The Council voted to approve Borough President Markowitz’s dream of constructing an amphitheater in Coney Island’s Childs Building — but technicality could still derail the plan, say the keepers of a garden the project would uproot.
Representatives of the Boardwalk Garden, a W. 22nd community garden the project would plow under, claim that the new venue would eat up chunks of city parkland — meaning the proposal cannot move forward without state approval. But the Parks Department says that none of the parcels are parkland — despite city maps showing the exact opposite.
Markowitz is pushing the city to approve a deal with iStar Financial, owners of the landmarked Childs Building, that would convert the 90-year-old Boardwalk icon into a permanent home for his summer concert series. Under the agreement, the city would buy the building off iStar and convert it into a music hall and restaurant — and turn the Boardwalk Garden and two parcels along W. 23rd Street into seating and a sprawling, landscaped lawn. The city would then lease the property to iStar for the company to operate until 2025 — which garden advocates say constitutes “parkland alienation,” and comes with a bundle of state regulations.
“Parkland is a public trust,” said Ray Figueroa of the New York Community Gardens Coalition, which is representing the People’s Playground plowsmen. “Just like with a landmark, you can’t just build on it without going through an onerous process.”
Figueroa pointed to state statutes requiring a two-thirds vote of the Council to request permission to lease city parkland, and then passage of a law by the state legislature before such a plan can go forward.
No such steps have been taken on the amphitheater plan. The laws also mandate that the lessee make a substantial investment in the park, but under the current proposal, the city will fund all renovations.
But the city claims that no parkland is involved in the project.
“It is important to note that this property is not, nor was it ever, mapped parkland,” deputy commissioner for Parks Larry Blackmon told the Council’s Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee on Dec. 17.
But city zoning maps clearly show the lots between W. 22rd and W. 23rd streets zoned as parks. And a city map of open spaces in the area shows the garden parcels as parkland. Nonetheless, the city still insisted the area was not parkland when shown its own documents.
“While the map identifies park space, that does not mean that the sites on that map are indeed officially mapped as parkland,” said Parks spokeswoman Meghan Lalor.
But the amphitheater appears to be moving forward anyway. The City Planning Commission unanimously endorsed the project earlier this month. Councilman Domenic Recchia (D–Coney Island) has backed the proposal, and the Council’s Land Use Committee followed the local representative’s lead on Dec. 18.
The full Council voted nearly unanimously to approve the plan on Thursday — its last day of business before the new Council is sworn in next year.
The sole dissenting vote was outgoing Councilman Charles Barron (D–East Flatbush).
The win for Markowitz came after Community Board 13 voted against the amphitheater in September under pressure from residents who feared the area couldn’t handle the noise and traffic such an theater would inevitably bring.
Now, it seems the only obstacle that could stand in the way is a potential lawsuit by the gardeners.
City records show that the Parks Department first granted growers access to the lot along W. 22nd Street in 1997. Two years later, the city kicked the planters out in order to convert the parcel into a parking lot for MCU Park, then under construction. But the garden was never paved and the dozens of seed-sowers returned — though without official city sanction. The gardeners insist they are not opposed to the Childs Building project, but want the city to provide an equivalent area for them to use. The city has offered them a stake in another space on W. 29th Street and Surf Avenue, but the planters complain that the proffered parcel is substantially smaller than their current spot, paved over, and already home to two-dozen other gardeners.
“It’s a concrete jungle over there,” said Boardwalk Gardener Yuri Opendik. “It’s not a pleasant place to be, and it’s not a comfortable site for growing vegetables.”
This is not the first time Marty’s amphitheater dreams have run afoul of residents — or attempted to appropriate public park land. Markowitz tried — and failed — in 2009 to construct a building in Asser Levy Park to house his summer concert series. Public protest blocked the structure — widely mocked for resembling a potato chip. Markowitz announced his recent plan to transform the Childs Building into a performance space at his 2013 State of the Borough address.