Four Coney Island Buildings To Fall
By Danielle Del Sol | Online Only | Sept. 10, 2010
Coney Island, N.Y., an area once known for its vibrant and exciting rides, restaurants, and games is today marred by blocks of blighted buildings. Although some important revitalization has created the new Luna Park and the Brooklyn Cyclones MCU Park and saved landmarks such as the Parachute Jump and Child's Restaurant on the boardwalk, the landscape is still dotted with fast food joints and convenience stores that are a far cry from what Coney Island once was.
How to restore the neighborhood, and specifically, what to do with four historic buildings in the heart Coney Island, is currently fueling a battle between New York City preservationists and the buildings' owner, private development firm Thor Equities, LLC.
Thor Equities has recently obtained demolition permits from the city for two of the structures: the Bank of Coney Island building, which was built in 1923, and the Shore Hotel, built in 1903.
According to Save Coney Island, a nonprofit "committed to restoring Coney Island as a world-class amusement destination," Thor Equities has also begun asbestos abatement work, a precursor to demolition, on the Henderson Music Hall, the theater where Harpo Marx made his stage debut. Thor has also targeted the Grashorn Building, the amusement area's oldest structure, built in the 1880s, for demolition.
Save Coney Island has urged Thor Equities and its chairman and CEO, Joseph Sitt, to consider revitalization of the buildings instead of demolition by way of public statements, blog posts, and more. The group's efforts were ramped up in April when Sitt announced that the demolition of the four buildings was imminent. Sitt released a rendering depicting the historic structures replaced with single-story fast-food restaurants, with a statement that "by Memorial Day 2011, all of our parcels along Surf Avenue are scheduled to be activated with family-friendly games, food, shopping and other activities that visitors to, and residents of, Coney are clamoring for."
In response, Save Coney Island appealed to city and state historic organizations for official historic designation for the Surf Avenue district. However, efforts on the city level failed when the Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to recommend the proposal for a Coney Island Historic District, which would include the Surf Avenue stretch encompassing the threatened buildings. The group met with success on the state level, however, when the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation issued a statement on Aug. 12 that the buildings and the area indeed could qualify for listing on both the state and National Register of Historic Places. Although neither designation would protect the buildings from demolition, a listing on the state or National Register would offer grant opportunities and hefty tax credits—to as much as 40 percent of rehabilitation costs—to Thor Equities if it chose rehab over demolition.
Coney Island USA, the Coney Island History Project, the Historic Districts Council, and the New York City Landmarks Conservancy all worked with Save Coney Island to submit the appeal to the New York State Office; Manhattan's Municipal Arts Society and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz have also made statements to publicly support the buildings' preservation.
Despite the state's recent ruling, Thor Equities spokesman Stefan Friedman says the company's plans for demolition have not changed—and in fact, the company believes the rendering of Sitt's newly imagined Surf Avenue shows just what the area needs to succeed. "These are ramshackle structures, eyesores," Friedman says. "Thor Equities is an organization interested in preserving history, but that has to be married with a plan that can successfully revitalize an area that is desolate eight months of the year."
The group plans to replace the buildings with one-story, temporary structures until the city "has improved their infrastructure in that area," Friedman says. He did not specify what infrastructure specifically needs to be improved, and what Thor Equities will do with the sites after those improvements are made.
Juan Rivero, spokesman for Save Coney Island, says that many New Yorkers are speculating that a recent city rezoning of Surf Avenue's amusement zone to allow for four 30-story buildings is motivating Sitt's clearing of the sites. However, he doubts demolition of the buildings will attract investors. "Just because the zoning is there doesn't mean there are hotel developers lining up to take advantage," Rivero says. "No one is offering to build anything at all. To maliciously tear down these buildings and replace them with temporary, one-story structures contributes to the blighting of the area instead of contributing to rebuilding what's there."
Friedman claims the buildings can't be saved. "The buildings are in extremely poor condition, and they are not on par, not of the same caliber as other Coney Island structures, such as the Cyclone," he says.
Rivero and others adamantly disagree. "The notion that these buildings couldn't be salvaged is absurd," Rivero says. "Plenty of historic structures in New York City and Coney Island that were restored have become iconic contributors to the historic landscape." Rivero said that an engineer has even offered recently to assess the buildings' structural integrity free of charge, if Thor Equities is willing to grant access to the buildings.
All four buildings were open for business before Thor Equities' acquisition; a nightclub on the second floor of the Henderson Music Hall had recently undergone an extensive renovation that exposed many of the theater's original detailing. (In the few years that Thor Equities has owned the buildings, the tenants have all left: tenants' leases were not renewed, and rent prices skyrocketed, according to Rivero.) But Friedman claims that the buildings simply cannot stand if the area is to experience new growth. "I don't think these buildings fit the revitalization of Coney Island that brings out the best in new games and amusement," he says.
People aren't coming to Coney Island merely to play games, says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found. "People go to Six Flags or Disney World for one reason, but they come to Coney Island for history," he says. "It's not just nostalgia; there's an emotional component to Coney Island. People come from all over the world, and they love it. And the restoration of Luna Park was is the kind of direction we should keep going in."
Denson cites another Coney Island success: the Parachute Jump, a 260-foot steel structure from Steeplechase Park that was restored in 2006. "Everyone would complain, 'It's an eyesore, it's dangerous, someone is going to get hurt,'" Denson says. "But then the effort was put in to restore it, and now it's one of the great landmarks of Brooklyn. All it took was a little effort, and some foresight, and people's attitudes changed. Now everyone wants to know about it," he says.
"Coney Island is really down to a handful of what you could call 'landmark' buildings," Denson says. "It would be good if Thor Equities would at least save one of them."
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