The City Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to redevelop Coney Island, a controversial plan that the mayor hopes will create a major tourist destination and livable neighborhood for permanent residents.
Just before the vote, Bloomberg and Joe Sitt, the major landowner in Coney Island and a longtime opponent of the mayor’s plans, made a breakthrough in their sometimes-bitter negotiations over a price for some of Sitt’s large holdings, though a deal was not yet finalized.
The breakthough involves Sitt selling a portion of his valuable territory to the city, yet retain some for lucrative development of his own, the New York Times reported.
The Council’s 44–2 vote would rezone Coney Island’s derelict lots in hopes of creating a gleaming city-owned amusement park surrounded by enclosed attractions like movie theaters, shopping or a water park for year-round visitors and 4,500 units of housing.
The plan will rezone 19 blocks of Coney Island, much of it currently limited solely for amusements, though only a few blocks actually have seasonal amusements on site while vast portions are empty or used for other purposes due to lax enforcement.
“The best days for Coney Island are past unless we do something, and here we are doing something,” Bloomberg said after the vote. “Hopefully, we are bringing an end to an era of uncertainty. Is this going to be Disney World? No, of course not. That’s not what it’s meant to be.”
To secure the legislative victory, the mayor had to win over Sitt’s ally, Councilman Domenic Recchia (D–Coney Island), who had long raised doubts about Bloomberg’s untested proposal to map part of Coney Island’s amusement zone as parkland — and demap an adjacent park to allow for housing and other development.
Recchia’s opposition faded after Bloomberg agreed to fund a bevy of neighborhood improvements in the councilman’s district, including $30 million to renovate the emergency room of Coney Island Hospital, $5.5 million to build a new gym at an elementary school and money to pay for a deluxe shark exhibit at the New York Aquarium.
“Any single one of these things would be a huge benefit to Coney Island,” Recchia said. “The fact that this commitment has been made to provide all of these is truly remarkable.”
With Recchia now satisfied, the Bloomberg administration can redouble its efforts on Sitt, whose company Thor Equities owns 10-1/2 acres of land in the faded amusement district near the Boardwalk.
The Times reported that the city is moving to buy six acres from Thor and add it to other city-owned parcels on which another developer would build a state-of-the-art outdoor amusement park, between the Cyclone roller coaster and defunct Parachute Jump.
Sitt would then be able to develop his remaining property adjacent to the proposed theme park, to create potentially highly profitable hotels, shopping and other covered tourist attractions.
Neither side would discuss the negotiations.
Wednesday’s historic Council vote comes as the fabled People’s Playground is vastly different — and less-exciting — place than it was when Bloomberg took office in 2002. Astroland amusement park closed last year and several smaller attractions, like batting cages and go-carts, shut before that. On the bright side, the B&B Carousel was saved by Bloomberg and is currently being refurbished.
Despite the Council’s overwhelming support, opponents still decried the inclusion of four, 27-story hotels in the amusement area, saying that such development would ruin the area’s honky-tonk ambiance.
Recchia and Speaker Christine Quinn (D–Manhattan) said that only two such lodges would be included, though that depends on the outcome of the talks with Sitt and other landowners.
Lawmakers have also raised the hopes of ride advocates by suggesting that the size of the nine-and-a-half-acre area for outdoor rides could be increased.
Critics began planning Coney Island’s death-watch.
“This is a sad day for New York City,” said Juan Rivero, a spokesman for Save Coney Island. “As a result of this rezoning, people across the city and around the world who love Coney Island could see its historic amusement district shrunk, covered up and blocked off with high-rises, its history destroyed and its potential squandered — all for nothing.”
The project does call for a substantial amount of below-market rate units, something that Borough President Markowitz pushed for when the zoning proposal was coming through the public-review process. Originally, the city’s plan called for 20 percent of the new housing to be priced at below-market rates, but after the persistent lobbying of Markowitz and housing advocates, the mayor agreed to raise the amount to 35 percent of the proposed units.