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Nature Has Its Way: Sand and Money Halt the Coney Island Ferry

A ferry was planned for Coney Island Creek. After spending millions on a new landing there, the City just pulled the plug.

1:00 AM EST on November 12, 2022

Fishing on the Coney Island Creek sand spit. The Coney Island ferry would have traveled to the landing through the narrow channel at the top. (Coco McPherson)

After years of planning and millions of dollars in public spending, there won't be a NYC Ferry stop in Coney Island after all. The announcement was made last month at a Community Board 13 meeting by the City's nonprofit arm that runs the ferry, the New York City Economic Development Corporation. 

It was a startling development, given that a gleaming, multi-million dollar ferry landing is currently floating in Coney Island Creek at Kaiser Park, freshly constructed by the EDC for the ferry route it was now saying was untenable. EDC contractors had also dredged the creek to make it navigable, but the relentless tidal inflow of sand made that a Sisyphean effort. An eyewitness told Hell Gate he saw a test ferry get caught on sand in a shallow area near the mouth of the creek last November, and watched it gun its engine to free itself. Bill Buckley, Vice President of Marine Operations at Hornblower, which operates the ferry, disputed this. “There is no record of a ferry vessel running aground, even briefly, in our past test runs to Coney Island,” he said.

The new multi-million dollar ferry landing off Kaiser Park. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)

This spring, after the custom-made ferry landing was already afloat, the EDC announced that all the sand (and more) dredged at the end of 2021 had come back, and that work would be halted so that other potential sites for a Coney Island ferry could be investigated. Dredging had been paused for winter flounder spawning—a seasonal fish restriction. At October's CB13 board meeting, McLaren Engineering, the firm tasked with assessing possible ferry sites in Coney Island, delivered what they called the most comprehensive and complete look to date. 

The price tags for each of the three possible sites, including Coney Island Creek, were mind-boggling. A landing at Steeplechase Pier near the amusement park—a location previously rejected because of ocean swell and strong winds—would run between $85 to $250 million. The alternate creek location at 33rd Street and Bayview Avenue close to Sea Gate, Coney Island's secretive gated community that has its own police department, would cost $25 to $30 million and require passengers to walk a gangway the length of two football fields to get to any ferry boats. Coney Island Creek, the site of the current project, would actually cost between $35 and $40 million and require 45,000 cubic yards of additional dredging. 

After the October presentation, James Wong, the executive director of NYC Ferry, announced that the new creek landing would soon be disassembled and taken away. "In terms of next steps, at this juncture we do not have a current path forward for either of the other two options that we've analyzed," he said. Why didn't the City order these in-depth studies before installing the landing in the creek? Hell Gate posed the question to the EDC, but the agency did not respond. 

In the saga of the abortive drive for a Coney Island ferry, the central mystery remains why the EDC was so determined to site the ferry in Coney Island Creek, disregarding its own best data to put it there. The answer may have to do with lobbying by real estate developers, or a rush by the City to get a Coney Island ferry up and running before former mayor and ferry superfan Bill de Blasio left office in 2021. It may also be a direct result of a construction boom triggered by Michael Bloomberg's controversial rezoning of the neighborhood in 2009. At various times in the last decade, the target ridership for the ferry was either Coney Island visitors, or Coney Island residents. In either case, the siting was perplexing: Visitors getting off the ferry in Kaiser Park were going to be on their own, far from the neighborhood's attractions. Full of people during the day, the park and the waterfront can feel desolate at night. 

