Is Coney Island the New Atlantic Yards and Joe Sitt the New Bruce Ratner?
The moment we saw the item late yesterday afternoon about the sale of Astroland to Thor Equities we realized why we started doing a "Coney Island Deathwatch" months ago: because Thor's plan is to erase virtually every element of Coney Island's past and to rebuild it from scratch.
There's more to it than that, however. With the sale of Astroland to Thor Equities, the massive Coney project is starting to look like the new Atlantic Yards and, inevitably, developer Joe Sitt is looking like Nouveau Ratner. The only thing missing is the Empire State Development Corp., but the Coney Island Development Corp. may yet prove itself to be a spiritual equal.
So, what's wrong here? Let's start with a project driven by a single developer and firm and move on from there. Projects of this magnitude that would literally place the fate of a huge part of an entire neighborhood in the hands of one firm or entity are a bad idea. It's led to a mega-project of massive density in Atlantic Yards and it will likely yield something unsettling in Coney Island. If Thor's model is something of a Times Square by the Sea (with rides looping in an out of buildings), it neglects one fact: The Times Square redevelopment never went anywhere until it was an organic process in the hands of multiple interests. Generations of top-down schemes crashed and burned.
Yes, Coney Island needs to be redeveloped and needs to regain some of its former glory after so many years of neglect and decline. However, destroying every remnant of its history and stripping away yet another bit of the Brooklyn we love--and one of our earliest life memories is going to Coney Island, where a good part of the family lived--is not the way to do it.
To recap a story that has been broadcast all over the country in the last 16 hours: Thor Equities bought Astroland for $30 million from its owners, the Albert family, yesterday. The 3.1 acre amusement park will close at the end of the 2007 season. The Cyclone will remain (it's a landmark) under the current agreement with the city. Oddly, the family said that "the cost of converting Astroland to a year-round operation was too steep."
Even more oddly, they're retaining ownership of some of the rides in the hope of "adding some new rides and relocating to another section of the neighborhood." The family is "hopeful that city and Brooklyn officials could help with relocation costs."
Killing one of the last two Coney Island amusement parks--no matter how unspectacular Astroland might be--is like ripping out part of Coney's soul. It verges on being an act of cultural violence. This is the point at which a mayor with a sense of history and a borough president who utters more than empty cheers would step in to say, 'enough' and work to ensure that Astroland stays a genuine amusement park and that the amusement zone--which is Coney Island's historic heart--is protected by zoning.
We would love to know exactly what Mr. Sitt has in mind for Coney Island, especially in purchasing Astroland. Thor's press release is titled "Future of Coney Island to Include Expanded Amusements on Astroland Site." It goes on to say that Thor:
envisions a unified plan for its properties with Astroland becoming a 12-months-per-year amusement destination. In the future, Astroland will house a mix of amusements and attractions. Thor's vision includes the introduction of enclosed amusements for the 21st century that can operate throughout the year, as well as a new hotel that will be needed to accommodate the expected influx of visitors to the area.(You can find the full Thor press release over at the Coney Island Message Board where it was posted by Dick Zigun.)
It's not the amusements that scare us so much as the "attractions." Are we talking about Legal Sea Foods and Starbucks? Meanwhile, the Times, in a very short article, reports that Thor is planning to build a hotel on the property with some amusments on the ground floor. And, even if Thor plans a "21st Century amusement park," do people really want an indoor park in summer at the beach? (Note to Thor: Retractable roof, please.)
The interesting thing is that Deno's Wonder Wheel Park sits between Sitt's other properties and Astroland. Is that the next shoe to drop? Will Deno's end up hemmed in by Sitt projects like the proverbial building whose owner refused to sell surround by highrises? Will the only things left of the past in Coney Island be the Cyclone, Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump, the equivalent of those big, old signs that are preserved when the factories to which they were attached are torn down? Will Thor use preserving Astroland as an amusement park as the bargaining chip to get the zoning changes to allow boardwalk condo towers? Is the grand plan--as cynics have suggest--to turn Coney Island into an absolutely desolate ghost town by the end of next year to pressure quick action on their plans?
We are fairly certain that Mr. Sitt does not intend to build a bigger, better amusement park where Astroland is. Amusement parks--unless you plan to do a Mall of America indoor thing--are not "year-round attractions" in the Northeast. At least, not until another 75 years or so of global warming occur. At which point, they might want to plan for a lot of water rides.
The sale of Astroland is not something to be automatically cheered, and it is probably not the last sale or purchase about which we will be writing.
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