Between Two Beaches, Debate Crests Over A Park

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As controversy over the Coney Island rezoning plan continues to froth just down the beach, questions about the fate of a 22-acre slice of green on the eastern edge of Coney are also sparking local residents’ passions.

Or is it Brighton Beach? The question of whether Asser Levy /Seaside Park is an everyday oasis for Brighton folks, and basically fine as it is, as many residents claim – or “The Gateway to Coney Island,” and ripe for a $64 million makeover, as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz maintains, is at the heart of a fresh struggle over the future of the area.

Last month, more than 160 people gathered in the Coney Island Hospital auditorium for Community Board 13’s last public meeting until autumn. Most of the standing room only crowd was there for one reason: to express outrage about an amphitheater planned for Asser Levy Park, which is the area’s only public green space. The project, being called The Coney Island Center, is backed by Markowitz and has already obtained its needed approvals, according to the city. CB 13 has resisted taking a position thus far, and heard from the public as an outpouring during the comments period rather than an official hearing.

The plan is being presented as a “rehabilitation” of what Markowitz sees as a rundown and underutilized amenity. Many locals disagree, saying the park is well used and loved. On an early summer day, benches are filled with senior citizens who come to socialize and relax, while paths are frequented by walkers with and without dogs. The park is surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings, whose residents appreciate their view of a green space in an otherwise densely built neighborhood.

The borough president said he never expected the plan would be received negatively. “The goal of this project is to renovate the park and to ensure it is a place where community residents can better enjoy recreation,” Markowitz said, “as well as the free cultural programming that many residents have taken pleasure in over the years and which has been a hallmark of this park since even before its bandshell was built in the 1950s.”

A new and improved amphitheater, part of a site plan by the Grimshaw design firm, will replace the small bandshell presently situated at one end of the park’s main lawn. The new theater will include seating for up to 8,000 people. There will also be an area for “community events” such as ice skating, sports and graduations, according to Markowitz’s office. A large roof structure, peaking at 95 feet high, will cover the concert area. The budget for the project is projected at $64 million and will come from public funds, with the majority coming from the borough president’s capital budget.

Coney Island promoter Dick Zigun, artistic director of the nonprofit group Coney Island USA, thinks it’s a worthwhile concept. “In order for the entire redevelopment of Coney Island to go forward, everyone is being asked to make compromises and move forward together. There is nothing unfair in asking that end of Coney Island to accept the gift of a better amphitheater to replace an already existing inadequate amphitheater.”
But more than a dozen residents addressed the community board and attendees on June 24 to voice their anger and concerns about the project. So far, they seem to represent the majority – as no residents are speaking up in favor of the proposal – which fears a neighborhood turned upside down by noise, traffic and overcrowding if the Coney Island Center is built as planned. One of the most passionate voices against the project is Ida Sanoff, a 31-year resident of Brighton Beach, former first vice chair of Community Board 13, and chairperson of the Natural Resources Protective Association, a consortium of groups working to protect Lower New York Bay.

Sanoff has been leading the fight against the Coney Island Center because she believes the project will have a negative environmental, as well as social, impact on the neighborhood, and has been working to make the community aware of the proposed changes and mobilize efforts to prevent construction. “It’s just too big. It does not belong in a residential neighborhood,” she says. “This is not a project that belongs outside someone’s bedroom window.”

Working alongside Sanoff is Geoffrey Croft, president of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. Croft thinks the project needs to undergo the state alienation process – a legal procedure required when a public park is converted to a non-park use – before the amphitheater can be built. That’s because park uses would be changed due to the increased concert hall size and expanded concert schedule, restructuring of green space and inclusion of a social hall – a non-park use – he argues.

Croft also characterizes the rehab approval process as one that overlooks community wishes about land use and quality of life in Brighton Beach. “Our elected officials, especially during this administration, think of our public parks as their own private domain,” he charges.

This concern is echoed by some Brighton residents who complain that they have repeatedly tried to voice their opposition to their local politicians but have been ignored.
Markowitz says his office is open to all perspectives, but he’s disinclined to meet with community groups in strong opposition to the project, where he feels he will be met with hostility. He also maintains that the alienation process – or ULURP, for that matter – is unnecessary because of the existence of the current bandshell. Thus the project is a rehab of what’s already there rather than a new entity.

CB 13 Chairwoman Marion Cleaver agrees with that characterization, which is why the board did not vote on the plan. “I see no point in making a resolution for something we have no say in,” Cleaver said. She called it “interesting” that angry people arrived en masse to the June meeting – when nine months before, the board held an informational meeting at the nearby New York Aquarium and tried to publicize it widely, but few people came. A small committee was named at that meeting to provide input on the plan. “They had an opportunity to get into it on the ground floor,” Cleaver said. “I know a lot of the suggestions were incorporated into the plan.”

Between September and now, however, passions have risen. Several board members “have gone so far as to say they’d resign” if the plan moves forward, she said. “People are very, very upset about this. They feel very strongly about it.”

Should the project progress as anticipated, with the first phase, a rebuilding of the park’s playground, expected to begin in 2010 – according to the city Department of Design and Construction – it’s unclear how one obstacle in particular will be surmounted. Asser Levy sits nearby two active synagogues, which are concerned about more concerts interfering with services. The NYPD Sound Device Permit Application states, “The police commissioner shall not issue any permit for the use of a sound device or apparatus: In any location within five hundred feet of a school, courthouse or church, during the hours of school, court or worship.”

Yet Beth Abraham measures 300 feet from the center stage of the existing bandstand. The Seaside Summer Concert Series, now in its 31st season, is held only on Thursday evenings and is tolerated because the events are few per year. However, congregants fear that the amphitheater, with a busier performance schedule, will have a destructive impact on their services, which run 365 days a year. Mendy Sontag, president of the Sea Breeze Jewish Center, says he’s already gathered more than 1,000 signatures protesting the changes to Asser-Levy.

Sanoff and Croft are gathering signatures too, and say they have some 10,000 in opposition, which they plan to present to both Markowitz and Mayor Bloomberg. While some residents say a minor facelift to the existing park may be in order, rank-and-file support is yet to materialize for a new “Gateway” at the corner of Sea Breeze and Surf Avenues.

– Alissa Ambrose