Beep’s Coney amphitheater plan threatens community garden

Beep’s Coney amphitheater plan threatens community garden
Photo by Arthur De Gaeta

They survived Sandy — but will they survive Marty?

Coney Island’s Boardwalk Garden — a community growing space on W. 22nd Street and the eponymous promenade — emerged this spring from under tons of sand and gallons of sea water left by last year’s superstorm. But Borough President Markowitz’s plan to convert the neighboring Childs Building into an amphitheater for his summer concert series now threatens to yank the green oasis up by the roots.

In the weeks and months after the storm, volunteer gardeners cleaned debris out of their beloved vegetable patch with shovels and wheelbarrows, some from 5 am to 9 pm. Now, they’re finding out that they might lose the space for good.

“We built it back ourselves. We fixed it up, we took care of it,” said Santos Rivera, who has been turning soil at the garden since 2007. “We got a lot of sand and we dug it out. It took a very long time, but we did it. I feel terrible about losing it.”

City records show that in 1997 the Parks Department granted growers access to the space as a replacement for eight Mermaid Avenue lots it had turned over to commercial developers. Two years later, the city kicked out the planters in order to convert the parcel into a parking lot for MCU Park, then under construction. But the garden was never paved and the dozens of gardeners returned — though without official city sanction.

Now, the Beep’s latest amphitheater proposal would knock a hole in the wall of the Childs Building. The plan is to put a stage inside — and turn the Boardwalk Garden into seating for audiences of more than 5,000 people. The plan also calls for developer iStar Financial — which currently owns the Childs Building, but is in the process of selling it to the city for $50 million — to rent the facility from the city for an undisclosed amount and operate it at a profit.

The 70-year-old Rivera lamented the impending loss of the main occupation of his twilight years.

“Most of us are retired, and that’s the only place we can go,” Rivera said. “I’ve got to be active, doing something. I’m going to go nuts without it.”

Other planters pointed out that the garden provides free fresh food to the produce-starved neighborhood — which they noted the First Lady of the United States has identified as important for urban areas.

“We grow so much tomatoes, corn, cabbage, zucchini, it’s beautiful,” said Yelena Voitsenko. “Maybe we should tell Mrs. Obama what we do, and she will help us.”

The urban agrarians suggested Markowitz hold his shows in MCU Park, which sits empty most nights that the Cyclones are out of town.

“That’s a beautiful stadium and it would be a great place to hold the concerts,” said Carolyn McCrory, who has raked and hoed the plot since 2008.

The Beep’s office has reached out to the horticulturalists about transplanting to another Coney lot — though it admitted it has not lined up a new space.

“We are confident that the end result will satisfy everyone involved and that both the newly located garden and the amphitheater will help Coney Island’s continued ‘growth’ as America’s Playground,” said Markowitz.

But the People’s Playground plowmen said they despair of saving the fruits of their labor.

“I think we will lose the garden. It’s a big project and we are very small people,” said Voitsenko.

This is not the first time Marty’s amphitheater dreams have run afoul of residents — or attempted to appropriate public park land. Markowitz tried — and failed — in 2009 to construct a building in Asser Levy Park to house his summer concert series. Public protest blocked the structure — widely mocked for resembling a potato chip. Markowitz announced his recent plan to transform the Childs Building into a performance space at his 2013 State of the Borough address.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.