Friday, December 29, 2006

Top Ten Brooklyn Stories of 2006: The Year We Changed Forever

When a future generation of historians looks back at Brooklyn from the vantage point of the 2020s or 2030s, 2006 will stand as a watershed year. Symbolically, it will be as important as 1957, the year that the Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets field, precipitating a tailspin--at least in terms of self-esteem, if not reality--that lasted for decades. The story of 2006, of course, isn't deterioration and loss of institutions and industry. It's one of of a real estate and development boom of historic proportions. Yet, the prevailing 2006 theme is still one of loss--of landmarks and of character and of things that make Brooklyn, well, Brooklyn.

This is the year that Brooklyn started to change forever. It seemed that hardly a week went by when a building wasn't being demolished or the columns of a new one weren't starting to poke into the sky. As surely as the decline of the late 1950s started to make Brooklyn what it would be in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the boom of 2006--and some critical decisions that were made this year--will define what Brooklyn will become in the 2010s, 2020s and beyond. Some say it's a great thing. Other, a lot less so.

In either case, we'd suggest that 2006 was a seminal year for our borough, and these are a few of the stories that made it so (knowing we've left out some significant ones):

1) Atlantic Yards. After an approval process that was not noted for its inclusiveness nor for being especially responsive to community concerns, the mega-project that will forever change the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues--along with Propsect Heights, Park Slope, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill--was approved. The lawsuits are still to be decided, of course, and could turn out to be one of the big stories of 2007. Or not.

2) Greenpoint Terminal Market Fire. One of the biggest fires that Brooklyn has seen in recent decades is said to have been started by a drunk scavanging for copper wire. We're still a little dubious, but all we know is that structures that might have been landmarked were turned to rubble instead.

4) Todd Shipyard Demolition. Ikea's big blue box on the Red Hook waterfront--a project that will add up to 10,000 cars a day to the neighborhood--moved into the construction phase in 2006 with the demolition of the vast Todd Shipyard, including a large number of historic buildings. The Graving Dock--a Brooklyn waterfront asset--remains but is threatened with being filled for use as Ikea parking. Lawsuit is pending.

5) Start of Williamsburg Waterfront Construction. The fate of a hugenorthside2 stretch of waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint was actually determined with an historic rezoning in 2005, but 2006 saw the start of the first major project to result from the change. Called Northside Piers, the first 29-story Toll Brothers tower is now rising on Kent Avenue. Construction of The Edge, another highrise project to the north, should start next year.

6) Brooklyn Bridge Park. The courts cleared the way for construction of Brooklyn Bridge Park, which will be financed with luxury highrise housing and hotel development. The project will open the waterfront to the public, but also change significantly change it by adding a number of very tall buildings.

7) Coney Island Plan/Sale of Astroland. Developer Joe Sitt's plans for Coney Island Astrolandcontinued to develop with a number of iterations making the rounds in 2006. Most significantly, Mr. Sitt purchased Astroland, which will close at the end of the 2007 season, and began the process of evicting tenants on land he's already bought, making 2006 the last year before a long period of demolition, emptiness and construction. It remained very difficult to know what to make of the Coney plan, although Thor is best known as a developer of urban shopping centers and its Coney plan includes up to four 40-story highrises along the boardwalk.

8) Williamsburg as a Demolition Zone/Construction Site. 2006 was the year that Williamsburg became a largescale demolition and construction zone. Buildings seemed to be going down and foundations dug on every block. 2007 will the year that the changes in the landscape--and in the neighborhood's character--become apparent.

9) South Slope Development Fights. Beat the downzone was the name of the game in one of Brooklyn's hottest development zones. There were multiple smackdowns at the Department of Buildings.

