The debate over the future of Coney Island has become enmeshed in politics; standing at center stage is Councilman Domenic Recchia.
“I tell you one thing, we’re going to get a new boardwalk,” the Brooklyn Democrat said, stomping his foot last week on the decaying wooden planks of Coney Island’s signature walkway.
In early November, the city unveiled its grand plans to remake Coney Island, imagining a bustling 15-acre base of rides and games surrounded by year-round amusements, hotels and thousands of new apartments.
The path to realize this dream seemed simple: rezone the amusement area and designate it parkland, thereby forcing the major private landowner, Joseph Sitt, to sell his land or leave it fallow.
“One assumes that Mr. Sitt is rational and trying to do what’s right for his bottom line,” Mayor Bloomberg said at the time.
The city drew countless supporters for its plan—advocates of the struggling historic amusement hub and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz included—but Councilman Recchia, who represents Coney Island, was not among them.
In a city where major land-use decisions require approval of the City Council, Mr. Recchia’s resistance meant the plan as presented was all but dead on arrival, as the majority of the Council is expected to follow his lead.
As such, the Brooklyn councilman, who has aligned himself with the interests of Mr. Sitt and other Coney Island landholders, holds a seat of more power than perhaps any other figure involved with the historic amusement center’s future right now. When Mr. Recchia was joined in his criticism by State Senator Diane Savino, Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny and U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, the city was forced to substantially alter what it saw as a workable plan in order to mitigate the councilman’s concerns.
Mr. Recchia’s support for the city’s latest proposal—which allows for more privately owned hotel rooms and entertainment-related retail while cutting down on the city-owned amusement area—is crucial. City officials, who have indicated the newest plan is their final offer, said they are looking to Mr. Recchia to help broker a deal with Mr. Sitt; without such a deal, the whole redevelopment initiative of the amusement hub could collapse.
Mr. Recchia, 48, talks with a booming voice marked by a thick Brooklyn accent. An attorney who lives in Gravesend, he grew up in the area, and seems in his element on the streets of Coney Island.
In a recent stroll around the area, he was busy waving to a constant stream of familiar faces of mostly workers in the amusement district, stopping to chat with the ride inspectors and managers.
“Look at this ride,” he said, gesturing to one of the many children’s attractions at Astroland. “This is a great ride right here.”
Like most of the other 30-plus members of the City Council who are termed out at the end of 2009, Mr. Recchia is looking for a new job in elective office, seeking to be the dragon slayer that ousts New York City’s one Republican congressman, Representative Vito Fossella. The district does not encompass Coney Island, but if he is able to portray himself as a man who brokered a deal to revitalize the amusements, it could be a nice feather in his cap come November.
Throughout Mr. Recchia’s two terms, the redevelopment of Coney Island has been a priority, and he has been talking with the city about its plans for the area since the start of the Bloomberg administration. His vision for the area, as he has noted repeatedly, is essentially the same as the city’s—a thriving amusement zone bordered by dense residential districts to the west and the north.
“We want to make this an all-year-round destination—not just a summer destination,” he said.
The differences with the Bloomberg administration lie with the treatment of the private landowners, who control the vast majority of the land in the Coney Island amusement district.
The city initially worked to craft a rezoning with Mr. Sitt, who owns most of the amusement area, but officials became frustrated after he demanded a plan that allowed for housing or time shares.
Sometime in the late spring and early summer, the city opted to turn the central amusement area into parkland, then buy the land from the owners. Once purchased and rezoned, the city could contract out the amusements to an operator to take over the 15-acre area.
The change was an aggressive one, and while it did not employ eminent domain, the parkland designation would have rendered the private landowners’ property mostly worthless, prohibiting profitable development. A land swap was also proposed that would give Mr. Sitt developable property to the west.