housing with stores on the first floor.
More recently, amusement owners’ ears perked up when Thor Equities, a developer that specializes in targeting “underperforming” properties and then developing them as shopping malls—their main local achievement is the depressing Albee Square Mall (now the Gallery at Fulton Street) in downtown Brooklyn—began buying up properties left and right in the amusement district. Thor CEO Joe Sitt (who did not return calls for this article) recently told local business owners that he hopes to build a multi-story mall and indoor water park along the boardwalk behind Nathan’s and the current Coney Island USA building. Topping it would be a mooring pad for a blimp that would sail the city skies touting the virtues of Coney Island.
Which if it sounds kinda crazy, that would certainly be Coney Island. And while the mom-and-pop operators who run most of the amusement district would prefer more carnival-friendly additions, like a resuscitated Parachute Jump, they wouldn’t turn down the new foot traffic that year-round attractions would generate. But some worry that the sort of year-round tenants that Thor would want—and that the CIDC is seeking to provide shopping and jobs for local residents—would drive up rents to the point where the seasonal businesses would be priced out. Already, Zigun notes, he’s been offered only a one-year lease renewal, at a 50 percent increase; he’s currently scouting around for a place to relocate.
Sirefman insists that it will be possible to balance the growth of a year-round community with the needs of the summer crowds. But those in the district remain concerned. The CIDC “certainly seems to be making a real effort to keep the old Coney Island concept central to it,” says Astroland owner Carol Hill Albert. “It’s just going to take a gargantuan imagination to translate what’s always been a summer business into year-round.”