Coney Island Board Resists New Development in Flood-Prone Neighborhood

By Francesca Regalado

A small office space above a gentlemen’s club in Coney Island hosted a contentious rezoning hearing on October 3. On one side, a family of real estate developers; on the other, the 11 members of the community board’s land use committee.

“We have to look out for our people because there’s a lot of this going on to our people in the community,” said committee member Wanda Feliciano, addressing Ronny Winiarsky, head of Winiarsky Entities, who is also her landlord.

Winiarsky, with his father David and brother Nativ, appeared before the committee to present his company’s application for a zoning map amendment. If granted, the amendment would allow the Winiarskys to build taller residential structures with commercial units on a block between Surf Avenue and the Coney Island boardwalk.

“Our family’s the only family that’s built anything on this block,” Winiarsky said, adding that they had acquired the land in 1985 when the block comprised only abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

According to an environmental assessment provided by the Winiarskys to the New York City Planning Commission, the proposal would see a 12-story building rise on West 22nd Street, attached on the ground floor to a six-story building on West 23rd Street. The new buildings would be elevated for flood zoning and fitted with fire alarms, sprinklers, and elevators. To comply with city law, at least 25 percent of the planned 78 units must be reserved for low-income tenants.

But four apartment buildings currently stand on the site of the proposed development, all owned by the Winiarskys. About 90 residents occupying 34 units across the four buildings would have to be relocated if the rezoning and demolition applications are approved, the foremost source of concern for the community board.

“A lot of the people that live there are Mexicans,” said Feliciano, who lives in another Winiarsky building not included in the proposal. “We hope that they have their papers because once you start trying to relocate them and they’re not citizens, what are you going to do with them?”

Winiarsky acknowledged that he would have to pay tenants a relocation stipend, but stopped short of giving the community board specific answers as to where the tenants would be relocated and how much assistance his company would offer. Winiarsky also did not guarantee that current tenants would receive an expedited application process for the new building.

“That should all be figured out before all of that,” said Sandra Tanner, a tenant counselor at National Housing Services in Brooklyn. “You can’t put in a rezoning application without offering relocation allowance and having things in writing to give to tenants.”

Current residents at 3022 West 22nd St and 3023 West 23rd St, two of the buildings that may be demolished, had no knowledge that their landlord had filed a rezoning application. Many notices from the landlord were posted on a wall on the first floor of 3022, but there was no notice of the rezoning application or a possible demolition.

“He didn’t give us anything,” said Michael Swain, a 17-year resident. “He should tear this building down — cockroaches.”

Residents like Swain are entitled to a stipend in the event of a demolition. “If the displacement were to be approved, DHCR would follow a formula to determine stipends owed to the tenants by the owner,” said a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal.

“It depends on how long they’ve been living on the building,” said Tanner about the stipend. “He would have to provide them with relocation allowances for that period with a guarantee that they’re going to get an apartment in that building once it’s completed.”

The land use committee were concerned that rents in the new building would become too steep for current residents.

“We’re not looking for the investment banker, the hedge fund manager,” said Winiarsky. “We’re just looking for people to raise a family.”

Units in the four existing structures are studio and one-bedroom apartments, averaging 200 to 300 square feet.

“It’s impossible to raise a family like that,” Winiarsky said. “There’s very little work we can do because it’s not structurally sound for us to do more work into that building.”

Marion Cleaver, chair of the land use committee, was concerned about the elderly retirees who occupied the existing apartments and would find relocating more difficult, even with a stipend. “Are you going to give them anything on top of that when you move them?” she asked.

The committee members were frustrated by the lack of specificity in the Winiarskys’ relocation plans, after having been pressed on the same question by the general community board a week earlier. Although Ronny Winiarsky said he would be required to relocate his tenants to similar apartments in the same price range and geographical area, congestion in Coney Island would make that a tall order.

The committee unanimously rejected the rezoning application based on the Winiarskys’ unsatisfactory responses on housing and relocation, and a general concern for overdevelopment in Coney Island. Developers now are constructing modern buildings on the waterfront, blocking sunlight from inland properties and risking further strain on flood-prone South Brooklyn’s infrastructure.

“We’ve reached the tipping point on this peninsula for quality of life,” said Ida Sanoff, a committee member, adding that approving the Winiarskys’ rezoning application would open the block to the possibility of skyscrapers. The zoning amendment requested by the Winiarskys would raise the maximum building height to only 150 feet, or approximately 12 stories.

“We need to consider how each project affects the others,” Sanoff said.

While some Coney Island residents have grown tired of constant noise and road closures from construction projects, others are optimistic about new developments bringing business to the community.

“If they rezone for commercial, that would be good. Property value on this block would go up,” said Matilda, manager of an apartment building beside the Winiarsky-owned 3022 W 22nd St.

She was more skeptical of the community board’s resolve to counter developments like the Winiarskys’ proposed project. “They always say that but in the end they always approve it,” she said.

The rezoning application goes to a vote before the full community board on October 24. The community board is only the first of a three-part vote, followed by the Brooklyn borough president and board. Afterwards, it will be reviewed and voted on by the City Planning Commission, which will then pass the application to the mayor’s office for final approval.