Two urban planners from the Municipal Art Society came to our DUMBO offices this week to share their vision for “saving” Coney Island — and there’s a lot to admire in their beautiful dream.
But most dreams, like winning the lottery or not putting on weight during the holidays, crash into reality — and those concerning the fabled “People’s Playground” are no exception.
Some elements of the Society’s vision are essential: Given the death of Astroland, planners are seeking new amusements in the short term, so that visitors from near and far don’t go to Coney Island next summer and find only one kiddie park (Deno’s) and few bedraggled arcade operators.
To that end, the Society is calling on the city to purchase 25 acres of continuous waterfront property and to lease that land on the cheap to a private amusement company that would operate — or arrange for the operation of — a new theme park.
The Society also wants that operator to bring in an eye-popping thrill ride — a Cyclone roller coaster for the 21st century, if you will. Such an attraction, which amusement operators call a “weenie,” would go a long way towards reestablishing Coney’s tradition as a place of world-renowned amusement innovations.
The Society also believes — rightly so — that Coney Island’s future must include better use of the area’s existing institutions, including the Keyspan Park baseball stadium, the Cyclone roller coaster, and the under-utilized New York Aquarium.
But the central element of the Society’s vision has a fundamental flaw: the notion that the city can, and should, find a benevolent landlord to fly in and save Coney Island. By extending a sweetheart deal to this operator, their argument goes, the operator would have the public interest at the center of its business plan. Yeah, and we’ve got a bridge to sell you.
But here’s the bigger problem — and it is one of the city’s own making:
Over the years, the city’s willingness to change the area’s zoning from amusement-only use (the only sure-fire way to keep amusements on the site) to something that would allow for condos, hotels and retail on the site has unleashed speculation. If condos and hotels were to be allowed on the beachfront property, the value of the land would skyrocket.
Indeed, it has.
Amusement-only zoning worked well for the Albert family’s Astroland for more than 40 years. It was only when Astroland owner Carol Albert sold the land to Joe Sitt — at a speculator’s price — did the economics of running that amusement park become untenable.
Ironically, another of the area’s key landowners, Horace Bullard, once had a grand, Municipal Art Society-style dream of deeding his oceanfront land to the city, combining it with the city-owned Steeplechase Park into a single 25-acre lot, and then having the city lease it back to him for a grand amusement park with 60 new rides.
Bullard never got the deal done (sound familiar?) and now his land sits unused while he awaits a chance to cash in like Albert on the city rezoning.
That’s why the Muncipal Art Society’s vision, while glorious to ponder, is just another Coney dream.