Coney Island's Invisible Towers

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While there is some residential construction underway at Coney Island, it's behind schedule and far less extensive than envisioned when the area was rezoned. The recession and soft housing market may explain some of that lag, but infrastructure needs and flooding problems are also part of the picture.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

While there is some residential construction underway at Coney Island, it's behind schedule and far less extensive than envisioned when the area was rezoned. The recession and soft housing market may explain some of that lag, but infrastructure needs and flooding problems are also part of the picture.

When crowds throng Coney Island for the annual Nathan's hot dog eating contest on July 4th, they'll find a boardwalk amusement strip that is, for the umpteenth year in a row, undergoing a summer of change and transition.

There is the new: go-carts and a new roller coaster for the “Scream Zone” that the Luna Park amusement park added last summer; and the start of a new pavilion alongside the Parachute Jump, where the old B&B Carousell (second “l” now enshrined as a historic typo), relegated to storage since 2005 and painstakingly restored at city expense, will once again whirl next spring.

There is the disappeared and the disappearing: Henderson's Music Hall, where Harpo Marx made his stage debut, was demolished two winters ago by landowner Thor Equities; this spring, it was replaced by a nondescript one-story structure that, lacking tenants, was instantly boarded up with plywood. And barring an unforeseen reprieve, this will be the final summer for both Denny's ice cream and the Eldorado bumper cars, each of which is expected to see its Surf Avenue storefront razed for new construction — or at least occupied by new businesses — in the near future.

It's another step in the remaking of the Brooklyn beachfront that began in 2003, when the city launched a rezoning process to transform the diminished yet still-popular summer destination into what it hoped would be a year-round hot spot for both residents and entertainment-seekers. In the years since, what seemed like the beach's inexorable slow slide into decay — a bathhouse burned down one decade, a derelict rollercoaster razed the next —turned into a whirlwind of change, as developers and longtime neighborhood property owners alike began smelling greenbacks in the air, and the 46-year-old Astroland amusement park and many longtime boardwalk businesses were pushed out in the rush to make way for promised glitzier attractions.

Yet amidst all the noisy mermaid-filled debates that accompanied the rezoning battle, it's been easy to forget that the amusement district proper — a beachfront strip of rides, carny games and skeeball parlors that over the decades has shrunk to a relict dozen or so acres — was never the main target of the city's rezoning efforts. Though the storefronts along Surf (including the homes of Denny's and Eldorado) were slated for high-rise hotels on the city's rezoning renderings, much of the focus of the Coney Island Development Corporation (spun off by the city Economic Development Corporation in 2003 to oversee redevelopment plans) was to the west, where the city's stated intent was to bring mixed-use housing and retail towers to the vacant lots that have littered Surf Avenue since they were cleared for urban renewal in the 1960s.

“It's a neighborhood with a significant amount of poverty, very few jobs and lots of abandoned lots,” said city Economic Development Corporation (EDC) president Seth Pinsky after the rezoning was approved by the City Council in 2009. The hope at the time was that by dropping some high-end residents into Coney Island, as well as new storefronts along Surf Avenue that could host restaurants, movie theaters and other year-round attractions, local residents could finally have access to more than the seasonal jobs that have traditionally accompanied the summer beach season.

Three years later, though, there is little sign of the condo messiah arriving anytime soon. A single apartment building on the boardwalk at West 32nd Street was begun two winters ago, but today remains unfinished. Nearby, Coney Island Commons, a mixed-income coop complex that will include a new YMCA-run community center, has blown past its original summer 2009 target completion date — thanks to delays in finalizing financing and community agreements, according to developer Jerome Kretchmer — and is now slated for an opening in 2013.

Among the actual lots rezoned three years ago, meanwhile, Thor's plywood-bedecked single-story building is the only sign of new construction. In particular, the “Coney West” lots just west of the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium, which in city renderings appeared as modern glass-and-brick towers fronting tree-lined boulevards, remain much as they have for decades: empty expanses of dirt and gravel, used as ad-hoc parking lots if anything at all.

Some of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the collapse of the housing bubble, which struck just as the city put the finishing touches on its rezoning plan. Yet even if demand for beachfront condos rebounded tomorrow, many longtime residents warn that it would still take years, if not decades, of sewer and electrical upgrades before Bloomberg's residential dreams could become reality.

“Before they put up one major building, they basically have to rip up the entire peninsula, and put in stormwater lines and sewage lines,” says Ida Sanoff, a former Community Board 13 member who has become the beachfront's most dedicated environmental watchdog.

It's an investment that the city says it's willing to make — eventually: The EDC is now openly talking about a “30-year plan” for redevelopment. The price tag, according to city figures, could run close to half a billion dollars, making it one of the most expensive city redevelopment projects of the Bloomberg era. And even then, it's an expensive gamble by the city that the promised construction will ever arrive.

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