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Daniel Treiman

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How Mayor Bloomberg Is Killing Coney Island

Posted: 07/22/09 12:04 PM ET

For well over a century, Coney Island has been a canvas upon which amusement visionaries rendered vivid dreams in bold brushstrokes and garish colors -- defining and redefining the way America entertains itself. The birthplace of the American amusement industry reputedly fed the world its first hot dogs, gave the United States its first true roller coaster and provided New York's huddled masses yearning to have fun with an affordable and quintessentially democratic beachfront playground.

For almost as many years, developers and public officials alike have coveted this swath of southern Brooklyn shore, convinced that it could be put to more profitable use. New York master builder Robert Moses was a determined foe of the amusement district, describing it in 1958 as "rotting inside and out in spite of nostalgic fables." He peeled off the sites once occupied by two of Coney Island's legendary amusement parks -- Luna Park and Dreamland -- for high-rise housing and an aquarium, respectively. Real estate mogul Fred Trump (whose son was once his apprentice), in turn, looked at Coney Island and saw ocean views. In 1966, he demolished the shuttered Steeplechase Park in pursuit of his own dream -- ultimately dashed -- of getting a zoning change to build residential towers on the seaside site.

These ongoing assaults took their toll on Coney Island's amusement district. Yet somehow, amid ups and downs as precipitous and harrowing as a ride on the Cyclone roller coaster, the "People's Playground" managed to hang on -- at least until today.

Now, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to be on the cusp of completing the work of Trump and Moses. His administration's Coney Island rezoning plan, currently before the City Council, would irrevocably diminish the historic amusement district, blotting out its rich past and creating a blank canvas for redevelopment.

Whereas Fred Trump was rebuffed in his bid to build on the Steeplechase site, Bloomberg would erect a thicket of residential high-rises on that same spot. But the mayor's plan goes much further, inserting four mammoth hotel towers -- rising up to 27 stories -- right in the middle of the historic amusement district. The proposed high-rise hotels would forever mar a skyline currently defined by landmarks like the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump. To add insult to injury, the placement of these towers provides an incentive for developers to demolish Coney Island's handful of remaining historic buildings. The original Nathan's Famous location, the city's own environmental impact statement notes, would be "a potential development site."

Whereas Robert Moses ate away at the margins of Coney Island's amusement district, Bloomberg would decimate its core. The city's plan rezones a full 47 acres -- almost all presently zoned for amusements -- leaving only a narrow, 12-acre strip for a shrunken amusement park. This rump amusement park, overshadowed by soaring high-rises, would be too small to accommodate new, iconic rides and would not leave much space for future generations of visionaries to carry forward Coney Island's traditions of inventiveness and artistry.

The plan's deficiencies seem fairly obvious, at least to anyone outside of city government. The Municipal Art Society of New York has warned that "the proposed area set aside for open-air amusements is of insufficient size." Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project, testified that the city's plan "reduces what was once known as the world's playground to something the size of a children's playground." The chorus of concern crosses oceans, with the CEO of Copenhagen's famed Tivoli Gardens lamenting that "there's a huge danger that this plan won't work."

Indeed, even the Bloomberg administration must surely realize that its current plan is deeply flawed. After all, it originally proposed a much better rezoning framework back in the spring of 2007. That plan featured a substantially larger open-air amusement area and kept high-rises mostly on the periphery, rather than in the heart, of the amusement district. Unfortunately, the administration abruptly abandoned that plan a few months later, after coming under fire from Thor Equities, the politically connected developer that has, over the past several years, bought up much of the operational amusement district.

The placement of the high-rise hotels, the reduced amusement zone -- the current plan's greatest deficiencies are transparent sops to Thor. They raise the value of the Thor's land holdings and seem aimed at getting the developer and its main political patron, local City Councilman Domenic Recchia, to drop their opposition to the city's plan. The Bloomberg administration is determined to pass a Coney Island rezoning, flawed or not, and is willing to mortgage Coney Island's future to pay the political price. Yet it has had the chutzpah to claim that its plan to shrink Coney Island's amusement district is actually the last chance to save it.

In this offensive public relations offensive, the city has had the perfect foil in Thor Equities. Thor has proven quite adept at playing the role of villain: It has doggedly agitated for zoning changes to allow it to bring in large-scale chain retail, even as it shamelessly pushes out longstanding amusement operators, including, most notably, Astroland, the space-age theme park that had been Coney Island's anchor attraction for almost half a century, before being forced to close by Thor last summer.

The city, for its part, maintains that its rezoning plan is the only alternative to Thor's designs: Swallow the shrunken 12-acre amusement park, or be left with nothing. But while Thor's scorched-earth tactics have devastated present-day Coney Island, it is the city's plan that poses the greater danger to the amusement district's future.

Coney Island's amusement district has survived the pressures of the New York City real estate market thanks to its special amusement zoning. Land that is rezoned to allow for other uses, however, will be lost to amusements forever.

And it was the city-initiated comprehensive planning process for Coney Island that sparked the frenzy of land speculation that has devastated the amusement district. Once it appeared that the zoning status quo would change, developers like Thor swooped in.

The city essentially gave a green light to the speculators. The Bloomberg administration has made little secret of its dissatisfaction -- not unlike that of Robert Moses -- with what Coney Island is and has been throughout its history. Coney Island has always been primarily an open-air, beachfront, seasonal destination, yet the city is obsessed with the supposed inadequacy of this model. Coney Island has always had multiple amusement operators, yet the city wants its proposed amusement park to be managed by a single operator, effectively kicking local stalwarts to the curb. Astroland's longtime co-owner, Carol Albert, has publicly stated that she only sold her land to Thor after her proposals to work with the city on upgrading her park were rebuffed.

Even as the Bloomberg administration disrespects Coney Island's past and disparages its present, the larger problem is its lack of faith in Coney Island's future. True, Coney Island has today reached a nadir. But that's no reason to assume that Coney Island's amusement district can never be more than 12 acres. Historically, the amusement district's fortunes have waxed and waned along with those of the surrounding neighborhood and the city as a whole. Given the right economic climate, Coney Island can come back -- so long as the city doesn't foreclose the possibility.

Certainly, it is shortsighted to underestimate Coney Island's capacity for re-invention. The socially stratified leisure land of the late-19th century yielded to the grand and otherworldly amusement parks of the turn-of-the-century, while the advent of cheap subway service to the area in 1920 -- which could bring as many as a million people to the beach on a summer day -- gave rise to the mass-attractions of the "Nickel Empire." In recent decades, Coney Island has been sustained by the futuristic visions of Astroland and by re-imaginings of its own past, in the form of burlesque and freak-show revivals.

If the city wants to revitalize Coney Island, it needs to fix its flawed plan. That means expanding acreage for amusements, keeping high-rises out of the core amusement district and honoring rather than destroying Coney Island's history. Above all, it means leaving room for dreams.