Ride advocates push to save Coney’s past

The same Coney Island group that is fighting rezoning efforts it says short-changes “the People’s Playground” is also pushing hard this week to save some of the storied amusement district’s most historic sites.

Save Coney Island, the grassroots organization advocating more space for big time outdoor rides, proposes the creation of anew “landmark corridor” in Coney Island.

Centered on Surf Avenue, the corridor would encompass several historically significant Coney Island sites like the Grasshorn and Henderson buildings, Shore Theater, Coney Island USA building – formerly home to Childs Restaurant – and Nathan’s Famous.

Jaspar Goldman, a city planner formerly with the Municipal Art Society and a Save Coney Island contributor, quoted “unofficial Mayor of Coney Island Dick Zigun” last week at a special meeting with ride advocates on West 8th Street.

“There is more left of ancient Rome than of turn-of-the-century Coney Island,” Goldman complained.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is already evaluating the historic significance of three of the sites.

But Thor Equities, owner the old Henderson building at Surf and Stillwell Avenues, is against landmark designation.

“As New York City and Thor Equities stand at the precipice of comprehensively revitalizing Coney Island after decades of neglect, we must be careful to balance the need to pay homage to Coney’s past with the people’s desire to see a new and better Coney Island emerge,” Thor Equities spokesperson Stefan Friedman said. “Landmarking these buildings would achieve the former, but prohibit the latter when we need the flexibility to do both.”

Critics fear that unless plans are altered, the south side of Surf Avenue could one day become a wall of high-rise hotels.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public/private entity spearheading redevelopment efforts in Coney Island, says that they will defer to the LPC’s findings, but that the sites included in the proposed landmark corridor have already been analyzed as part of a required Environmental Impact Statement.

Parts of Coney Island’s past are already in the process of being dismantled.

Last week, asbestos abatement and demolition work began on the old Feltman’s building located on the former site of Astroland Amusement Park.

Coney Island blogger Trica Vita highlighted the situation on her blog “Amusing the Zillion.”

Restaurateur Charles Feltman is credited with inventing the American hot dog in Coney Islandjust prior to the start of the 20th century.

At one time, Coney Island historian and author Charles Denson says the Feltman’s building housed a kitchen and was part of “the biggest restaurant in the world.”

Reduced to nothing more than a repair shop in recent years, some believe the Feltman kitchen could also be the same place where Nathan Handwerker – founder of Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs – once worked.

A mural painted on the site of the Feltman building is also valued at $250,000.

None of that, however, appears to be slowing down the city.

According to officials, $6.5 million in capital funding has already been allocated to prepare the defunct Astroland site, as well as two other parcels of land the city purchased from Thor Equities last year, in anticipation of new rides and attractions.

International ride manufacturer Zamperla is expected to be up and running in Coney Island thissummer.

“During the public review process that concluded with a near unanimous vote in front of the City Council last summer, we analyzed many of Coney Island’s historical assets in consultation with community leaders, elected officials, civic groups and area residents,” an EDC spokesperson said. “While we determined that several existing structures should be preserved or included in future designs, this building was not among them.”

Save Coney Island’s pendinglawsuit against the city could, if successful, overturn new zoning approved by the City Council last year.

Ride advocates maintain that the roughly 12-acres carved out in the rezoning and dedicated to outdoor amusements is simply not large enough to attract the international crowds the city says it wants.

The city’s rezoning plan devotes roughly half of the re-imagined amusement district to indoor amusements.

The Municipal Art Society estimated that in order to draw sufficient crowds, a new Coney Island would need a full 26 acres of big-time outdoor rides.

Critics say that the city could still match the grandeur of other outdoor amusement parks like Tivoli Gardens in Cophenhagen, Denmark,by acquiring more land from private developers in Coney Island.

The city, isn’t convinced.

“We think the rezoning and our plan for Coney Island contains the right mix of outdoor and indoor amusements, amusement-related retail, housing and open space,” the EDC spokesperson said.