The New York City Planning Department and New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) have unveiled a proposed comprehensive zoning plan for Coney Island that could require developer Thor Equities to scale back its plans for building a massive hotel and entertainment complex in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The new framework also might spare the Astroland amusement park, which faced possible demolition, and provide for the construction of affordable housing.

The proposed zoning covers three areas—dubbed Coney East, West, and North—encompassing approximately 19 blocks running from the New York Aquarium to West 24th Street, and from Mermaid Avenue to the famed beachfront Riegelmann boardwalk. In a move to preserve the amusement district in Coney East, a 15-acre area that is home to institutions such as the 1962-vintage Astroland and the landmarked 1939 New York World’s Fair Parachute Jump, the area will be designated as parkland in perpetuity. The plan would allow for improvements to the existing amusements, and the construction of new ones on previously abandoned sites, but it would set height limits to preserve views to Coney Island’s iconic structures. New buildings may not exceed the 250-foot-tall Parachute Jump.

Image courtesy the New York City Department of Planning
The city’s proposed and use framework.

“Coney Island is not like any other amusement park and if we are going to preserve the historic neighborhood, we have to keep the amusements there,” says Purnima Kapur, director of City Planning’s Brooklyn office.

Thor Equities has spent $100 million during the last few years to purchase 12 acres, roughly two-thirds of the amusement district in Coney East, and was planning to spend $2 billion constructing a 2-million-square-foot hotel and entertainment complex designed by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn. Some buildings would possibly have exceeded 250 feet tall. But many local businesses and residents opposed this scheme because they were concerned it would overpower Coney Island’s historical character.

Image courtesy the New York City Department of Planning
Proposed rezoning framework.

“The new plan would allow the city to acquire the property and control the future of how the park gets developed,” Kapur says, adding that the city is willing to work closely with private developers. “We strongly believe that the private sector can do this.”

The proposed plan will require Thor’s accordance, as the city does not intend to use eminent domain but instead will negotiate with property owners to acquire land in Coney East. Until it is able to do this, property owners may operate and build amusements under zoning in place today—although current regulations do not accommodate Thor’s proposed buildings.

Joe Sitt, founder of Thor Equities, declined to comment on whether he will hold or sell his 10 acres, but a spokesperson says that he remains interested in the area’s revitalization.

For the city’s part, Kapur says, “we are continuing discussions with Thor and are trying to work out a solution that works for them and with the new plan.” Public outreach on the proposed zoning plan will begin before the city initiates the formal land use review process. “We hope to start the formal public process by June 2008 and have the approvals in place by early 2009.”

While Thor would be unable to develop the boardwalk as it originally intended, the proposed new zoning plan offers opportunities in the Coney North and Coney West districts, 10.6 acres and 15.4 acres respectively. It allows for more than 1 million square feet of new development on Surf Avenue including zoning for hotels, water parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues such as bowling alleys and movie theaters.

Just yesterday, the city selected a consultant team headed by EDAW and the Rockwell Group to design Steeplechase Plaza in Coney North. It is proposed that this 2.2-acre area adjacent to the Riegelmann Boardwalk and directly south of the Brooklyn Cyclones’ KeySpan Park will include a performance space, a park or a water feature, as well as concessions and pavilions.

The comprehensive plan also allows for the development of more than 1,750 housing units in Coney North, adjacent to existing residential areas, and roughly 2,700 units west of KeySpan Park. Unlike Thor’s early plan to build luxury condominiums, which it dropped after public outcry, the city’s plan includes 900 units of affordable housing.

The city has pledged $73 million to the entire redevelopment of the area, which it hopes will lead to more than $2.5 billion in private investment, and it will work with the NYCEDC to choose developers. Brooklyn will also contribute $7 million and the federal government another $3.2 million.