Investments in Coney Island, like the construction of the Brooklyn Cyclones’ KeySpan Park, restoration of the Stillwell Avenue Terminal, and the development of substantial amounts of infill housing within the community, have laid the groundwork for further development in Coney Island.
In 2003, the City mobilized the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) to plan and implement economic and development strategies like developing vacant property for commercial and residential use, including housing, retail stores and a community center. The strategic plan for Coney Island was announced by Mayor Bloomberg in September 2005, committing an initial $83.2 million in funds.
In 2006, developer Joe Sitt and his company Thor Equities purchased 11 acres of boardwalk land with the intention of building a $1.5 billion entertainment zone to attract visitors and residents to the area. Thor’s initial plans included a mix of amusements, attractions, and housing.
The project called for a water-park-themed hotel, another full-service hotel, time-share facilities, new retail, a multilevel carousel and a 4,000-foot roller coaster. When the plans were announced, Thor had hoped to break ground by mid-2008 and complete the project over the next five years, but he has since run into conflict with the City.
Under Thor’s revitalization plans, some long-time vendors would be forced to leave, causing concern about what would happen to the unique Coney Island experience. Opponents have claimed that Thor Equities is less interested in amusement development, and is instead just waiting for the City to make a zoning change that will allow residential development in hopes of being able to ‘flip’ the properties for a substantial profit.
In February 2007, Amanda Burden, chair of the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Commissioner of the City Planning Commission (CPC), announced that the area would be inappropriate for luxury housing, a component of Thor Equities’ plan that the company described as necessary to finance the amusement area.
In response to Ms. Burden’s comments, Thor Equities changed its original plan from spreading the housing out among four boardwalk locations within the proposed 425,000-square-foot amusement complex to confining 900 units in a single 40-story tower on Stillwell Avenue’s west side near Surf Avenue.
In November 2007, DCP released the comprehensive plan and proposed rezoning for Coney Island. The City’s plan is in accordance with the Mayor’s Strategic Plan announced in 2005 and hopes to make Coney Island a year-round entertainment destination with major commercial and housing revitalization. The proposed rezoning covers a 19-block area with the amusement area as a focal point.
The existing amusement area will be renovated, rebuilt, and expanded, keeping important city landmarks such as the Cyclone intact while also inviting private development of new and improved indoor and outdoor amusements and concessions. Under the City’s plan, this area will be designated as parkland in order to keep the amusement district on Coney Island in perpetuity. Over 4000 units of housing are expected, and through the use of the Inclusionary Zoning program 900 units are expected to be affordable. The new zoning will also allow for a wider variety of uses to create a more integrated mixed-use community.
The creation of hotels and restaurants, neighborhood retail, connections from Surf Avenue to the beach as well as a continuous beachfront boardwalk and park are just a few of the expected improvements. By creating three special districts the City hopes to control the uses, height and density of the development in order to maintain the current view corridors, iconic skyline features, and contextual buildings for the area. While Thor Equities was somewhat disappointed with the City’s vision, the developer pledged to work with the appropriate agencies and community members in this long process.
The City had been considering buying out Thor Equities and developing Coney Island itself, but in March 2008 went back on these plans and instead decided to try to work with the developer. In April of that year the Bloomberg administration revised its redevelopment plan in an attempt to please both elected officials and Thor. However, the City and Sitt continued to clash over retail zoning, and preservationists were dissatisfied that the planned amusement area was decreased from 15 acres to 9 acres.
Throughout 2008 tensions grew between Coney Island residents, city government, and Thor Equities. In November of 2008, Thor entered into negotiations to sell the City 10.5 acres of Coney Island property, and if the deal goes through the City will be able to go through with the Mayor’s 47-acre rezoning plan to revitalize the area.
It would also make the City the owner of the Astroland Park, which closed on September 7, 2008 because Sitt was unable to come to a lease agreement with park operator Carol Albert. The developer is considering selling its land because the City owns a one-acre lot in the center of Sitt’s land and because Sitt is trying to smooth his relationship with the administration in order to obtain city backing for major development projects he’s pressing for in Red Hook and Bensonhurst.
Sitt has asked for $165 million while the City has offered $105 million. In 2009, Sitt bought another three acres that the City wanted to purchase. Sitt spokesman Stefan Friedman said that the developer bought the extra land for an entertainment-amusement complex to be set up on the boardwalk as a back-up plan should the deal with the City fail to move forward. Some believe that the extra land would increase Sitt’s leverage in the negotiations.
In early 2008 the City began holding public meetings to get community feedback and involvement in the process. A public scoping meeting was held on February 13, 2008, to discuss the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). There was also a review process involving state legislation due to the loss of parkland associated with the rezoning, an area near Keyspan Park currently being used for accessory parking is being considered for incorporation into the mixed-use district in the comprehensive plan.
In January 2009, Lynn Kelly, President of the Coney Island Development Corporation, stated that the EIS was nearly complete and the Bloomberg administration officially released its plans for the rezoning. DCP plans to rezone 60 acres in the area. The plan includes a 27-acre amusement district that will increase the types of rides and attractions a developer can bring to the area. Outside the amusement district, the plan will encourage retail and residential development. The ULURP process officially began at the end of January.
In March 2009, Brooklyn’s Community Board 13 voted to approve the City’s plan for Coney Island with modifications. The changes, which numbered 20, include a restriction on the use of the eminent domain, expanded retail space, and not officially rezoning parts of the area parkland. The amendments would also increase the value of the property owned by Sitt that the City hopes to take over.
The amendments, as passed by the Community Board, resembled very closely the amendments proposed by Thor Equities. The vote by the Community Board is only advisory. The plan will next be considered by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markovitz.