In September of 2008, Coney Island’s beloved Astroland Amusement park, home to the wooden Cyclone roller coaster, shut its doors forever. The closing marked the beginning of the end for the iconic Brooklyn play haven, which is set to receive a major overhaul in the years to come.
The question is not if this will happen, or even when, but rather who will be in charge of Coney Island’s redevelopment.
At the close of a tense year the city finds itself deeply entrenched in an acre-for-acre battle with the private developer Thor Equities to determine the eventual owner of Coney Island and its future.
The original Coney Island amusement area- between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk- consisted of nine well-worn acres of amusement rides, food stands and carnival shows.
Beginning in 2003, Thor Equities’ owner Joe Sitt began buying up amusement area real estate, with the pronounced intention of turning Coney Island into a “People’s Playground” complete with new residential housing, an upscale hotel and a brand new theme park.
The Bloomberg administration, likening Sitt’s plans to a Las Vegas-style resort strip, decided to step in and save the neighborhood’s historic carnival charm from overdevelopment.
The city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) began a land grab of its own, buying up Coney Island property in a costly campaign to wrest control of the area from Thor Equities. In October 2008, the EDC purchased the land beneath Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the last surviving Coney Island amusement ride in operation.
With the $11 million purchase, the city now owns roughly four acres of the orginal nine-acre amusement area site. Thor Equities owns the other five.
The EDC has signaled its interest in buying out Thor Equities’ Coney Island holdings- a move that could cost as much as $250 million. The buyout could come as early as next year.
The development struggle has diverted attention from the inescapable reality that, whether it ends up a public or private project, Coney Island will receive a major facelift.
Brooklyn Bridge Park Construction Begins
After years of city planning, organizing and fundraising, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge Park finally began in January of this year.
The work launched the city’s most significant parks project in Brooklyn since the building of Prospect Park 135 years ago.
The future 1.3-mile, 85-acre Park will begin beneath the Manhattan Bridge pier, run south under the Brooklyn Bridge and end at the western terminus of Atlantic Avenue.
The chosen site will replace an abandoned port area, in operation until 1983, which included six East River piers where cargo was stored in a complex of sheds and warehouses. The January construction began with the demolition of several sheds.
After Port Authority closed the piers they lay abandoned for almost 20 years. In 2002, then-Governor George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg established the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC) to revitalize the site and turn it into a public green space area. At the time, $150 million in funding was set aside for the park.
Since then, the project has stalled as projected construction costs rise annually, and public and private organizations worked to finalize plans for the ambitious, mixed-use park.
Current plans for the park now include beaches and recreational water areas, promenades and walkways, lawns, sports facilities and playgrounds, among other things. The park will include the existing New York State Fulton Ferry Park. According to the BBPDC, the park is scheduled to be finished in 2012. Parts of the park will open next year. Once finished, the Brooklyn Bridge Park will most likely be one of the city’s most diverse, stunning parks, with spectacular views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline.
Atlantic Yards Unravels
The highest-profile development project in Brooklyn officially hit a wall this year, when Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner admitted his original monster plan for the area was no longer feasible.
Now scaled-back plans include just two buildings and a new sports arena for the New Jersey Nets- a far cry from the mini-city Ratner planned to build when he announced the project back in 2003.
And with two lawsuits over the project- filed by community groups in opposition to the development- still pending, it remains unclear exactly when, or even if, Atlantic Yards will ever be completed.
The project has fallen mightily since Ratner presented original plans for it in December of 2003. They called for a massive 22-acre development, on the LIRR train yard site near the Atlantic Avenue transit hub, with 16 skyscrapers, nearly 7,000 new apartments and open space reserved for the public.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, the development promised a Frank Gehry designed “Miss Brooklyn” building, to be the tallest in the borough, and a new sports arena that would bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn.
Plans called for the Nets to be playing in their new arena in 2006. Two years later, a basketball has yet to be bounced at Atlantic Yards. The Miss Brooklyn building has been ditched.
In fact, few of the development’s original features remain. Atlantic Yards’ shrinkage is a result of the recent economic downturn and subsequent development slowdown, ballooning financing costs and the massive opposition to the project by community groups who say the area cannot support such a large development.
Of the originally 16 buildings, including Miss Brooklyn, two residential buildings now remain, and public open space and a shopping district have been scaled down as well.
If Ratner does decided to go ahead with what’s left of his Atlantic Yards dream, don’t expect it to be finished anytime soon. Originally projected to be done in 2012, last year Ratner said it would not be completed to at least 2022. So for now keep rooting for the New Jersey Nets- they’ll be playing ball in the Garden State for a while to come.
A Sweet Future for Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory
Without the big yellow Domino Sugar sign, the Williamsburg skyline just wouldn’t be the same. So when developers planning to rebuild the factory complex announced they would tear it down, community activists rallied to preserve their icon and the sugar refinery beneath it that played such an important part in the neighborhood’s past.
After several years of wrangling, in 2008 the developer Refinery LLC agreed to include the sign in new plans for the development.
The symbolic victory for Williamsburg loyalists marked the end of a long period in which the residential development underwent numerous planning design changes.
After the storied sugar factory closed for good in 2004, Refinery LLC, a partnership of the non-profit organization Community Preservation Corporation and Isaac Katan, a private developer, purchased the property.
The developer then unveiled plans to transform the 11.2-acre site into a mixed-use housing and retail complex with over 2,000 apartments and over 200,000 square feet of commercial space. Original plans called for two 30 story and two 40 story buildings along Kent Avenue that would radically transform the appearance of the rapidly changing Williamsburg waterfront.
At a cost of $1.2 billion, the new Domino project is the second largest development in Brooklyn after Atlantic Yards.
Heading into 2009, plans for the development are moving forward, despite several setbacks resulting from a 2006 decision by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee to give landmark status to the factory’s yellow sign and three principal buildings.
New designs released this year leave the sign, and much of the original refinery structure intact, and provide for the building of modern space around them as well as a public waterfront greenway along the East River.
With the open space and hundreds of affordable housing units, the new Domino complex could turn out to be sweeter than ever.
Movement builds to clean up Newtown Creek
When it comes to water pollution, the Gowanus Canal has nothing on Newtown Creek, which divides North Brooklyn from Queens. In fact, few bodies of water do.
Newtown Creek is one of the dirtiest waterways in the United States. More than a century of waterfront heavy industry activity, and the massive oil spill discovered there in the 1970’s, have taken their toll the creek, which receives more than 2.7 million gallons of raw sewage annually.
An environmental movement to clean up the creek and revitalize the area surrounding it has been gaining momentum each year and 2008 was no exception.
Efforts to turn things around can be traced back 40 years, to the founding of Riverkeeper Inc, a nonprofit committed to cleansing the Hudson River watershed and its tributaries. Since 2002, the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA), an association of elected officials, business and community leaders from Queens and Brooklyn, has anchored the green movement there.
In a breakthrough this year, NCA, Riverkeeper Inc. and a third organization received a state grant of $625,454 to conduct a redevelopment study of the creek. Inspired, other community groups have taken up the cause now, too, promising that 2009 should be an active year for Newtown Creek environmentalists.