When Astroland owner Carol Hill Albert announced last fall that her amusement park would be returning for a 47th season, she noted in passing that its traditional opening day of Palm Sunday was set to fall exceptionally early in 2008. “I just hope,” she said, “it doesn’t snow.”
The snow held off, barely. But it was still 40 degrees and threatening rain yesterday morning as Astroland opened the gates for what Albert has sworn is really truly its final season in Coney Island. (Next door, Denos Wonder Wheel Park had opened a day earlier to take advantage of Saturday’s unseasonably balmy weather—not that that stopped Denos from staging its own opening-day hoopla anyway on Sunday. This is Coney Island, after all.) With several of Astroland’s larger rides still not geared up for the summer season—the pirate ship remained becalmed, the Astrotower stuck at half-mast—most of the Astro-action clustered around the venerable Cyclone, which drew swarms of coaster freaks looking to earn free rides as one of the first 100 on line, freezing Atlantic gales be damned.
It all made for a refreshing air of normalcy, especially given that last year at this time, the talk was all of cancelled leases and threats by developer Joe Sitt to bulldoze everything in sight if the city denied him the right to build condo towers on the boardwalk. After a contentious summer, Sitt backed off his threats, for the moment anyway, and lo and behold, Coney Island returned for 2008 more or less intact: Aside from the Zipper and Spider rides, which decamped for Honduras last fall, and a beachside gazebo and some boardwalk planks that were victims of winter storms, Coney looked largely unchanged from seasons past.
The one new attraction promised so far for this summer: a roller rink inside the landmark Childs Restaurant building on the now-desolate stretch of boardwalk west of the Parachute Jump. Lola Starr Boutique proprietress Dianna Carlin, the rink’s would-be operator, was on hand yesterday, handing out postcards for her grand opening party this Saturday, touting her vision for a fabulous design (“Moulin Rouge meets modern-day Tokyo”), and noting how unlikely this all would have seemed a year ago, when she had just been evicted by Sitt from her boardwalk storefront for declining to sign a gag order on Coney development issues.
Or a month ago, for that matter: Carlin only got the go-ahead for the roller rink after winning a Tommy Hilfiger contest to “make your dreams come true.” (Take a wild guess what Hilfiger’s latest fragrance is called.) As a result, specific plans are still a bit sketchy—she hopes the rink, featuring the same kind of portable track used by the Gotham Girls roller derby league, will be open on weekends until Childs owner Taconic Properties finds a permanent tenant. “And if they do rent the Childs building,” she said, “I can just put it up in a circus tent next door, which was my original plan.”
If the opinions of those on the Cyclone line are any indication, most Coneygoers would prefer circus tents to skyscrapers—which, it’s worth noting, the city’s plan would build in abundance as well, albeit only outside the current amusement zone. “I think they should just keep it the way it is,” James Tagliatoro of Washington Heights said while awaiting his turn to be dropped from an eight-story height. “And they need more roller coasters,” chimed in his dad, Richard, adding that he was “still pissed off at Giuliani for tearing down the Thunderbolt.”
Helz Gall, visiting from her native New Zealand, said she made sure Coney Island was on her New York itinerary because “it’s not going to be here for much longer.” (The Cyclone and Wonder Wheel, for the record, are landmarked, so off-limits to the wrecking ball.) “I think it’s a bit sad. It’d be nice to keep it how it is—with a bit of an upgrade.”
Whether that happens, and whose vision of an upgrade will win out, will largely depend on the outcome of the city uniform land use process—”ULURP,” to planning geeks—that will consider the rezoning plan that is the city’s blueprint for a future Coney. The formal ULURP period isn’t expected to begin until the fall, according to city officials, but that hasn’t stopped various elected officials from weighing in on the matter: So far, Coney councilman Domenic Recchia and Brighton Beach state senator (and presumptive borough president candidate) Carl Kruger have joined Sitt in the “anti” camp, while just about everyone else has thrown their lot in with the city, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“I think the mayor’s plan is good,” said Tony Scotto, a visitor from Flatbush, yesterday outside Astroland. “He doesn’t want big buildings. Who needs that? We got enough of those stupid buildings.” Joe Sitt, he said, should take the city’s offer to swap development rights to the Keyspan Park parking lot for his amusement-district properties. Told that Sitt had reportedly rejected the land swap, Scotto replied, “Then he’s an idiot.”
“New York City needs to protect its past,” agreed Robin Kerr, a veteran Cyclone rider who’d driven from Virginia to take in his first opening day. “We have enough Starbucks, enough McDonald’s, certainly more than enough condos. We need to keep this little corner, and revel in it.”