Neighborhoods

Behold: Coney Island’s $61 Million Amphitheater Boondoggle

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If you’ve made an early trip to the Wonder Wheel this year, you’ve probably noticed the giant white wing of the new Coney Island Amphitheater rising just west of the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium. Opening this Saturday with a Ziggy Marley concert, the modern bandshell is a dramatic addition to the beachfront: With a soaring PVC fabric roof to keep out the elements, 5,000 reconfigurable seats, a year-round food court, and an indoor dining space in the landmark Childs Restaurant building, it’s a massive upgrade of the ad-hoc music venues in parks and parking lots that housed past Coney concert series.

The amphitheater is the result of a complicated partnership between the city Economic Development Corporation (EDC), financier and developer iStar, and Live Nation, the live-events giant that is in a never-ending war with rival behemoth AEG to dominate the concert world. In a convoluted transaction, iStar is providing the property, and Live Nation its particular brand of mass-market expertise; the city, meanwhile, pays $61.4 million in cash to buy the site from iStar and immediately lease it back to the developer, which will control and operate the amphitheater for the next ten years.

That’s a sizable contribution of taxpayer money for a project that was initially intended to be a “community arts center” and has since evolved into a for-profit music venue akin to the Jones Beach Theater. (Community groups will still be able to rent the space on off days.) Coney Island’s Community Board 13 voted 14–7 against the then-$50 million plan when it was announced in 2013, with locals arguing it was a waste of money and would provide few community benefits. One resident proclaimed, “That’s $50 million you’re using that we could use to rebuild five, six, seven schools” — but the dissenters were overruled by the city council.

“The scales have been shifted so many times against the public and protecting the commons,” complains Joel Kupferman, a National Lawyers Guild attorney representing locals whose community garden was bulldozed for the amphitheater’s seating bowl. “They really rammed this garden destruction through. They just gave in to the local councilmember, [Domenic] Recchia.”

It’s a “private-public partnership” that, says Fiscal Policy Institute deputy director James Parrott, seems to have been a missed opportunity for the city to demand a stronger return on its dollars, either in terms of community uses or a jobs guarantee. “If the city’s going to put up that kind of money,” says Parrott, “it could have gotten some assurance that the community would get some sort of benefit.”

The amphitheater’s origins go back to the Seaside Summer Concert Series, a long-running annual free program that then-Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz quickly latched onto as his pet project. When Markowitz’s dreams of a new covered amphitheater to replace the old bandshell in Asser Levy Park, across from the New York Aquarium, were dashed by local residents who complained about the noise, he eventually turned to the Childs site, on the opposite end of the amusement district.

The Childs building already presented a problem for the city. Childs was one of the first chain restaurants designed for aspirational middle-class workers, a sort of nineteenth-century Applebee’s marketed on hygiene and lavish architectural details; its terra-cotta friezes of sea life and intentionally mismatched stone columns eventually won it landmark status, and the building became something of a cause célèbre for preservationists concerned about the demolition of Coney landmarks like Henderson’s Music Hall, which was razed by developer Thor Equities in 2010.

The historic building was also on a stretch of beachfront that the city had long targeted as key to its plans for remaking Coney. When the Bloomberg administration launched the Coney Island Development Corporation (a spin-off of the EDC) in 2003, one of its main goals was to create year-round attractions to generate jobs for residents of the eternally impoverished West End. (As of the last census data available, 30 percent of Coney Island lives below the poverty line.)

The original plan — to build high-rise housing with ground-floor retail on the mostly vacant blocks west and north of the new Cyclones stadium — faltered when Taconic Investment Partners, the original buyers, bailed out in 2012. That left iStar holding the land and the city looking for a backup plan. When Markowitz approached iStar with his amphitheater idea, it looked like a win-win-win for the developer, the borough president, and preservationists. The cost of converting the Childs structure and building the amphitheater would come from the city: Markowitz had set aside about $50 million from his own borough budget, and as the cost rose to $61.4 million, the mayor’s office and city council chipped in as well. That sum covers both buying the land from iStar and designing and building the amphitheater; iStar vice president Julia Butler says her company is “contributing a significant amount” as well, but declined to provide detailed numbers.

Local opposition first erupted at the city scoping hearing for the amphitheater project in 2013: Residents questioned the number of jobs created (250, most of them seasonal, amounting to a public cost of more than $240,000 per job); whether there would be community input into venue programming (not so far, though the nonprofit Coney Island USA has an unspecified partnership role); and “What would it look like for the community to have real ownership over this project — both literally and figuratively?” to which the city offered the non-sequiturish response that the project would “continue the City’s efforts to reinvigorate Coney Island.”

The amphitheater will undoubtedly bring activity to the beachfront. Live Nation, by all accounts, is very good at running a certain kind of one-size-fits-all entertainment experience, and this will be no exception: The Childs building will house a beer hall with pizza oven and charcuterie, and a V.I.P. lounge on the roof; concessions will be handled by Legends Entertainment, the New York Yankees–Dallas Cowboys joint venture that provides pulled-pork sandwiches and farm-to-table vegetarian nachos to 34 Live Nation venues across the U.S. And the featured acts promise to be about as flavorful: This summer’s offerings include Don Henley, Rick Springfield, the Beach Boys, the last original member of Boston, and Grandmaster Flash and one-fifth of the Furious Five, along with a handful of slightly younger acts that have cracked the pop charts (311, Shinedown).

The banal lineup, say music industry insiders, isn’t entirely Live Nation’s fault. Until now, except for Radio City Music Hall and The Theater at MSG, New York City has lacked concert venues between the size of large theaters that attract bigger indie acts and full-sized arenas that need a major pop success to fill the house. There just aren’t that many touring artists looking to play such 5,000-seat midsize venues. The exception: The “shed show” bands that make up much of Live Nation’s roster, who hit the same circuit of outdoor amphitheaters during the summer season. As one rival music booking agent notes, it’s “definitely a calendar that is trying to appeal to the audience that goes to one to two concerts per summer.”

The breadth of acts in Coney may improve when the Seaside series, which will rent space from Live Nation as part of the city’s development deal, finally announces its long-delayed lineup. The Seaside will likely be limited to its usual half-dozen shows, the most it can afford on its annual $1.6 million budget; looked at that way, the city could have spent its $60 million on quadrupling the number of free concerts for the next 20 years — though the venue would have been without a roof, or a beer hall.

It’s not exactly the “community arts center” that was promised at the outset — iStar is using a share of the city money to build an adjacent park, where a fence will keep the public from glimpsing any of the performance meant for paying customers — but at least patrons will get to experience some Coney Island history as a backdrop for their buffalo wings. And beachgoers will also get to once again visit the Childs building, if in a massively renovated form: The friezes and columns have been restored, but much of the rest has been gutted to make way for the modern stadium-style concessions facility.

“I don’t believe in ghosts or anything, but that building has a spirit,” says Dianna Carlin, proprietor of the popular Lola Star boardwalk gift shop, who ran a roller disco inside the unimproved Childs building one recent summer. “And it wants to be open to the public.”

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