Coney Island- The Roller Coaster Ride Of The Century

Posted on 09. Dec, 2009 by in Lifestyle

by Jason Dean

Never has a metaphor been more convenient. The roller coaster saga of the world’s oldest amusement park took another twist in November when the Bloomberg administration paid $95.6 million for about seven acres of land in the heart of Coney Island. A key chess piece was put in place in the summer when the city rezoned a 19-block section of land, paving the way for thousands of apartments and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail to move in. In other words, does this mean goodbye Astroland, hello Disney Store? Not necessarily.
When Astroland closed in September 2008, many wondered if the Cyclone or Wonder Wheel were next—or if they hadn’t in fact already met their untimely demise. All the attractions are independently owned; some are passed on through generations. The Albert family, which owned and operated Astroland for almost 50 years, was motivated to sell out to Thor Equities, which played the role of predatory speculator when it started buying Coney Island real estate in 2005. Ironically, CEO Joseph J. Sitt used to frequent the park as a youth when he was cutting class in high school—evidently that’s where he was the day they covered ethics. Sitt made grandiose promises of fashioning a Las Vegas – style resort with hotels and condos situated amongst a new indoor water park and the rides and attractions. “A wolf dressed as a sheep,” was how NYC Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber characterized the plan in 2007. As of this writing, nary a shovel has been soiled in the name of the development. Sitt will retain ownership of 5.5 acres of adjacent land, which he still has designs on filling with hotels and shops.

Coney Island Wonder Wheel © 2009 Charles Denson

Libby Langsdorf, assistant vice president for public affairs at New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC), which orchestrated the transaction, said RFPs for a 10-year lease have been sent out and are due back in mid-December; new construction could commence as early as March. The amusements will be up and running during construction, ideally by Memorial Day weekend. Langsdorf maintained that rezoning created nine acres of designated, mapped parkland, “a protection that’s very hard to undo.”

As with any controversy in which nostalgia and progress clash, there are differing opinions. Although he was initially quite concerned over the City’s plans—especially in light of the summer rezoning—Charles Denson said he is hopeful. Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project, said his main opposition to the project is that there is not a sufficient height limitation on buildings in the vicinity of The Parachute Jump, a 30-story landmark that was constructed for the 1939 World’s Fair. When I initially spoke to Denson, he was rather animated in his disdain for the project and those involved. However, when I spoke to him a week later, after the deal had been made, he was more conciliatory. In Las Vegas, where he was attending the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Convention, Denson said recent developments in the Coney Island situation was creating a lot of buzz at the convention. “[The City] actually came around to a lot of what we were asking,” he acknowledged. Denson has been documenting Coney Island for 40 years and formed the Coney Island History Project in 2004. The office and exhibit center is located on Surf Ave. at the base of the Cyclone. “Anybody can go to Six Flags or Disney,” continued Denson, pressing his point on Coney Island’s historical relevance.  “Visitors from all over the world, they wanna see the old buildings—it’s not just where there were rides, it’s where [the amusement park] was invented.”

Langsdorf counters that critics who claim that Coney Island’s historic identity is being jeopardized by the City’s plan miss the point that that Coney Island’s glory days have been AWOL for years. “The City is the only one with the ability to put in the necessary infrastructure to create a viable 21st-century, year-round amusement destination,” she claimed. Of the family-owned attractions, she said, “People were selling out. They couldn’t continue to manage their operations only three months out of the year with all these other vacant properties surrounding the amusements that were left. What you need is the neighborhood services that will keep people here year-round and also draw visitors year-round,” Langdorf continued. “The amusements are important, but we don’t want to leave out the importance of building up the neighborhood.” She tossed out a grim reality: “Coney Island has the highest unemployment rate in Brooklyn. One sixth of its residents live in Section 8 housing.”  The key to rebuilding the area—attracting people, jobs, and dollars—lies in modernizing the area somewhat while still ‘respecting the integrity’ of landmarks such as the Parachute Jump.” She also added that rezoning included specific requirements for preserving views, “footprints” of new structures, and structure spacing.

Coney Island – a modest four-mile strip of land – has been the subject of custody battles since the mid-19th century, when calls were first made to turn the site into a natural park to stymie proposed commercial development. One hundred-sixty years later, the drama continues to unfold. What can visitors expect this summer? “We’re very optimistic,” said Langsdorf. “Expect to see the beginnings of what’s to come. The RFP does require a plan for summer 2010. You will see a significant investment in the amusements area starting in 2010.”

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2 Responses to “Coney Island- The Roller Coaster Ride Of The Century”

  1. perry

    10. Dec, 2009

    Poor Coney Island. As a life long resident of Coney Island I wonder how the government and the greedy commercial interests will carve up Coney Island.

    Instead of having an enclave that all can enjoy with parks, some rides, free public areas, rides that I call physical exams will be constructed. Maybe that is what the new healthcare bill will include…Ride these rides if you don’t get a heart attack, you have a clean bill of health…50 years of waiting for this…how sad…..

    Reply to this comment
  2. Rachel

    16. Jan, 2010

    Brilliant article no matter what becomes of the Coney Island relic… Let’s hope some mysterious person comes along and rescues the memories there in.

    Reply to this comment

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