10) Revere Sugar Demolition. The Red Hook waterfront lost one of its icons--a devRevereelopment deeply mourned by some and less so by others--at the hands of developer Joe Sitt and his firm Thor Equities, which became of the more controversial presences on the Brooklyn scene in 2006. As the year comes to an end, so does the Revere Dome. The developer had originally said he might preserve the dome, but demolition went ahead without any community notification or any zoning changes needed or approved plans.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ONE MORE STORY FROM BAY CURRENTS NEWSPAPER
Last month Thor Equities, the development company planning to build a 1.5 billion dollar year-round amusement Park and Hotel at Coney Island Amusement Park bought Astroland Park for $30 million. The property, a 3.1-acre parcel that runs along West 10th street from Surf avenue to the Boardwalk, lies right about in the center of the area Thor hopes to turn into a new Las Vegas style year-round amusement district. The fact that a huge development company is willing to spend so much money to redevelop Coney Island is proof that the area is making a come back. According to long time Coney Island residents, enthusiasts and preservationists there are 3 reasons that Coney Island is making a comeback. The first is because it is beachfront property. The second, because developers are running out of space in Manhattan, and finally because it has maintained it’s reputation as a world famous amusement destination.
However, with the recent purchase of Astroland, fans of Coney fear the few remaining historical sites will shrink even further. Ironically, it was these historical sites that gave Coney it’s world famous reputation, and a brand name that has made it so attractive to the same big developers hoping to cash in on the name, while keeping Coney’s unique character intact.
The Albert family who owned and operated Astroland said in a statement to the media after they sold Astroland that they will continue opening the Cyclone Roller coaster and maintain Astroland and it’s amusement tradition with the help of the city in a new and expanded location in Coney Island. The Albert’s said they are expecting this last season at this location to be it’s biggest because the Cyclone will be celebrating it’s 80th birthday this summer.
The Albert’s are also the founders of the Coney Island History Project (CIHP), a non-profit organization that collects and archives oral histories of those who visited Coney Island. This summer the CIHP, under the direction of the award-winning historian, Charles Denson, will have a memory booth where people can come and leave their memories of Coney Island; there will also be an antique Steeplechase Horse on display and the History Project display.
Astroland opened in 1962 and it will close at the end of the 2007 season next year. Also after the sale last month, Thor released new sketches of rides it plans to build as part of it’s “Stillwell Avenue Project” that include: the “first indoor water park in urban America”, “a multi sky carousel”, and a “150 foot high attraction called the Coney Island Splash, which is a real waterfall with virtual whales and mermaids swimming through it”.
Thor says their redevelopment plan will create jobs in the area, expand the amusement district and introduce new shopping and dining venues that serve area residents and visitors.
Astroland is right between Deno’s Wonder Wheel and the other land already purchased by Thor where the new amusement area is planned. So far Deno’s said they have not made a decision as to whether they will sell to Thor. This raises the question as to whether the battle between the developer, who wants to change the zoning laws, and the City, who wants to preserve the historical sites and wants the developer to work within the agreed upon guidelines of the development plan, will work together.
As a result of the revitalization plan many small vendors will have to leave. Thor’s opponents claim the developer ultimately hopes the City will make zoning changes that will allow residential development so they can make as big a profit as possible, at the expense of shrinking Coney Island’s historical amusement area.
David, a World War Two veteran, who has lived in Coney Island for 20 years, on 6th street and Neptune, is excited about the new development plan. “I think it’s tremendous. It’ll liven up the neighborhood.” On the other hand, other residents are skeptical.
Yvonne Wiggins, another longtime resident says the redevelopment does not force her to sell her home.
“I don’t care what they do as long as they don’t touch my house. I hear a lot of things. I hear big schools, more jobs; it may help the neighborhood or they may have to buy me out and I don’t want that,” she says.
Donald Bruce works at Fabers Fascination right in front of the Stillwell Avenue terminal near the corner of Surf. He tapes up articles on the street window about everything that happens in Coney Island. Bruce’s parents moved to Coney Island when he was 4, back in 1968. Bruce is 41, but remembers going to P.S. 90 in Coney and like many other kids who used to go to school in the area, he skipped school at least once to spend the day at the amusement park. Another fond memory he has is learning how to ice skate at the old ice skating rink on 20th street and Mermaid. But today, like many vendors in the area, Bruce’s job is on the line if his boss decides to sell to Thor. Bruce doesn’t believe a big development company is interested in historical preservation. He believes Thor wants to get rid of the amusement area to build condominiums. He says they are fighting with the City over zoning but the city insists Coney Island Park is strictly C7, which is means the land must be used for amusement related purposes.
“Condo’s and hotels? Who wants to live next to an amusement park, imagine…. Bruce says he doesn’t see a necessity for large hotels either because most tourists want to stay in Manhattan.
“El Dorado is not selling, or Deno’s. They can’t touch the Cyclone or the Parachute Jump, so they will have to build around them,” he says.
