Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to restore vitality to Coney Island with gleaming new rides, hotels and attractions and thousands of apartments on desolate blocks looks good on paper, but the effort to succeed where at least four previous mayors failed raises more questions than it answers.
For one thing, how much will it cost?
City officials simply won’t say, and there’s not a word about the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars that would be required to jumpstart — not complete, mind you, but just to begin — the mayor’s plan.
The framework for saving Coney Island has been in the works for five years but was finally released in full this week. In the main zone, an area dubbed “Coney East” and bounded by the Boardwalk, Surf Avenue, Keyspan Park and the landmark Cyclone roller coaster, city zoning changes would create a nine-acre, city-owned (but privately operated) outdoor theme park along the Boardwalk, plus a larger adjacent area for open-air and year-round amusements.
In this all-year zone, private developers could also create hotels, restaurants, arcades, movie theaters, and, even tattoo parlors.
The two other districts — the so-called “Coney North” and “Coney West” — would include 4,500 new apartments and hundreds of parking spaces.
The push for a year-round tourist destination is the most difficult element of the plan. Bloomberg has been dueling with real-estate mogul Joe Sitt, who owns significant amounts of Coney Island property and says he wants to build his own, $1.5-billion, 24-7-365, Vegas-style pleasure palace.
Bloomberg has said that as a strip-mall developer Sitt lacks the ability to develop a profitable amusement park. As a result, Sitt’s initiative, which requires the same kind of rezoning that the city is undertaking, has been stalled.
The city seeks to acquire Sitt’s 10-1/2 acres in Coney Island, which cost him more than $100 million to assemble. The just-released Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the mayor’s rezoning plan says the city could acquire the land by buying it or seize it via condemnation, though the city planners have repeatedly denied that they would seek to use the state’s eminent domain power.
Either way, the land acquisition costs could be staggering.
In addition, the city plan calls for rezoning part of Coney Island’s amusement zone as a nine-acre parkland zone. City officials say that parkland zoning provides for additional state oversight — but that nine-acre park is being created only because nine acres of existing parkland, mostly a parking lot for Keyspan Park, would be demapped as parkland to create the residential towers of Coney West.
The fact that parkland can be transferred so easily raises questions about whether the nine-acre parkland amusement zone would remain a theme park should a future mayor seek a different course for Coney Island.
In the end, the biggest question is money. A rezoning will make the oceanfront housing of “Coney West” very desireable to developers, but there may not be a market for the inland parcels of “Coney North,” which are already zoned as residential.
Wouldn’t that area be booming already if there was a market for such housing there?
And if the rest of Coney is rezoned to allow indoor and outdoor amusements, hotels and retail, market pressures could drive out the good things about the People’s Playground — places like Nathan’s or the honky-tonk roadhouses like Cha Cha’s and Ruby’s on the Boardwalk.
“Unfortunately the city is determined to move forward with mediocrity,” said Dick Zigun, the founder of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and a former member of the Coney Island Development Corporation, the city agency overseeing the project.
He resigned in dissent last June after the city decreased the proposed theme park from 15 acres to nine acres.