End of the Line

By the time you read this, the battle over the future of Coney Island may be over. The city is supposed to weigh in this summer with zoning recommendations that will likely reinforce a 2005 strategic plan that reserves the heart of Coney Island for the rides and attractions that have long defined the place. In February city planning commissioner Amanda Burden told an audience at a breakfast sponsored by a local business magazine, “Amusements are incompatible with immediate adjacent residential use.” So it’s possible that developer Joe Sitt, of Thor Equities —who has spent the last two years buying up ten acres of prime Coney Island property—will have to put his luxury condominiums elsewhere. It is also possible that the ­famously developer-friendly Bloomberg administration will relent and allow him to replace clam bars on the boardwalk with high-end condos.

Still, even if condos disappear from Sitt’s drawing board and the city reaffirms Coney Island’s unique status as an urban neighborhood zoned for amusement, it seems as though this last great repository of New York City vernacular style is about to be destroyed by contemporary ideas about what it means to be entertained.

At first glance the initial batch of Thor Equities’ renderings for Coney Island, published in New York magazine in 2005, looked exciting. Sitt’s amusement concepts, a giant merry-go-round topped by an enormous fireworks-spewing elephant and a resort complex with blimps landing on the roof, harked back to the turn of the previous century—the era of Luna Park and Dreamland, when Coney Island was home to its own version of Venice and featured a hotel shaped like an elephant. Coney Island circa 1900 was birthplace of the brand of fakery that revived Las Vegas in the 1990s and is now overtaking the world. So the weird excesses in Sitt’s early concepts seemed about right, until you noticed that the entertainment features in the renderings were overshadowed by massive, hopelessly banal buildings that would in theory house upscale resort hotels. “Imagine something like the Bellagio hotel,” Sitt told New York magazine.

Since then the plan and the economic engine driving it have taken on a more prosaic quality. Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project, says of Sitt: “He’s a great salesman. But when you look behind the curtain, there’s nothing there except condos.” The most contentious issue is a 40-story condo that Sitt wants to build on Stillwell Avenue, a broad thoroughfare that should be a fun-filled Champs-Elysees but is currently dominated by vacant lots. Some of these have been empty a long time, but others—until recently home to batting cages and a go-kart track—were created by Sitt’s recent bulldozing frenzy.

Denson, author of Coney Island: Lost and Found, recently opened a small exhibition hall in a building beneath the Cyclone roller coaster and runs his history project out of an office in Astroland Park. Now in its last season, the park sits on three acres that proprietor Carol Hill Albert reluctantly sold to Sitt in 2006. But Denson argues, “As long as there’s open space and amusements, there’s hope.” Condos, however, in their permanence and effect on real estate values, would be the end of Coney Island. Suddenly you’d have another neighborhood where development decisions are dictated by “highest and best use.”

And even if condos are taken off the table, I wonder whether the Coney Island we know and love can survive the contemporary approach to entertainment design. In late April, Thor Equities’ publicist, the Marino Organ­ization, sent me renderings of how a reinvented Astroland would look. According to the statement, “Astroland will be reinvented as Coney Park, a brand new amusement park featuring some 21 new rides for both thrill-seekers and families alike.” The Coney Park renderings came from a Burbank-based consultancy called Thinkwell, a company composed of Disney, Universal Studios, and Cirque du Soleil veterans. The firm is currently working on an indoor ski resort in Dubai and an interactive indoor entertainment facility in Singapore.

Thinkwell depicts Coney Park as a pretty cluster of rides with a little bit of Disney-style place making around the fringes. The gateway to the park, framed by a couple of overripe mermaids, seems typical of today’s themed environments, but after a few years of exposure to salt air it might begin to look like it belongs in Coney Island. In the background, however, is a glass structure encased in a large building that looks ephemeral in the drawing but suggests the presence of a massive hotel.

Craig Hanna, the chief creative officer of Thinkwell, explains to me the distinction between an amusement park like Astroland and a themed experience. The former, he says, is “a concrete pad with a bunch of rides bolted to it.” Whereas a themed environment “takes people out of their everyday lives and puts them into an extraordinary world.” According to the firm’s Web site, “Thinkwell goes beyond traditional land-use planning and focuses on what we call Content Master Planning™ and Guest Experience Master Planning™.” It goes on to say, “These approaches look at not only the physical layout of a project, but also take into consideration and pay particular attention to how that experience unfolds for a guest from the moment they pass through the project threshold until they complete their experience.”

Of course, the beauty of Coney Island is that it’s been a long time since anyone thought through the experience from threshold to completion. It’s just there: a patchwork creation of myriad small enterprises with an aesthetic dictated by the sky, the ocean, and the simple, colorful attention-getting strategies of ride manu­facturers and sign painters. Although this was where themed entertainment was born more than a century ago, today’s Coney Island has somehow escaped the tyranny of concept. No single designer or developer invented a story for the place. Rather, Coney Island is a compendium of many stories, some happy and some tragic—and most of them better than what passes for narrative in the world of experience design. (Denson, for instance, tells me that the first incubator for premature babies was operated as part of a Coney Island attraction.)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately in places where content and experience are carefully mapped out: the mega-resort Atlantis, in the Bahamas, and “Asia’s Las Vegas,” currently under construction in Macao. I have immense respect for the talents of the designers who craft such places, but I’m also fairly sick of them. One master-planned experience is pretty much like the next.

Now that Coney Island has finally been overrun by the tsunami of real estate development, the forces of highest and best use will likely prevail, preventing it from evolving in a haphazard fashion as it has in the past. Plans—maybe Sitt’s, maybe someone else’s—will be made and executed. But it’s not enough for the city to reaffirm the amusement zoning. There also has to be a mechanism to prevent homogeneity. If I were in charge, I’d cook up an ordinance that awards “vernacular bonuses”—increased square footage or zoning latitude to big developers—for every square foot of property they lease at an affordable rate back to small independent operators, thus encouraging new investment while preserving Coney Island’s rich fabric and rescuing some of it from the progenitors of master-planned content.

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