Since Mayor Bloomberg announced on Nov. 8 that he wanted to protect the core of Coney Island’s amusement district — where the Cyclone races, the Wonder Wheel spins and the Shoot the Freak shoots — Coney Island’s future has hung in the balance.
Bloomberg’s bombshell announcement that Coney Island’s beleaguered (and small) amusement area would be reborn with new rides, attractions and hotels pretty much dismissed the neighborhood’s principle landowner, Joe Sitt — even though Sitt’s $2-billion “Las Vegas on the Boardwalk” included many of the same elements as the mayor’s plan.
Whose plan is better? We invited both sides — a Bloomberg supporter and a Sitt supporter — to weigh in.
Bloomberg’s plan is saving amusements
By Dick Zigun
They call me “the Mayor of Coney Island,” but I am not a real politician, I just play one on TV. I’m the guy in the straw hat banging the drum at the front of my Mermaid Parade. I’m an arts guy and pretty good at it, but I have absolutely no political ambitions.
In a momentary lapse of good judgment, Coney Island’s real mayor, Michael Bloomberg, appointed me to the Coney Island Development Corporation. For the record, I voted against Bloomberg twice, but like many New Yorkers, I have come to admire his competence.
As a CIDC board member, I am frequently bored or frustrated out of my mind. But I respect the CIDC’s main accomplishment to-date: the creation of a Strategic Plan that serves as a road map and grand vision for reviving our playland and beach.
While hardly the Zigun Plan, the Strategic Plan had balance and merit, and before real-estate politics got in the way, it had the support of pretty much everyone. The artful compromise calls for revitalizing a shrunken amusement park core with an outer band of residential housing sitting atop ground-floor entertainment retail. All agreed that it was just the right balance.
But then Thor Equities purchased most of the designated amusement park core and tried to renegotiate the compromise. Now, all hell is breaking loose!
The other night I got a taste of real Brooklyn politics when a state Senator — who doesn’t even represent Coney Island — bused in hundreds of protesters in day-glow lime caps to bully our attempt at a public meeting. The state Senator scared me, and I’ve been laying low for four weeks.
In the 25 years of playing Coney Island’s fictional mayor, I’ve tried hard to be an honest — if quirky — spokesman for its amusement businesses.
But since most of that constituency has recently sold its property, I’m free to speak my own mind and tell the truth as much as possible. And from that viewpoint, I can tell you this: Thor’s plan is a disaster for the amusement park and the mayor’s plan, while flawed, is fascinating.
Bloomberg is the true amusement park advocate — by a landslide! The Thor plan would severely marginalize the impact of the ride experience. Sure, there are a few rides in that plan, but there is no longer a “core” and without enough ride acreage, Coney is out of balance and no longer the world’s playground.
In the opposite corner, the mayor boldly confronts Thor’s ownership of the core by creating a permanent ride zone — in perpetuity — by designating the area as parkland. Mayor Bloomberg’s plan imagines a forever-protected, Tivoli Gardens–like Coney Island for the 21st century.
While the Mayor’s proposal has strayed somewhat from the commitment to include entertainment on the ground floor under the new housing, it is friendly to historic preservation and to the legacy of Coney Island. It needs off-site parking and the return of the Surf Avenue trolley, but I believe we can fine-tune it.
Amusement park advocates should stand and applaud this a bold and innovative city plan. Hell, man, this is Brooklyn; bring your 300 loudest friends in matching tie-dye hats to our next public meeting on Jan. 7.
Because at the end of the day, the elected officials who actually do represent Coney Island are going to make decisions that will affect it for decades.
Dick Zigun is the founder of Coney Island USA, which runs the Mermaid Parade and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.
Thor’s plan is the best for the beach
By Digna Rodriguez
When Thor Equities began its quest to revitalize Coney Island five years ago, our goal was simple: we wanted to give residents of this iconic neighborhood, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who stop by each year the opportunity to experience this treasured slice of New York, a rejuvenated area with year-round amusements, and retail and entertainment venues. We wanted to return Coney to its heralded status as “America’s Playground.” And we wanted to achieve this goal immediately.
Anyone would be hard-pressed to find a single soul who believes Coney doesn’t deserve better than a place that hasn’t changed much since “The Warriors” was filmed nearly 30 years ago. For eight months out of 12, Coney Island is a desolate and bleak reminder of a dark era in our city’s past. Shops are closed, people are sparse and a generally gloomy sensation pervades the area.
Not only has research shown us the near-unanimity of Coney residents’ desire to remake the neighborhood, I’ve seen it personally. I’ve seen it on beautiful, sunny days, when couples have to dodge gaping holes in our once-historic Boardwalk in order to take an ocean-side stroll. I’ve seen it in children’s faces, when all they’re greeted with on Stillwell Avenue after Labor Day is metal gates infested with graffiti. I’ve seen it in tourists who visit during the summer and seem to wonder, “Is this it?”
Keeping that in mind, we came up with a comprehensive plan that would please both residents and visitors — an 11-acre site that will be the home to eye popping, jaw dropping year-round amusements and experiences, a place to make memories, a place almost tripleÃ‚Â the size of the legendry Astroland Park. To ensure Coney Island becomes a vibrant year-round entertainment destination, we added hotels, entertainment venues, restaurants, and retail attractions. Very few people know that South Brooklyn, with 1.3 million residents, would be the sixth largest city in the United States. Yet, South Brooklyn residents are shortchanged when it comes to basic retail amentities our plan would provide. Finally, we developed a plan that could get underway in a matter of months, and that taxpayers could afford.
Realizing that no plan is perfect, we listened and learned from the community, adjusting our proposal numerous times based on their suggestions and concerns. We scrapped condominiums from the plan, reduced heights of some buildings and allowed for even more amusements and games than originally planned.
But we feel that two elements of our plan cannot be altered in any incarnation. To have any chance of reaching Coney Island’s full potential, any revitalization must be year-round and must be completed in a timely fashion. If either of those two building blocks fails to materialize, we will be left with the same dilapidated conditions for far too long followed by a new Coney Island the falls far short of the neighborhood’s dreams.
To be clear, as the largest landowner in the amusement area, we continue to be committed to working with anyone — whether that be the city, the community or anyone with a love for Coney Island — who is dedicated to a shining new day for the neighborhood.
So there’s no confusion, we firmly believe that Mayor Bloomberg and his team are as committed as we are to transforming Coney Island into a true jewel in the crown of New York City.
We remain hopeful to work together with the city, community and local leaders to thoroughly but expeditiously build a revitalized, year-round Coney Island.
Digna Rodriguez is the director of Community Development for Thor Equities.