A spud barge—with the dredging rig on top—dredging in Gravesend Bay. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)

Local activists and environmentalists also questioned why the City rushed to site the ferry in this fragile ecosystem of wetlands, salt marsh, and possibly, unexploded ordnance. In 2019, when then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a Coney Island ferry landing would be located in an estuary a twenty-minute walk from the Wonder Wheel and Nathan's, it was after more than a decade of confusing shell games, with the ferry landing serving as the pea. Beginning in 2011, the City's studies and assessments focused either on Steeplechase Pier or on 33rd Street at Coney Island Creek Park. In choosing the creek location at Kaiser Park, locals who know how the tides work there pointed out that the EDC was ignoring its own feasibility studies, which warned that shifting sands, wind and other conditions in the creek could prevent the ferries' safe passage in and out of the eye-of-a-needle channel there. A 2018 ferry expansion feasibility study prophetically detailed the challenges of operating a ferry in Coney Island Creek at either of two proposed locations: "Placement of a landing needs careful consideration as shifting sands, fog, and high winds would be an ongoing challenge to maintaining safe and reliable commuter ferry operations here…both options present operational and navigational risks, requiring careful design and mitigation."

Coney Island is an underserved community with known environmental burdens and rates of poverty that significantly exceed the city average. Almost 25 percent of Coney Island residents live in public housing, compared to 7 percent citywide. People living along the creek repeatedly expressed concerns about dredging for the ferry, and how it would tap into the toxic gunk that lines the creek. They also worried that ferry propellers—and the prop wash they create—could expose residents in nearby buildings, including NYCHA's Gravesend Houses and O'Dwyer Gardens; locals who subsistence fish in the creek; and the kids who play on the shoreline to PCBs, dioxins, lead, and other toxic remnants of the creek's industrial past. 

Seine netting in the creek. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)
Looking west to Gravesend Bay, with the Verrazzano bridge in the distance. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)

Last year, Ida Sanoff, the executive director of the Natural Resources Protective Association, called what was coming "Coney Island's Own Love Canal," a reference to the Niagara Falls community poisoned by industrial waste in the 1970s. The Love Canal site was added to the then-newly formed Superfund program, which cleans up the most polluted sites in the country. Coincidently, the EPA recently began testing samples from Coney Island Creek to determine whether it merits inclusion in that federal program. 

Despite the community's objections—loudly expressed at creekside press conferences, protests and community board meetings—the City forged ahead, spending millions to construct the new ferry landing off Kaiser Park. One early estimate put its cost at nearly $5 million, but at the CB13 meeting, the EDC noted that the average cost of the NYC Ferry landings has been closer to $7 million. An untold amount was also spent to dredge the creek's narrow channel, which is so shallow that at certain points in the day, fishers can stand waist-deep in it to cast their lines. The EDC did not respond to email requests for information on how much this project set the City back.

Coney Island Creek advocates, including Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, protest an oil spill at the new ferry landing in 2021. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)
A channel marker on the sand in the creek channel. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)

But the City did pay for not doing it right. The permits issued by the Department of Environmental Conservation bound the City to best management practices when dredging. In 2021, when oil slicks appeared at the new landing, then under construction, Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, who represents Coney Island, called on the DEC to revoke the dredging permits. Some months later, the EDC and its contractors and subcontractors Skanska USA and Mechanical and Marine Construction Corp. were found jointly liable for violating environmental laws and for illegal dredging, and fined $70,000.  

As one dredging expert told me, shifting sands are more powerful than most human engineering. And so it was that sand stymied the City's plans. Sand migrates around the tip of the peninsula, and piles up in unwanted quantities on the peninsula's northern side. In the 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers set out to control erosion in Coney Island and Brighton Beach by widening beaches, replenishing sand, and employing groins. Before Coney Island was developed, sand that had accumulated would wash away with the next storm, but these days, sand piles up and forms enormous dunes: Some dunes on the bay side can be twenty to thirty feet high. Front yards and gardens on the bay side are often smothered in sand, and fire hydrants are buried up to their necks.

The NRPA's Sanoff believes the City knew sand would be an issue. "They severely underestimated how bad it was," she says. "They thought that they would only have to do additional dredging after a severe storm moved a lot of sand around. But we know that the sand has been moving there in large quantities for almost 30 years."

