Four Coney Island Buildings To Fall

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."

Read the magazine's cover story about Coney Island

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Submitted by Anonymous at: December 12, 2010
Unfortunately the bank building has been demolished. It looks like the Henderson and Shore hotel will end up the same. The Grashorn building will probably be demolished too. It is a shame that more thought was not given to preserving these buildings and rehabilitating rather than tearing them down.

Submitted by jnnnnn at: October 20, 2010
Who 'is' Thor Equities? They clearly don't appear to be made up of humans who cherish the past that gave way to who we are today - by eliminating all the 'eyesore's' that they see, eliminates all of the treasures that the rest of us see and feel as part of our past. So very sad. I know my dreamsand desires of moving to historic Coney Island ended with Thor Equities.

Submitted by Anonymous at: September 26, 2010
My parents dated at Coney Island in the 1930's and my mom is still alive at 97, if you need a testament. Also, I used to go there in the 40's and remember all the fun, vividley. It would be such a loss of history if all of those buildings were torn down. Wendy McIver

Submitted by sjmartin at: September 18, 2010
I have always wanted to see Coney Island in person, having read books about it and seen hudreds of pictures of it in it's glory days. The thought of visiting Coney Island (and bringing my tourist dollars) will not happen if the historic buildings are torn down. Why bother? Please keep fighting for these original buildings. If they disappear, so will all the money from potential history lovers on tour.

Submitted by Concerned preservationist at: September 17, 2010
I would hope that if all else fails to save the buildings that a truly comprehensive pictorial history will be retained. So much of the razed buildings have no permanent place in history by visual assistance to say that they existed. It can be a great alternative and maybe can be virtually recreated so that the ambiance is never lost! Good luck!

Submitted by kc at: September 16, 2010
These type of developers won't be happy until all of our US cities look alike! It makes me feel so helpless to do anything about it. I live across the country and one of the first things I did when visiting NYC was take the train to Coney Island!

Submitted by S at: September 15, 2010
The developer is using the same excuses that all short-sighted, similarly-minded developers use: "it's too far gone" "it can't be saved" etc. etc. Especially with today's property market, he'll tear down the buildings and they'll remain vacant lots or become parking lots. Eventually, the developer will likely build cheap buildings on the land that will last 30 years and have no soul or character. Too bad... 'cause Coney Island is all about history.

Submitted by JJ at: September 15, 2010
I do not see the justification of these big coorporations going in changing the landscapes to thier whim and making beautiful structures like these to be knocked down. How many of our landmarks are going to be here for our children to appriciate if we keep going at this rate. Next thing they will want to tear down is the capitol building since it is outdated..

Submitted by BrittanyE at: September 15, 2010
While on a cruise for my honeymoon last year, we went to see the Newly Wed Game played on board. The couple married the longest was asked to participate in the game. When asked about their first date, they both told the same story. It was to Coney Island and he spent about $6.00 for dinner and entertainment. They had been married for 54 years. The idea of this special place becoming one story BKs breaks my heart. Why do so many disregard our nation's treasures?

Submitted by Brian at: September 14, 2010
It never ends... does it?

Submitted by Amusing the Zillion at: September 14, 2010
You can watch Charles Denson's video of the Faber Fascination sign's last night of illumination on Sept 9th. The sign was on the Henderson Building, which is set to be demolished.

Submitted by Pat at: September 14, 2010
As a life long Chicagoan, I, like so many other children and adults, grew up eagerly awaiting our annual visit to Riverview ( a beautiful amusement park like Coney Island). It was completely demolished in 1966 to make way for a shopping center. How sad it is that developers have so little imagination and can never seem to comprehend what really makes a city interesting and great. I will pray for Coney Island, that divine intervention will save it from any further destruction.

Submitted by wooden pony at: September 14, 2010
Everyone in America has heard of Coney Island and it's history in the amusement industry. It is hard to believe that they would tear down history for change. Change is a NICKEL and this was the home of the Nickel Empire. You would think that by preserving it they would and could use government programs and turn the area into something "green" which would earn them the green in the long run. The Coney is America's heritage, not just Brooklyn's.

Submitted by Earth Maiden at: September 14, 2010
Please, Please consider the use and re- use of these truly historic buildings which are part of the historic amusement park . Do it because it is the right thing to do. Do it because if you do it right(with taste ands class) there will be money for all and a revitalize park for all to enjoy. Please bring back Coney Island to it's previous gradure. Thank You

Submitted by M1Mike at: September 14, 2010
Im all for a picture of a famous street to be recognizable in a future photo over fifty years from now. Do what they have done in Wahington DC. Save the facade, but in this case, the look of back in the day.

Submitted by Granddaughter of Coney Island-Loving Grandparents at: September 14, 2010
Historic buildings are what give our communities their own unique character, and that's what brings people (and their money) in. They don't want to see or patronize one-story fast food dives - those are a dime a dozen.

Submitted by Annie at: September 14, 2010
How sad it is when big corporations have no regard to our past. I have restored six historic buildings five commercial we need to save our old buildings recycle and be green.

Submitted by 5th generation Brooklyn at: September 14, 2010
how about you keep the buildings and demolish the projects behind them. No one wants to spend the day at Coney dodging bullets

Submitted by rubinink at: September 14, 2010
Sad to see how far Coney Island has fallen. One 21 year old Coney Island resident wrote the following lament to the resort neighborhood's decline: Coney Island Blues.