Mom and the Folks at Coney Island Forum

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That’s the message Economic Development Corporation head Seth Pinsky had for attendees of a panel on Coney Island at the Municipal Art Society on Wednesday night.

“If you really want to do something to help Coney Island, the only viable option that’s on the table right now is to support this rezoning,” Mr. Pinksy told a crowded and skeptical room. “This is the option that exists for the long-term future of Coney Island.”

He was there to push the Bloomberg administration’s plan for the area’s revitalization, which entered public review last month, at an institution that still has other ideas. Besides hosting a public forum of alternate visions for Coney Island, the MAS has taken issue with the plan’s acreage for residential development, as well as the number and placement of world-class hotels.

The other panelists, perhaps inadvertently, helped hammer home Mr. Pinsky’s argument: Developing amusement parks is hard, it needs to be done a certain way, and if Coney is to be rescued from its current decline, it needs to be done now.

“If we are still talking about plans six or eight months from now, we have failed,” said David Malmuth of Robert Charles Lesser and Co., which MAS commissioned to do a rough study on what a new Coney would have to look like. The firm’s conclusions turned out remarkably similar to the city’s proposal, with 27 acres of amusements plus less seasonal attractions meant to help keep the park open all year—“the only way to get the significant economic juice that makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

It’s not an easy proposition (as another panelist, Astroland co-owner Carol Hill, well knows). PARC Management’s David Aylward, a 38-year veteran of the amusement business, began his PowerPoint with a rundown of all the parks that have flopped in the last year—Wichita’s West World, the Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach—as well as the competitive entertainment market the New Coney would face. Luckily, he seems to have the enterprise down to a science, with some basic prescriptions for business success.

“It has to appeal to mom, because mom makes the decisions,” Mr. Aylward said. “You ask what she wants and how she wants it, and then you give it to her.” Also, it’s important to “take care of the government officials and make sure they’re looking after your interests.” If someone tries to make school start earlier in the summer, the park needs to “help them understand that that’s devastating.”

It was a discontented room; the Q&A featured a few frustrated outbursts from the audience. In interviews afterward, distrust of the city’s history and intentions was plain. But Mr. Pinsky—who celebrated one year in his current post over the weekend—also faced an offensive from moderator and former MAS president Brendan Sexton, who questioned the wisdom of developing 4,500 new housing units at the expense of amusement park space.

“That map clearly privileges residential development,” he said, pointing at a yellow block on a scoping map behind him.

Mr. Pinsky objected.

“For people to ignore what’s in the yellow and to say, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing more of what’s in the green and the purple,’ is to ignore the needs of the people who actually live in Coney Island,” he said. “These are 50,000 people. It’s nice for us to sit across the city at 51st and Madison and say we wish that all of Coney Island were amusements. We have to be responsive to those people, too.”

Mom and the Folks at Coney Island Forum