Lynn Kelly on the Future of Coney Island

Lynn Kelly

Ever since Lynn Kelly was appointed President of the Coney Island Development Corporation [CIDC] last year, she knew that time was of the essence. Her mission: restore Coney Island to its former prominence, and do it quickly, or lose the opportunity forever.

Kelly, a former Deputy Director of the City’s Art Commission, joined the New York City Economic Development Corporation in 2001. Over the next six years, she managed a portfolio of development projects and land sales of more than $50 million. Appointed President of the CIDC by Mayor Bloomberg in April 2007, Kelly took on the responsibility of saving “the People’s Playground.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Coney Island attracted millions of day-trippers to a vivacious yet affordable entertainment destination. Amusement parks drew thrill-seekers while the beach and boardwalk provided all New Yorkers relief from the City’s sweltering summer heat. By the 1970s, however, Coney Island was struggling to survive. Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase amusement parks had all closed; newly-constructed housing projects for low and moderate income families dotted the skyline, encouraging further divestment. Mayor Bloomberg, in conjunction with the City Council and Borough President Marty Markowitz, formed the CIDC in 2003 to reinvigorate the area.

The first step. Kelly says that the top priority is rezoning Coney Island. Under the current zoning scheme, amusement operators have divested, vacant lots have increased, and operating a restaurant is considered an illegal use. New zoning, Kelly states, is required to preserve this “incredible historic resource.”

In 2005, the Department of City Planning and the CIDC proposed a comprehensive rezoning of Coney Island covering 19 blocks from the New York Aquarium to West 24th Street, and from Mermaid Avenue to the boardwalk. After the community reviewed the proposal, Kelly earlier this year announced modifications to address the public’s concerns. According to Kelly, the public thought the plan was too seasonal, required more year-round attractions, and needed to be fairer to landowners. In response to those concerns, the plan was modified to increase opportunities for enclosed amusements and to give existing landowners a chance to develop their property. As a result, new mapped parkland decreased from 15 to 9 acres, much to the chagrin of some amusement enthusiasts.

Opposition. Shortly after the City modified the original plan, Dick Zigun resigned as one of the 13 directors at the CIDC. Zigun, a sideshow producer and the so-called mayor of Coney Island, has fervently spoken out against the plan. He believes that the new plan will lead to a “mallification” of the amusement core, allowing for big-box retail to replace amusement rides and prevent Coney Island from becoming a world-class tourist attraction. Zigun has called for protest and hinted at the possibility of legal action.

Kelly states that opposition to the revised plan comes from “a narrowly focused group that doesn’t live in the area” and only represents the interests of the amusement industry. She attributes their opposition mostly to nostalgia, and is disappointed that they are willing to settle for the status quo of vacant lots, illegal uses, and Coney’s annual winter hibernation. Kelly emphatically states that there will be “no mall in Coney.” She admits that while the new zoning will allow for over 500,000 sq.ft. of retail in Coney West and Coney North, Coney East will be reserved for “entertainment retail,” such as bowling, arcades, tattoo parlors, and freak-shows. Kelly is quick to state that the local community overwhelmingly supports the plan because it will create thousands of permanent jobs for local residents, provide sorely-needed community facilities, and revamp the local economy by creating the largest urban entertainment destination in the United States.

No time to lose. Kelly fears that if the new zoning plan is not approved soon, Coney Island may be lost forever. She explains that Thor Equities currently owns 60 to 65 percent of Coney East and four-and- a-half of the five acres zoned for amusement rides. She notes that there is no guarantee that Thor will allow Astroland rides to remain on its property beyond Labor Day 2008. Kelly states that if the plan was scrapped, there would be nothing stopping Thor from asking BSA for a variance that would allow construction for malls and luxury condominiums. From Kelly’s perspective, zoning will “act as an insurance policy,” permanently preserving the character of Coney Island for generations to come.     — Frank Berlen

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.