“When I first started working here certain people wouldn’t come in here because it was dark and people were hanging out in the back smoking pot and drinking. I threw all those people out and put up better lighting,” he adds. Then walks outside and points to Luna Park. “You see that, Coney Island was once thirty-two blocks long…now it’s five.” Luna Park was once a part of Coney’s amusement area, it was home to the elephant hotel, and people could go on elephant rides; it was also where Tops the elephant, who used to drag the Trip to the Moon Airship attraction, had to be electrocuted after he killed a man and attacked his handler. After a legal battle around 1946, the city changed the zoning laws and allowed other types of development. Now its just buildings, but it kept the name of the famous park that once stood there.
Bruce says one of the most important reasons Coney Island attracted so many people were because of its cheap prices. “Remember those one-cent candies. I used to love those.” He says he is not sure what will happen after the revitalization plan in five years. “We have the best deal in Coney Island, $2.99 for two hotdogs and a drink. People go to Nathans and come right back because Nathans is too expensive,” he says. Stanley Fox agrees.
Fox has been part of Coney Island for about 60 years and has seen it all. Fox’s family used to own Penny Arcades (which was later known as Playland); he worked for Astroland and the Albert family for many years, and recently has appeared on the Travel Channel on a show about Coney Island’s History. Fox also sells coin-operated games.
Fox says the Albert’s choice to sell Astroland came as a shock to many in the community, but he says Mrs. Albert did not have the wherewithal to rebuild the Park herself. He says rumors that Viacom is interested in putting in a Nickelodeon Park would be fantastic for Coney Island. He believes Coney needs more amusements, but not condominiums.
“We want to keep it amusements! We don’t want condo’s coming in here because it is going to be pretty silly to have condos in the middle of an amusement park. If they put them down further in the outskirts that’s fine, but not in the heart of the amusement center. We need new roller coasters and new rides, and they want to make it year-round, so if they did something in doors it might work, the only thing is they can’t charge Times Square rents because Coney Island is still seasonal. You may want to build it up all year round but it will take time,” Fox says.
Fox says some people in the amusement industry have told him the rents Thor is asking are outrageous. He says Thor had a booth at the real estate show and was giving out proposals of what Coney Island is going to look like and was looking for companies that might want to locate there, like restaurants, nightclubs, movie theaters, amusement, water or indoor parks, or anything amusement related. He also says they were asking for $45 a square foot, which is about 4 times what the rents are at Coney Island right now.
“There was a real-estate show at the Hilton last week where Thor equities had a booth and they were putting out feelers to amusement companies about coming in and several of them called me and they said it sounds good but the rents are ridiculous, they better wise up because they aren’t going to get any takers. You know you have to start low and work your way up. You can’t start with Times Square rents,” Fox says. He says the best thing Thor can do to maintain the Coney Island character is to keep an old Coney Island section and let the people who have been there for all these years run it.
“We need something with flavor. Right now they are evicting lots of tenants and their leases are up…the go carts, the batting cages, the golf course have had to move out,” he said.
Robert S. Guskind is a Brooklyn writer and photographer who writes about real estate development and maintains an Internet blog called, “The Gowanus Lounge: Musings About Life and Real Estate Development in Post-Industrial Brooklyn and New York City.” Like many prominent Coney Island historians, Guskind blames powerful developers, and people like Robert Moses, for the demise of Coney Island’s amusement district. Guskind says this time the plan is to put up luxury housing with a sort of Times Square retail element and brand it as Coney Island. A plan he says that is similar to the Atlantic Yards redevelopment plan because it consists of one big developer controlling most of the decisions, and making decisions that will have a huge impact in many of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It is going to have as profound an impact on the community of Coney Island, as Atlantic Yards will have on the surrounding communities, particularly Prospect Heights, Park Slope… and Coney Island is increasingly a developer driven process, it’s one firm and one developer that is going to end up controlling a huge parcel of land and it is going to be relatively dense development. I think the best the best development is smaller scale and more organic in nature, meaning that you are better off with ten developers building ten smaller scale things than one developer controlling the whole process. You end up with a more creative product that is more vibrant and more alive,” Guskind says.
Guskind doesn’t believe the old rides can be moved or replaced with new ones and maintain the feeling of the traditional Coney Island. He says the old amusements are, “Coney Island history and if you lose that you lose a little piece of Brooklyn.”
And sadly adds, “One can see the day ten years from now where the historic part of Coney Island consists of the Cyclone at one end, the Parachute Jump on the other, the B&B Carousel moved to another spot, and I’m not even sure the Wonder Wheel will survive. Those will be the only remnants. Possibly the Nathan’s building will survive, I don’t even know that that’s a given. The Shore Hotel building will probably survive and the Childs restaurant… with a forty story high rise next to it.”

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note: Tops the Elephant had been the original baby elephant and had "worked" by pulling rides at Coney Island for 28 years. She was publicly electrocuted for grabbing a man with her trunk and slamming him to the ground resulting in his death. He had placed a lighted cigarette in her mouth. She was originally going to be hanged but she refused to mount the gallows.

9:28 AM  

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