State Affirms Merits of Coney Island Historic District

In a key victory for the campaign to preserve Coney Island’s endangered heritage, the state office responsible for historic preservation has declared that Coney Island’s amusement district meets the criteria for recognition as a historic district in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

In an August 12 letter, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation wrote that “the historic core of Coney Island appears to meet the criteria for listing to the Registers as a historic district.” While this Determination of Eligibility does not protect the buildings within the district from demolition, inclusion on the registers of historic places could make grants and tax credits of up to 40% available for redevelopment projects that rehabilitate and reuse historic properties in the amusement area.

The letter arrives at a time when many of Coney Island’s most historically significant buildings are in imminent danger of demolition, with developer Thor Equities receiving a pair of demolition permits the day after the state issued its letter.

“The state’s findings powerfully affirm the tremendous historical significance of Coney Island’s amusement district and underscore the imperative to preserve its endangered heritage,” said Juan Rivero, spokesman for Save Coney Island. “They also offer a new economic impetus for historic preservation by offering the possibility of tax credits and grants for redevelopment that honors rather than demolishes Coney Island’s rich history.”

The state’s findings were issued in response to an application submitted by Coney Island USA, Save Coney Island, the Coney Island History Project, the Historic Districts Council and the New York City Landmarks Conservancy. The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation supported the applicants’ efforts to secure the historic district designation and promised its assistance in further developing the nomination.

The Determination of Eligibility states that the amusement district is “nationally significant… as the birthplace of the modern American amusement industry.” It also claims that the area’s surviving historic buildings are “valuable cultural assets worthy of recognition and consideration in preservation planning.”

“The only thing surprising about this acknowledgment is that it hadn’t happened already,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “Everyone in the country knows about Coney Island; it’s only appropriate that its place in American history is officially recognized.”

Meanwhile, developer Thor Equities is moving forward with its plans to demolish four of Coney Island’s most historically significant buildings. On Monday, August 13, Thor began the Henderson Music Hall (built circa 1899 and where Harpo Marx made his stage debut).

On Friday August 13 demolition permits were issued for two of Thor’s properties, the Bank of Coney Island (a 1923 classical revival building that testifies to Coney’s past prosperity) and the Shore Hotel (built in 1903 and Coney Island’s last operating hotel). The other two threatened structures are the amusement district’s oldest building, the Grashorn Building (built in the 1880s), and The state office’s letter explicitly cites each of these buildings as being among historic district’s “key buildings.”

The state’s findings echo 11 leading historians of New York City who have called for the creation of a Coney Island historic district, and who urged the preservation of these endangered buildings. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the Municipal Art Society have also called for the preservation of these endangered buildings.

“Coney Island’s rich history is its greatest economic asset, a top draw for visitors, and the key to its successful redevelopment,” said Save Coney Island’s Juan Rivero. “Preservation makes good economic sense. The state’s findings offer additional economic incentives for the reuse and rehabilitation of Coney Island’s historic structures.”

“We urge Thor Equities to halt its demolition before it does permanent damage to a national treasure,” Rivero added. “Thor has the opportunity to emerge as a hero out of this process by sitting down with the city, the Coney Island community, and preservationists to devise a redevelopment plan that utilizes, rather than squanders, these precious historic resources and valuable economic assets. Let’s redevelop Coney Island the right way.”

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