Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.
When Douglas McKean was 22 and studying landscape architecture in the late 1970s, his graduate thesis was about transforming Playland Amusement Park in Rye.
Back then, he figured having thrill rides along a decent stretch of Westchester County's shoreline wasn't a good use of scenic waterfront. So he designed a park with open space, gardens and ball fields. He worked around the art deco buildings, nixed the rides, kept Kiddyland and named it Sound Shore Park.
Over the years, his thesis became the stuff of cocktail party banter. Playland is always topical, especially in Rye.
Now, at 56, McKean is back at the drawing board -- but this time as a member of Sustainable Playland, a group that boasts a plan for "more park, more play" at the 280-acre site built in 1928.
"I keep going back to, what does the county need," McKean said during a recent walk-through of the park, "and what would make this a destination people would want to come to?"
Those questions have stymied lawmakers for generations -- including the current county executive, Rob Astorino, who is trying to reinvent the National Historic Landmark for the 21st Century.
He'd be content if it just covered its costs. Taxpayers kicked in $3 million of the park's nearly $13 million in expenses in 2011, and attendance dipped by 75,000, to 420,000.
As summer gets its unofficial start this weekend, suburban thrill-seekers will get another crack at enjoying the Dragon Coaster, Derby Racer and Log Flume before the county moves forward on a new vision for the place. It may be the last run for some of those rides. County leaders expect to announce plans for the park's future in the fall, but they're still going over submissions from amusement park operators, vendors and groups like Sustainable Playland. They maintain nothing is off the table.
"We're only going to get one chance . . . and we want to get it right," said Ned McCormack, Astorino's chief adviser. "It's an evolving, dynamic process."
It's no doubt a complicated one. Attempts to revamp the park and bring in a private company to run it have failed in the past -- miserably.
In this latest effort, 12 companies responded to Astorino's call to improve the park. And while none of have been eliminated yet, three -- including two amusement park operators and Sustainable Playland -- were viewed as strong contenders by a citizen advisory board.
Sustainable Playland's idea is unique, in that it's a not-for-profit made up of residents, professionals and experts in the fields of finance, architecture, planning and the like. They would operate much like the Central Park Conservancy. People involved have worked on the revitalization of Bryant Park, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal and downtown Norwalk, among many others.
But they're also locals and have a vested interest. They view Playland not solely as an amusement park, but as a park with amusements. They'd offer fewer rides, but make the place a year-round attraction, complete with restaurants, an open promenade and a vast open green, like the Great Lawn in Central Park, along the water. They'd also cut the size of the parking lot -- the one that is only full a few days a year -- and add soccer fields and a field house.
The lower density plan, while bucking the big theme-park trend, is a good way to go. It would enable Playland to make money over 12 months, rather than just three.
It's easy to get nostalgic about the place with its boardwalk, Ice Casino and historic rides. That's why they've called the place a memory maker. But there's a darker side to Playland's past: fatalities on rides, declining attendance and its ongoing status as a money pit. That's something any new plan must contend with and avoid.
Playland has endured many twists and turns during its long run. But there's good reason to believe that -- with minds like McKean's working on it -- its next incarnation could be something special.