Last Wednesday night NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute resounded with several starkly different visions of Coney Island’s future in advance of the city planning public hearing on its rezoning on May 6th. Author and professor of journalism Suketu Mehta, who convened the symposium, invited representatives of New York City’s Department of City Planning, real estate developers Thor Equities and Taconic Investments, planning and preservation advocacy non-profit the Municipal Art Society, Spanish language local newspaper El Diario/La Prensa, the producers of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and community organizers from the Coney Island Avenue Project to weigh in on the question, “Which way forward?”
Mehta – whose 2004 book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found set the bar for place-based, narrative non-fiction about urban space and society, and whose forthcoming book about New York and its immigrants is sure to set it even higher – opened the event by invoking a personal memory: after migrating from India to Jackson Heights in 1977, Coney Island was the first leisure outing his family undertook. The image of the Mehta family aboard the Cyclone introduced an important theme to the discussion: the historical openness, accessibility and affordability of Coney Island’s amusements for working class New Yorkers, especially lower- and middle-income immigrants. Mehta was quick to add, however, “Nostalgia is not a sufficient reason to stop change in a city defined by constant change.” Nonetheless, the images that supported each of the presentations took cues from a history of sideshow freaks and the teeming masses along the boardwalk from Coney Island’s heyday – over a century ago.
The first speaker was Amanda Burden, Chair of the City Planning Commission and the Director of the Department of City Planning. She, too, led off with Coney’s legacy of open-air amusements but swiftly contextualized the area under review as a neighborhood of approximately 50,000 people, characterized by vast tracts of public housing (one in six live in NYCHA projects), a population with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of the city and which lacks basic services and retail. Preservation of the amusement district, Burden said, would require some City control of land and year-round entertainment, but the success of any comprehensive plan could only be measured in terms of increased opportunities for housing and jobs.
Burden left the details of the City’s plan to be explained by Purnima Kapur, the Brooklyn director of City Planning. Kapur presented an overview of a five-year process, including intensive community visioning sessions and historical analysis of sixty years of speculative land acquisition and the gradual shrinking of the amusement district from 27 acres to the three acres that remain. City Planning divides the neighborhood into three distinct zones: Coney East, or the amusement zone, between the KeySpan baseball stadium and the Aquarium; Coney North, to the north of Surf Avenue; and Coney West, to the west of the stadium. To revitalize the amusements, Kapur made a strong case for mapping a city-owned park – in perpetuity – in Coney East. To encourage infill retail development, the current maximum retail floorplate of 2500 square feet would be maintained, but restaurants and shops (largely prohibited under the current amusement land use designation) would be encouraged. Hotel development would be confined to Surf Avenue frontage, and new street linkages would be mapped between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk.
Dan Jennings spoke for Thor Equities, a real estate development firm famed for its malls across the country, which has been acquiring land in Coney East since the mid-1990s. Jennings sounded similar notes of year-round entertainments, expanded retail opportunities and rejuvenating the local economy. The major differences between the city’s plan and the developers’ plan lay in the necessity of mapping the amusement district as city-owned parkland and the size of appropriate retail floorplates: Thor wants it increased to 10,000 square feet. Jennings reminded the audience that this is not equivalent to big-box retail, citing the fact that retailers such as CostCo explore real estate with 30,000 square feet as a minimum. The video Jennings presented conjured a vision of mixed-use in Coney Island that was equal parts Las Vegas and Mall of America, where hotel guests, daytrippers to indoor rides and retail shoppers from South Brooklyn rubbed shoulders.
The Municipal Art Society (MAS) presented a third vision of Coney Island’s future. A long-time planning and preservation advocacy organization, MAS – represented by Melissa Baldock, the Kress/RFR Fellow for Historic Preservation and Public Policy – shared the results of its economic feasibility study and its large-scale community visioning process that included a far-reaching online call for ideas. She argued for the largest possible amusement area that would include both preserved icons such as the Cyclone and new ones, along the lines of the London Eye. Because land prices deter amusement development, Baldock said, the City must control the land where amusements are to flourish.
After these three visions were articulated, the presenters shared the stage with Charles Bendit of Taconic Investments, Dick Zigun of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush of El Diario/La Prensa, and Ahsanullah “Bobby” Khan of the Coney Island Avenue Project.
Taconic’s holdings are in Coney North and Coney West, areas slated for residential and hotel development. Bendit was quick to remind the audience that Taconic’s proposals have caused no controversy; his only recommendation to the City’s land use plan was to use Inclusionary Zoning to encourage affordable middle-income housing, arguing convincingly that this bracket is underserved by the market and the supply of low-income housing in the neighborhood is sufficient, if poorly serviced.
Zigun, whose most passionate recommendations were for landmarks designation for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, referred to Taconic as the “good developer” and repeatedly asked Thor Equities to sell their land to the City and leave Coney Island alone. But his contribution was notable for articulating the different scales at which the Coney Island site must be considered: from its position in the immediate neighborhood and New York City, to its significance to the US as a whole. Zigun, producer of the Mermaid Parade and other quintessential Coney Island programs, invoked the national legacy of Coney Island. Kapur talked about Coney Island in the context of New York City. Jennings expressed the commercial demands of the site in terms of the South Brooklyn retail landscape. And Mehta had opened the program in the context of working-class Brooklyn and Queens.
Vourvoulias-Bush and Khan spoke to the immigrant experience and the needs of the working class. Vourvoulias-Bush discussed these priorities in terms of access to open-air, affordable family fun. Khan, whose organization primarily works on behalf of the South Asian Muslim community of the area, expressed shock at the relative lack of discussion of general economic development for the area and, specifically, workforce development for the chronically unemployed residents of the neighborhood.
The atmosphere was tense, but nothing compared to the passions that are sure to fly during the public hearing on Wednesday. I recommend attending. You can find more information about the hearing here.
Purnima Kapur, Brooklyn Director of City Planning; Dan Jennings, Thor Equities; Melissa Baldock, The Municipal Arts Society; Charles Bendit, Taconic Investments; Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, El Diario/La Prensa; Dick Zigun, Coney Island Circus Sideshow; Ahsanullah “Bobby” Khan, Coney Island Avenue Project.
Convened by: Suketu Mehta, NYU School of Journalism
Cassim Shepard is the project director of Urban Omnibus.