Op-ed: Coney Island deserves a ferry. It deserves a clean creek, too.

People sit on the sand during warm weather at Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York
Beachgoers hit the sand at Coney Island.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

You don’t have to live in Coney Island to know the traffic there sucks. The amusement parks, beaches, ballpark and amphitheater are a global destination and despite ample subway service many choose to drive there. And why not? The area lacks basic bicycling infrastructure.

Bus service is spotty and unreliable. Despite the incredible surges in seasonal traffic volume, many streets have a surplus of unused asphalt that could otherwise provide safe refuge and passage for pedestrians and cyclists. Vision Zero roadway improvements that are ubiquitous in Manhattan and the tony Brooklyn neighborhoods seemed never to have reached Brooklyn’s southern shore. It’s no wonder that many Coney Islanders overwhelmingly support the concept of ferry service.

For the city, expanding ferry service to the Coney Island peninsula is a no-brainer. A ferry already passes the region on its way to the Rockaways. A ferry could shave 30 minutes off many Coney Islander’s commutes to Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. But it could also provide an alternative mode of transportation for the millions of visitors annually to the amusement district. A ferry could be enough incentive for some motorists to not drive to Coney Island. For a brief moment it seemed the powers-that-be had heard the community and were providing something everyone could benefit from. Then, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) slowly started to share the details of the plan they cooked up for Coney Island in classic bait-and-switch fashion.

EDC’s Coney Island ferry expansion plan has been cheap and dirty. Instead of bringing ferry passengers close to the amusement district, where the overwhelming majority of people coming to the area want to go, their plan is to strand them more than a mile away at the fishing pier in the neighborhood’s local Kaiser Park on the Coney Island Creek. Saying it is to serve the neighborhood’s commuter needs, not the amusement district’s visitors. 

But Coney Island commuters already have to get to the Stillwell Avenue subway station as part of their daily commute. A ferry near the amusement district would still be a significant improvement to local commuters, while also providing much-needed alternative transportation for the tourists when they come to town. When finding themselves stranded more than a mile from their destination once, a tourist leaving their car home for the Coney Island Ferry will not take the ferry a second time. The next time they return to Coney Island, and they will, they’ll be back in their car again. 

In public forums, the EDC has argued that they are concerned about the liabilities associated with the ferry’s exposure to ocean wave action, and thus they felt it will be safer for the ferry to be docked in the sheltered creek. Had they consulted a maritime map they would discover that in fact Southern Brooklyn is not exposed to the ocean. The area’s beaches are part of the Lower New York Bay, Rockaway Inlet, and Jamaica Bay. That’s why surfing is impossible in Coney Island though it can be done in the Rockaways. The area doesn’t get that kind of action on local beaches. And a ferry successfully operated from the Coney Island beach to lower Manhattan from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. It has been done before and can be done again.

The other problem with using the Coney Island creek is that for over a hundred years it served as an industrial waterway and it now contains legacy contaminants that are among the highest measurable toxic concentrations according to the EDC’s own environmental study documents. Area residents have known this all along. So has the City of New York. But EDC’s cheap and dirty plan isn’t proposing to remediate the creek to make it safe and clean. Instead, they are proposing to spot dredge small portions of the creek because the ferries otherwise wouldn’t be able to navigate it. And they’d have to come back every three to five years for maintenance dredging.

Their plan leaves toxic elements in place but improves the creek for navigability. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had confirmed what many have feared — that the levels of contamination in the Coney Island Creek rise to the level of being considered a potential Superfund clean-up site. Yet the City continues to abrogate its responsibility.

Lastly, any visitor to Kaiser Park, would notice that it’s a neighborhood gem nestled on the creek with precious open space and ample outdoor recreation facilities. Adding insult to injury, EDC’s plan didn’t include any meaningful amenities for improving the park. Nothing for the fishermen who would be significantly disrupted by ferry activities. No landscaping improvements. No improvements to the pedestrian paths. Not even a connector for the existing Neptune Avenue bike lane to the Bayview Avenue entrance to the park where they want to build the landing. Nothing for any of the existing park users. Not even much-needed ongoing resources so the city can do a better job maintaining the park. The plan is to plop in a ferry landing as cheaply as possible.

Coney Island’s local Community Board 13 has been requesting a traffic study of the area for years. Yet the city has not addressed this request. Local Councilmember Mark Treyger pledged at public meetings that he would fund a shuttle to connect the new ferry landing to the amusement district and Stillwell Avenue because he knows it’s a local need. While local Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus has been steadily banging the drum that Coney Island needs a ferry, but not at the creek. A bunch of neighbors in Coney Island have even started a group called “Coney Islanders for an Oceanside Ferry” as word continues to spread of the city’s cheap and dirty plan.

The truth is Coney Island needs a ferry. And Coney Island deserves a ferry, but not at Kaiser Park where amusement district visitors won’t be served. The area deserves a ferry at the amusement district serving tourists and locals alike. Anything less is unacceptable. 

Kouichi Shirayanagi is a part-time journalist and full-time dad living in Coney Island. Craig Hammerman is a former Community Board district manager currently living in Brighton Beach as a southern Brooklyn activist.