Outside the Box: Reviving Rye Playland

Officials in Westchester County, New York, must decide which improvement plan is best for their county -- and for the beloved historic amusement park, Rye Playland.

The decision-making process in local government can be something of a roller coaster ride -- especially when that process involves an actual roller coaster and other amusement park attractions -- and the ongoing deliberation in Westchester County, N.Y., ultimately will decide the future of National Historic Landmark Rye Playland.

Spanning 279 acres along the Long Island Sound shoreline, Playland dates to 1927, when construction began on a family-friendly alternative to bawdy boardwalk theme parks that had previously operated on part of the site. The Art Deco park, dubbed “America’s Premier Playground,” opened in May 1928. For decades since, Playland has thrilled families with ice rinks, beaches, picnic areas, and classic rides such as the Dragon Coaster and Grand Carousel. (Seven original rides remain.) But today, generating revenue with the aging county-owned park has grown difficult.

“I’ve been going to Playland since I was a little kid and have great memories,” says Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who now takes his own children to the park. “It’s just getting very run down. There are a lot more options for people’s entertainment dollars, and the county has to keep up with the times -- but we don’t have the wherewithal to do that.”

Since 2010, when the county sought proposals for reviving the park, several submissions were considered, and the county executive’s office recently announced a deal with nonprofit Sustainable Playland Inc. Its proposed plan would preserve the park’s landmarked elements and remove existing infrastructure to add other recreational features. Though Astorino’s office is moving forward with an agreement, some county legislators (who must ratify the final plan) and residents say they’re not convinced it's what’s best for the site. Following a public forum in February, concerned parties created a petition objecting to SPI’s plan.

The topic is controversial because, according to County Legislator Catherine Borgia, “everybody has a different interpretation of what maintaining the historic status actually means.” For Rye Historical Society Director Sheri Jordan, SPI’s public access proposal is in line with what the original designers intended. She cites a 1928 article about Playland: “While the amusement park forms the heart and center of this development … it is the aim and intent of the Commission to here provide a center for all wholesome recreations.”

If SPI’s proposal is approved, the group will assume the park’s management in October, while the county retains ownership. Regardless, stakeholders stress that the end goal remains keeping this one-of-a-kind destination alive for future generations of fun-seekers.

Says Borgia: “It’s a decision that we have to get right.”

When you visit Rye Playland, schedule time to visit nearby National Trust Historic Sites Philip Johnson Glass House, Kykuit, and Lyndhurst.

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