Coney Island Boardwalk permitting could be privatized

Throngs in thongs
Photo by Paul Martinka

The city may be about to cede control of the Coney Island Boardwalk to a private group.

The parks department, which controls the neighborhood’s iconic Riegelmann Boardwalk, is drawing up plans that would let an outside group take over all event permitting — and possibly more — for the 91-year-old public space, according to sources.

The news has outraged locals and park advocates, who say the plan is a recipe for pushing the people out of the People’s Playground.

“This is not just a park some place. This is the iconic Coney Island Boardwalk, and I don’t think that a private entity should be in control of what happens there,” said local activist Ida Sanoff. “All over the city we have ‘friends of this park,’ ‘friends of that park,’ and while they’re involved, they’re not put in charge of who can and cannot use an area. Isn’t this the job of the parks department? Why do we need a private entity doing that?”

A parks department spokeswoman confirmed the city is creating a call for bids that would affect the Boardwalk, but was short on details.

“We’re considering a lot of different elements,” said spokeswoman Mae Ferguson, adding the parks department has not set a date to issue the request.

But critics say privatizing the permitting process could make the People’s Playground too exclusive.

“If [outside groups] take over, this is looking to me like ‘bring in the white rich,’ ” said Brighton Beach resident Veronica Grimm, who has been dancing on the Boardwalk with various groups for almost a decade, which requires a permit.

Locals suspect the city’s request for proposals will be a sweetheart deal for the Alliance for Coney Island, a business membership organization.

“These RFPs are usually a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Sanoff said. “Anybody can answer one, but my experience is that, before the RFP, the city knows who they’re going to award them to.”

One Alliance member said the group is in talks with the city.

“The Alliance for Coney Island has been in negotiations with the parks department,” said Dick Zigun, Coney Island’s unofficial mayor and the director of the arts organization Coney Island USA.

Zigun’s Mermaid Day Parade is by far the Boardwalk’s biggest event, but he said Coney Island USA won’t enter a bid and will instead support the Alliance’s application.

The Alliance did not confirm that it was talking with the city, but its director said the group’s primary goal is making Coney Island fun for everyone.

“We are first and foremost dedicated to helping Coney Island, whether it’s with supplementary sanitation or public Boardwalk programming like the Free Friday Night Fireworks,” said Alliance executive director Johanna Zaki. “The Alliance for Coney Island looks forward to continuing our work in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation across multiple initiatives for the lasting growth and benefit of the area.”

The city ceding permitting rights alone to an outside group would be precedent-setting.

Three parks citywide are operated and maintained by outside groups — Brooklyn Bridge Park, Bryant Park, and Hudson River Park, where the controlling organizations are responsible for operation, maintenance, and permitting. But there are currently no city-run parks where a private group issues permits.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation controls Brooklyn Bridge Park. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Gov. George Pataki formed the Corporation in 2002. It is also responsible for implementing a housing-development plan along the former piers that make up the park.

The Corporation’s requirements for issuing special events permits are similar to the parks department’s: applications take at least 21 days to process, require a $25 non-refundable fee, and are not issued on major holidays, according to information from the group and the city.

Community Board 13’s district manager said the request for proposals could come before December.

“I have been told one is in the works for this month,” said Chuck Reichenthal.

Rican Vargas, who heads the Coney Island Dancers, said the late-year proposal is a means of sneaking the plan under locals’ radar.

“They’re probably gonna stuff it out around Thanksgiving when everyone’s eating turkey,” Vargas said. “That way they’ll be pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeg‌[email protected]‌gloca‌l.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Putting her foot down: Brighton Beach dancer Veronica Grimm is worried that outside groups could jack up the cost of obtaining an events permit on Coney Island’s Boardwalk and alienate poorer locals.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham