Astroland is officially, officially closed as of last weekend, with the completion of its last lease. This is not quite the collapse of Chumley’s (which may actually return now that owning a landmark approaches being as lucrative as selling a couple studio apartments once again), since the notion of a “golden era” of Coney is a slippery proposition. Is it the days when it was a gambling destination? A rough and tumble but thriving amusement paradise? A wind — and trash — strewn ghost town, depressed enough that an absurd enough to be brilliant effort to revive a freak show would prove be the enduring symbol for resurgence for over a decade?
And would it surprise you to learn that the long, practically inevitable decline was set to rolling by names as reviled as they are familiar? That’s right: Robert Moses rezoned what he didn’t outright level, though his plans to eliminate amusement zoning altogether eventually failed. And decades later a developer named Trump stepped in with the tried and dull model of luxury housing being the solution to the problem of a vibrant and colorful seashore. He failed, but not before he amassed enough money to leave a pile of it to his officious son, teaching him the most valuable lesson of New York living: use someone else’s fortune and skill to promote yourself and then take all the credit.
Trump’s court battles set the stage for the next 30 years of Coney development: rapid valuation and devaluation of the land as various proposals were floated and folded, all of them highly speculative, all of them highly improbable. In that sense, gambling has returned to the peninsula, albeit at high stakes and with few seats at the table. And every wager was dependent on the panacea of “luxury” housing. If one silver lining has come from the Great Contraction (still coming soon to most of Manhattan) is that the simplistic notion that the relatively narrow, single-use notion of “luxury” (density higher than social housing, some upscale shops and eateries, with a precious, albeit tiny, greenspace touted as ‘amenity’. Oh, and a gym with three treadmills) is the most economically effective use of scare urban resources.
Regardless of the baubles attached to the renderings that ostensibly recall the amusement past, we cannot escape this mantra: Coney cannot be saved without overpriced condos. The best analogy would be shoving a person’s head underwater and then claiming the only way to save them is to sell them a scuba tank. And now that we have incontrovertible proof that real estate is beholden to the business cycle like any other industry, the spectre of looming, gleaming, Scarano-quality monoliths can be dismissed as the short-sighted, greedy over-reaches they are.
The developers will piece together documentation about land and construction costs, returns and carrying costs, all the while holding out the other hand for some type of tax break, claiming they have no other options. But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the brittle financing is but a short-term squeeze completely disconnected from urban reality. If you doubt this argument, take a quick review of the large, residential-driven development schemes proposed recently:
The Brooklyn Bridge Park: on hold because developers don’t feel confident they can sell condos that will steal views from Brooklyn Heights, the tabula rasa of gentrification. Pier 17, dunzo as General Growth slides from a legit stock to over the counter (hell, it might be under the counter by now). Governor’s Island: broke-ass. The WTC site: replacing two million square feet of office space with ‘stumps’. Atlantic Yards: now doubtful we will even see a Brooklyn Nets, let alone ‘Miss Brooklyn’ — even the Williamsburg Bank Building (excuse me, the Hanson) is going rental. Hudson Yards: next year — for reals, sayeth Related.
In short, are there any large-scale schemes moving forward? The High Line had a head start, and depends on a lot of private donations (which were generously extracted from the developers looking to secure an amenity of equal Tyler Brule-ishness to accompany their $50 million over-budget towers). Willet’s Point? 125th Street? The Williamsburg waterfront? Nondo city, and that’s only because the Toll Brothers didn’t have as much high-flying debt as GGP. Give it a couple more months. It will topple over the Edge, surely.
Do we have any counter-examples? Was it ever possible to set up a tax abatement program that would result in housing that could provide middle class families a decent existence? One that was cash flow positive for decades? One that was bought out with a massively leveraged house of cards notion of conversion to the very luxury that was claimed to be the only future? And that is now cratering under the weight of all that debt? Nope, nothing like that to be found in Manhattan.
Only when the deals turn sour do people wax poetic. To speak ill of the pyramid as it’s being constructed is to undermine the mojo. Once the majesty of its perverse uselessness is complete, and eroding, people wallow in the truth of the narrative. “No next time, no next time” is the chorus. Astroland wasn’t really done in by malice. The owners, after all, cashed out to the tune of $30 million dollars, a number that will seem princely and astute in the coming years as the weeds return again to Surf Avenue. Nathan’s will stand strong opposite the lovely new train station, and boardwalk will slowly become the plasticwalk. Do not fear: it might take a few years, or a decade or two, and some one will pop up, renderings in hand. First the housing. Then the accommodation of the amusement requirement. Then the request for a zoning variance and a subsidy. Then the outcry, petitions and activist organizing. This sort of dust up is the only renewable resource this city has; too bad we can’t mine it for rent.