Tranquility on the original fishing pier in Coney Island Creek. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)
A creekside portrait. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)

Coney Island wasn't always a peninsula, and Coney Island Creek wasn't always a dumping ground for industrial waste and sewage. Before being partially filled in when the Belt Parkway and other roadways were constructed in the 1930s and '40s, the creek connected Gravesend Bay and Sheepshead Bay, and separated Coney Island from the mainland. Once a natural wonder, by the turn of the 20th century, the creek was being treated like a toilet, with pollution from industries such as gas works and dye factories filling it with toxins. As recently as 2016, illegal dumping persisted: Workers in apartment buildings near the head of the creek on Shell Road diverted 200,000 gallons of raw sewage a day into a storm sewer that discharges into the creek, until the practice was discovered. In the 2019 ferry permit application prepared for the EDC by McLaren Engineering Group, sediment sampling at the dredge sites exceeded thresholds for arsenic, lead, mercury, and pesticides. Over time, the sand flowing from Gravesend Bay had formed a natural cap over these toxins, according to local environmentalists. They warned that dredging for the ferry—even using best management practices, as required by the permits—was peeling off that cap. 

Today, despite its existing environmental stressors, the creek is a wild and beautiful place. Many New Yorkers don't even know the creek exists, or that the small body of water visible from the D train as it crosses the Stillwell Avenue Bridge is a birder's paradise and a home for striped bass, flounder, bunker, and blue crabs, and an important spawning ground for horseshoe crabs. This vibrant ecosystem exists alongside boat skeletons, a wrecked 83-ton submarine, and unparalleled views of the Verrazzano. "The essence of Coney Island isn't the rides and the amusements, it's Coney Island Creek,” says Coney Island historian and filmmaker Charles Denson, who grew up in the neighborhood and who has spent more than fifty years documenting the creek.

The City's evident disregard for the community as it developed its ferry plans irks residents like Ann Valdez. "If you don’t think there's anything here, you've never been here," says Valdez, who was born in Coney Island and whose mother and grandparents were, in the early 1950s, some of the first tenants in Gravesend Houses, which overlook the creek and Kaiser Park.

A 2019 EPA assessment of the waterfront found that a majority of people the agency surveyed had been coming to the park, sometimes called the Central Park of Coney Island, for over twenty years, and of that group, many had come for far longer. In the summer, the air in the park smells like saltwater and South Asian spices and barbecue, and bouncy castles and tents are inflated and pitched to celebrate graduations and birthday parties. Parties and picnics fill every corner, including the parking lot of Mark Twain I.S. 239.  

Fishers and their families at the water's edge. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)
ATV riders in the creekside parking lot of Mark Twain I.S. 239. (Coco McPherson)

In the fall, the Coney Island Sharks, the local youth football squad, share the Kaiser Park football field with soccer teams and kids on bikes racing each other around the track. On the fishing pier (which currently anchors the new ferry landing), anglers from all over Brooklyn cast lines into the creek. Swimmers, snorkelers, and boaters paddling canoes and kayaks are in the water. Environmental groups including the Billion Oyster Project, which restores oysters to New York Harbor, teach the wonders of the natural world here. This is the beating heart of Coney Island's West End, yet the City, in its quest to site a ferry in the creek, seemed indifferent to life on the ground.

Denson, the author of a comprehensive book on the neighborhood, “Coney Island Lost and Found,” says the choice of the creek for a ferry landing telegraphed the City's indifference to the West End. Denson raised the alarm about environmental reviews that failed to acknowledge that Calvert Vaux Park, on the creek's opposite shore, was built on the remains of a former toxic dump. Dredging would likely have exposed the creek (and the people who use the creek) to those toxins, and remediation never figured into the City's plans.

