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It took four years, but the fate of Coney Island’s future finally began the deliberative phase tonight, with a meeting of Brooklyn’s Community Board 13 in the packed, sweltering auditorium of Coney Island Hospital to vote on the rezoning plan put forward last April by the Bloomberg administration, which would turn the beachfront into amusement-covered public parkland while allowing 30-story hotels along Surf Avenue. Given the city land use process’s Wonderlandesque requirement that the board vote first, then hear public comments afterwards, one might have expected fewer fireworks than at some previous public hearings in Coney. One would have been wrong.
First, though, there was an opening act: The board had to vote on another rezoning proposal, this one to restrict development in Brighton Beach, which has become the site of a bitter land war that’s featured historic working-class bungalows mysteriously going up in flames, to be replaced by wafer-thin condo towers (many of which now stand half-completed, their construction netting flapping in the ocean breeze).
This debate immediately devolved into an obscure battle over zoning designations (R5D seemed to have the upper hand over the city’s preferred R4A), and ended with the board abruptly switching its motion from “yes” to “no” on the rezoning after city councilmember Mike Nelson furiously informed them that it was the only way to get their concerns heard. (Asked why he hadn’t bothered to mention this at the previous board meeting two days ago, Nelson explained: “I changed my mind.”)
With that out of the way, the Coney part of the evening began. According to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process — usually referred to by the unappetizing acronym ULURP — a community board’s vote, which is merely advisory, can be issued in four flavors: approve the proposal, reject it, approve it with stipulations, or reject it with stipulations.
The CB13 land use committee, in its meeting on Monday, had recommended a “yes” vote, but accompanied by a bizarre hodgepodge of no less than 20 stipulations: Eliminate the “Wonder Wheel Way” that the city wants to build from the Cyclone to the Parachute Jump, retain the Keyspan Park parking lot instead of building on it, redevelop the Abe Stark ice rink, do traffic studies, create a Special Amusement Zone to protect ride operators from being forced out by development, refrain from using eminent domain, fix local infrastructure, build nothing that would “eclipse the height” of the Parachute Jump, create affordable housing, rebuild the Boardwalk, upgrade the Aquarium, provide better subway service, allow stores up to 10,000 square feet, provide funds for the Coney Island Hospital ER, create off-street parking, allow Gargiulo’s to expand, fund job training programs, limit hotels to the north side of Surf Avenue, build a new school, and turn the derelict Shore Theater into a community arts center.
It was a laundry list that seemed designed to placate Coney’s disparate factions: ride fans who want to keep hotels out of the amusement area, West Coney residents who have been suffering from high unemployment seemingly since Dreamland burned down, and developer Joe Sitt, who is locked in a battle to get top dollar from the city for his Coney land, and wants eminent domain — and the parkland swap that would limit what he could build on his land — off the table. And, the meeting chair informed the board, it would all be voted up or down in one indigestible lump.
The 36-member board began discussing the first couple of items on the list, then just as quickly stopped, as some members attempted to call the question. A heated argument began over whether this meant they would now vote on the whole proposal, or on whether to end discussion. Mayhem reigned.
Finally, a couple of board members wondered aloud why they were being asked to vote “yes with stipulations” when Councilmember Nelson had just warned them on the Brighton rezoning that the only way to get heard was to vote “no with stipulations.” That was enough to bring Coney’s own councilmember, Domenic Recchia, to the podium, where he delivered a tirade for the ages:
“Let’s set this straight. If we go forward with this, people will listen to us. Because I’m going to make sure. I have a commitment from the mayor that he will listen to what the community board has to say! Because he is interested in this community! I — Domenic M. Recchia Jr. — personally spoke to Mayor Michael Bloomberg about this ULURP! And the mayor will listen to this ULURP! THE MAYOR WILL PAY ATTENTION! I DON’T KNOW ABOUT OTHER COUNCILMEMBERS! I’M RESPECTED! I AM LOOKED UPON IN THIS COMMUNITY! AND ESPECIALLY AT CITY HALL! SO I DON’T WANT TO HEAR THAT THIS IS A WASTE OF TIME!”
The board then voted 32-1, with three members recusing themselves, to approve the yes vote with stipulations.
Of course, what Recchia — who in the past has tried to cast himself as everything from Sitt’s best buddy to a man of the people, and who is thought to have been instrumental in the shrinking of the city’s proposed amusement district from 15 to 9 acres — didn’t specify was exactly which items on the laundry list he’d be whispering in the mayor’s allegedly willing ear. Recchia has called a council hearing on the Coney plan (separate from the ULURP process, which won’t hit the council for months yet) for April 1. Maybe then we’ll get a better idea of what Coney’s would-be power broker has in mind for the people’s playground. Or at least how Robert’s Rules of Order are supposed to work.