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Coney Island Poised for Redevelopment

August 27, 2007

by Dianna Dilworth

When Coney Island’s Astroland amusement park closes its gates this Labor Day weekend, it will be for good. The kitschy but beloved 1962-vintage venue in Brooklyn is making way for a massive new entertainment and hotel complex developed by Thor Equities. Nearby businesses and residents successfully pushed to have this project scaled back, but there’s no stopping a wave of redevelopment sweeping the area.

Digital Water Pavilion
Photo: © James Murdock
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Astroland sits on Coney Island’s famed beachfront Riegelmann boardwalk, which runs 2.7 miles along the Atlantic Ocean, within in a six-block amusement district. Other storied attractions nearby include the Wonder Wheel, built in 1920; the 1939 New York World’s Fair Parachute Jump; and the original Nathan’s Hotdogs eatery, built in 1916.

Thor has spent $100 million over the last few years to purchase 12 acres, roughly two thirds of the amusement district. It plans to build 2 million square feet of retail shops, an enclosed water park, new thrill rides, and hotels. Designed by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (EE&K), the buildings will feature extensive glass and perforated-metal screens, opening them to the outdoors. And in a nod to the area’s history—in particular, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade—a 150-foot-tall glass tower will contain light projections of a mermaid. “Our goal is to create a Coney Island of the future that reflects today’s day and age while linking this to the history and traditions of Coney Island’s past,” says Peter Cavaluzzi, design principal at EE&K. “We are looking to build a safe environment that would draw people all year round.”

While steady traffic will be a boon to nearby businesses, many retail operators—particularly those who will be displaced by construction—are concerned that they will be unable to afford higher rents in the new buildings. And their worries don’t end there. “Even if some of us are able to keep our businesses, we will experience years of inactivity since the neighborhood will become a construction site,” explains Chuck Reichenthal, district manager for Community Board 13.

Thor has shown willingness to work with the community. After being pressured by residents who live near the development site, it scaled back its plans by 1 million square feet. The community board is also not entirely opposed to change. It supported the city’s 2003 rezoning to strengthen the amusement district’s core by allowing new jobs and residential development there. City officials have also allocated $83.2 million to area improvements, including the creation of new streets, parking, open space, and a community center. It’s also building Steeplechase Plaza, a low-to-middle-income affordable housing complex, and will renovate the New York Aquarium, located on Surf Avenue.

“Coney Island is the most populist place on earth and a symbol of New York,” says New York City planning commissioner Amanda Burden. “It is critical to save and build on the amusements that define Coney Island—and we are determined to do just that.”

Those who will be directly affected by the coming changes are simply asking for a voice at the table. “Either way, it’s definitely going to get redeveloped,” says Dianna Carlin, who launched the Save Coney Island Group after Thor gave her and other businesses a move-out date of October. “How this redevelopment is done will determine whether or not it is still Coney Island.”

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