Coney Island green thumbs got a rude awakening from iStar Financial’s machines

Coney community garden bulldozed in dead of night ahead of Childs revamp

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Gardeners had hoped to bury Borough President Markowitz’s planned Coney Island amphitheater — but instead got plowed under themselves.

Backhoes sent by a developer destroyed the Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island in the early-morning darkness on Dec. 28, in order to make way for a permanent home for the outgoing Beep’s summer concert series.

The gardeners said they had been on guard against the destruction of their vegetable patch next door to the landmarked Childs Building, which is slated to become a new music venue, since the afternoon of Dec. 26, when they said several men claiming to be construction contractors came and warned they were going to uproot the garden overnight. The planters put up a tent in front of the garden and camped out in shifts. But they found themselves powerless when, at 5 am on Saturday morning, a construction crew arrived with earth-movers and broke the gates.

“I get a call in the middle of the night, and they told me the trucks were here,” said Yury Opendik, who had helped organize the growers. “I got here in time to watch it all unfold. They tore the garden apart.”

Workers caged the 20 chickens living in the garden, but the dozens of cats, rabbits, and pigeons gardeners were keeping at the parcel appear to have fled ahead of the machines. Gardeners said the backhoes crushed stuff they kept inside the lot, including a bungalow full of tools and seeds Opendik had built by hand.

“It wasn’t expensive things, but personal things that meant so much more to me than money,” said Opendik.

The People’s Playground planters had hoed the plot of along W. 22nd Street since 1997. The city kicked the growers out in 2004 in order to convert the parcel into a parking lot for MCU Park, then under construction. But the garden was never paved and the dozens of seed-sowers returned without official sanction. Hurricane Sandy soaked the spot and buried it in sand, but the gardeners dug their way out and replanted last spring.

The earth-moving machinery was sent by iStar Financial, which owns the Childs Building. The plan is for the city to pay $53-million to buy the 90-year-old Boardwalk icon and have the developer renovate the space into a music hall and restaurant, turning the Boardwalk Garden and two parcels along W. 23rd Street into seating and a sprawling, landscaped lawn. The developer will then operate the facility at a profit until 2025, before turning it over to the city.

The gardeners successfully lobbied Community Board 13 to vote down the amphitheater plan in September, but failed to prevent the project from breezing through the City Planning Commission and the Council.

The gardeners insisted they were not opposed to the Childs Building project, but said they wanted the city to provide a replacement lot for them to use. Coney Island Holdings, an iStar subsidiary, pointed out that the city has offered the gardeners a stake in another space on W. 29th Street and Surf Avenue, which the company called “under-utilized.” But the planters complain that the proffered parcel is paved, smaller than their current spot, and already home to two-dozen other gardeners.

“It’s a concrete jungle over there,” said Opendik. “It’s not a pleasant place to be, and it’s not a comfortable site for growing vegetables.”

The gardeners said they are considering a lawsuit to stop the project, pointing out city documents that show the space mapped as parkland, which would require state approval for a private lease.

“All options are on the table,” said Aziz Dehkan of the New York Community Gardens Coalition, which is providing the Boardwalk horticulturists with legal advice and support.

Markowitz said he thinks community gardening is generally a good idea, just not where he wants a music venue built.

“I think having the garden is good for the community,” the outgoing Beep said. “We found a location for them, and I think it’ll work.”

The garden’s early morning now belongs to a tradition of pre-dawn demolitions in Coney Island. Mayor Giuliani ordered bulldozers to rip down the famed Thunderbolt rollercoaster between W. 15th and W. 16th streets — made famous in the film Annie Hall — shortly before sun-up one morning in Fall 2000.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at wbredderman@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him attwitter.com/WillBredderman.
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