Karrie Jacobs


December 31, 2008

Coney Island vs. DUMBO

Coney Island, April 2007, when Joe Sitt began putting his mark on the landscape.

Looking for something to do New Year’s Day? Too delicate for a Polar Bear style dip in the ocean? Perhaps you’d like to protest the disappearance of Coney Island as an amusement district courtesy of developer Joe Sitt of Thor Equities, aided and abetted, if you believe the Coney Coalition, by New York City’s Planning Department and the Coney Island Development Corporation.

Here’s what the Coney Coaliton has to say:

Residents and tourists who come to Coney Island on New Year’s Day will be shocked to find historic bars and storefronts closed and colorful signage obliterated by Thor Equities “Space for Lease” banners. A few days before Christmas, Thor CEO Joe Sitt’s agents began evicting longtime tenants by cutting off locks, asking for triple the rent, or refusing to discuss 2009 leases. On Christmas Eve, huge custom-sized “Space For Lease” banners were put up on Ruby’s Bar & Grill, Nathan’s Boardwalk store, Cha Cha’s, and others businesses on Thor owned property in Coney Island. On September 7, Astroland closed forever after 46 years as Coney Island’s largest amusement park when Thor refused to grant a lease for the 2009 season.

Demo details: Noon on New Year’s Day at W. Tenth and the Boardwalk.

I’ve been following this story for a while, and I’m not as convinced as the Coney Island activists — Dianna Carlin, Charles Denson, and Dick Zigun — that City Planning’s decision to scale back the acreage reserved for amusements was done in bad faith. What I found troubling, however, is that, at a symposium held at the Municipal Art Society back in September, both Purnima Kapur from City Planning’s Brooklyn office and Lynn Kelly, president of the Coney Island Development Corporation, insisted that the non-negotiable city plan was all that stood between Coney Island as amusement district and Coney Island as a neighborhood of big box stores. Kapur and Kelly were attempting to advance the city’s notion that Coney Island should be a year round destination, but neither of them, that evening, could name a credible winter use. Hot chocolate came up a lot, as did enclosed waterparks, and the suggestion that Times Square style amusements like the ESPN Sports Zone might make sense. There seemed to be a profound lack of vision and a suspect absence of detail. (The MAS, since that event, has been doing its best to conjure up some vision.)

The thing I keep saying when anyone asks is this: Coney Island needs an amusement park. If land somehow cannot be found for Astroland to reopen (strange given that there’s almost nothing but vacant land out there at this point) then another amusement operator should be brought in. And if it’s a large one like Six Flags or Tivoli Gardens, there has to be a provision to retain the small arcade and restaurant operators who give Coney Island its unique flavor.

Therefore the city needs to put in place a mechanism to allow and encourage the participation of small operators. That’s the only way that Coney Island will still be Coney Island. I’ve been referring to this mechanism as a “vernacular bonus,” a zoning bon bon that can be offered to big developers to make sure that small, locally owned amusements don’t get squeezed out by corporate parks.

Of course, at this point, the economic downturn has undermined the premise of Sitt’s acquisition of Coney Island’s prime acreage, that the real estate market in New York is so hot that even outermost Brooklyn will support luxury condos and upscale hotels. Because of Sitt’s real estate gambit, it appears that we’re going to be stuck with nothing but vacant lots for a long time to come.

Short term the city should find a place for Astroland to set up shop next summer. Long term, they need to come up with a plan that will truly allow Coney Island to be redeveloped as an amusement destination.  (For more on the current state of Coney Island, see Gowanus Lounge’s report.)

Melville House Publishing on Plymouth St. in DUMBO

Which brings me to DUMBO. I’m not nominating DUMBO’s inventor, landlord, and developer-king David Walentas or his son Jed for sainthood. But I think that, unlike Joe Sitt, they have a pretty good understanding of what a neighborhood is. While cultivating DUMBO as an enclave of luxury condos, they’ve taken pains to increase the value of their holdings by also making it a uniquely interesting place to live or visit. They’ve done this by inviting creative businesses to set up shop and giving those businesses a significant break on their rents. Recently, for example, the Galapagos Art Space, a performance gallery/bar that helped make Williamsburg a hive of hipster culture, driven out by soaring real estate prices, was lured to DUMBO by Walentas’s offer of below market rent on an amazing space.

Before Christmas, I went to a book party for Big Box Reuse by Julia Christensen at a little bookstore I’d never heard of on Plymouth St. in DUMBO, halfway to Vinegar Hill. Melville House Publishing, as it turns out, is a press that specializes in novellas. They publish classic novellas by authors such as (you guessed it) Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, and Mary Shelley, and also small books by contemporary authors. I thought their catalogue was supremely interesting, the books beautifully designed, and the store fascinating. I bought a stack of novellas to give as Chanukah presents. And, while chatting with a member of the Melville House staff, I discovered that the little publisher had been lured from a loft in Hoboken to this somewhat isolated storefront by Walentas. Further down Plymouth is Zakka, the most amazing Japanese manga and toy store, which was priced out of its former home in Soho.

What I’m saying is that there’s an enormous difference between Sitt’s scorched earth policy and the Walentas hothouse approach. Like Sitt, Walentas bought up property and then learned that the city’s zoning laws wouldn’t accommodate his plans. (Walentas originally intended to fill DUMBO’s cavernous industrial buildings with office space. Zoning didn’t allow it, so he rented the space out to artists until, decades later, he was able to convert the buildings into condos.) Coney Island has been needing reinvestment for a long time, but the way to do it is not by bulldozing, putting up fences, and driving people away. The way to do it is to respect the value of what’s already there and build on it. Maybe the city can’t force Sitt to be an enlightened developer, but it would be awfully nice if they tried.

P.S. Speaking of amusements, DUMBO is also home to a carousel, restored by Jane Walentas, wife of David, that will someday occupy a spot on the Brooklyn waterfront.

P.P.S. Happy New Year!