For Denson, though, there was an even more urgent safety concern. "It's the only ferry in the whole system that goes to a beach with people in the water," he said. "It’s not in open water. You're going to have the ferries coming in there, and it's only a matter of time that someone gets seriously injured. The EDC said, 'Oh, swimming's not allowed there,' but people put their children in inner tubes and put them in the water here." Denson added, "Politics drove this decision. They did what all polluters have done for the last 150 years: They dumped it into Coney Island Creek because they think it's invisible, nobody's going to see it, it's not going to affect anybody."

In response to follow-up questions from Hell Gate, the EDC wrote: "As NYC Ferry enters a new phase, we are focused on equity and cost-efficiency to keep this essential transit network sustainable and available to New Yorkers. After an exhaustive look at the different location options for a Coney Island Ferry landing and continuous dialogue with the community, we have not yet found an operationally viable and financially responsible path forward. NYCEDC remains committed to continued economic development and support to Coney Island and its residents, and we welcome discussions with the community about the possible future of a ferry landing."

The ferry may also have been a victim of shifting mayoral agendas. In July, a damning audit of the EDC's management of NYC Ferry reported that between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second term, the EDC failed to report nearly a quarter billion dollars in ferry spending and underreported its subsidy of ferry fares. The same month, de Blasio's successor Eric Adams launched Ferry Forward, an initiative designed to make the popular ferry system more equitable and also to prevent further financial hemorrhaging. Until that can be achieved, ferry expansion has been suspended.

Two years ago, the EPA began an assessment of the creek to determine if it was polluted enough to add it to Superfund’s National Priorities List. In April 2021, sediment samples were found to contain "contaminants of concern," including cyanide. The EPA's site inspection report, delivered in January 2022, determined that the creek merits further investigation, a positive sign for those who want federal intervention to restore the creek to health. The process will take several years. 

Youth from around New York City regularly gather for creek and Kaiser Park cleanups. (Coco McPherson / Hell Gate)

By early in the next century, experts predict that Coney Island will face as much as six feet of sea level rise, levels that will submerge the neighborhood. Some climate scientists believe this is an extremely conservative timeline. In the meantime, the neighborhood continues to enjoy a real estate boom that began with the 2009 rezoning of Coney Island during the Bloomberg era. By 2018, even taking Hurricane Sandy into consideration, twelve percent of new construction in the city was in high-risk flood zones. Most of that was in south Brooklyn, including Coney Island. That's a lot of development on a little piece of land that, at least in the neighborhood's West End, is only three avenues wide.

The ferry might have been sited in the creek to serve residents of Ocean Drive, a pair of shiny oceanfront behemoths on Surf Avenue that tower over NYCHA's O'Dwyer Gardens. Grocery store magnate and developer John Catsimatidis paid lobbyists many thousands of dollars to try and have the ferry sited near the buildings, where one 684-square-foot one-bedroom rental is available for $3,641 a month. When he first advertised Ocean Drive, Catsimatidis promised to establish a private trolley to transport new tenants to the Stillwell Avenue subway station. A ferry to Manhattan located three blocks away is a far more appealing amenity.  

On last month's ferry decision, Assemblymember Frontus—the only local elected official to speak out against the creek location and to challenge the City to find an alternate one—is a gracious winner. "There's no reason to say, 'I told you so,'" she says. "Nobody wins. There's money that was spent, and there's nothing to gloat about." The City assured her that work on a Coney Island ferry is simply paused, though plenty of people believe it's dead in the water.

Transportation problems that a ferry might have solved remain. New residents are flocking to Coney Island, which is squarely in the flood zone and on the front lines of the climate crisis. "You have that expression, 'drill, baby, drill,'" notes Frontus. "Here, it's 'build, baby, build.' It's a little scary. We're bringing thousands of more people. Should we be doing it? Probably not. Are we ready to accommodate all these people? We absolutely are not ready. Nevertheless, it's happening."

*This post has been updated to reflect the fact that while an eyewitness told Hell Gate he saw a ferry get stuck on a sandbar in Coney Island Creek last November, Hornblower, which operates the ferry, says there is no record of such an event. [November 16, 2022]

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