Image: Artist's rendering of water park
Aquatic Development Group  /  AP
This artist's rendering shows a view of Randalls Island looking south, with the proposed 26-acre water park at bottom right.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/2/2006 3:26:36 PM ET 2006-05-02T19:26:36

A visit to the Big Apple always promised a great adventure: Times Square, Coney Island, the Empire State Building. There was never a need for some trumped-up theme park in the land of Trump himself. Until now.

In the latest bit of suburban creep into the nation's largest city, a family-themed water park is due before summer 2007 on a piece of Randalls Island parkland at the juncture of the East and Harlem Rivers, under the vast Triborough Bridge. The site is easily reachable from Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx by car, bus, bicycle or footbridge.

The city hopes to lure more than 1.3 million visitors a year to the $168 million attraction that will boast water slides rising 80 feet into the skyline.

So are the five boroughs going Six Flags? A little bit, yes. And not everybody is pleased.

"The citizens of New York like the Brooklyn Bridge," said Billy Tallen, a performance artist who's waged a long (and losing) battle against New York's commercialization. "The consumers prefer the water parks. We insist on being citizens, not consumers."

The water park is just the latest indignity for Tallen and others who fondly recall the corner tavern, the mom-and-pop drug store, the local coffee shop. These days, it's more likely a Starbucks (159 locations in the city) or a TGIFriday's (a dozen spots, including one on 42nd Street near the Red Lobster). Last year, a 7-Eleven opened on Park Avenue South at 23rd Street -- the first new Manhattan franchise for the 24-hour stores since 1982.

"And Coney Island is going to be turned into another suburban development," said Tallen, fearful of an $83 million redevelopment plan announced last year for the colorful Brooklyn beachfront.

The taming of Times Square is a fait accompli, with adult entertainment emporiums like Peepland and Show World giving way to kid-friendly fare and a comedy club. And "The Shops at Columbus Circle" is a highfalutin name for a (gasp!) mall, with outlets for J. Crew and Sephora.

But city officials and developers portrayed the 26-acre water park _ an unlikely attraction in an unlikely location -- as more boon than bane for both the citizens of New York and visitors. Day-trippers from outlying suburbs and tourists from elsewhere are part of the park's target audience, along with the natives.

"This is good news," said parks commissioner Adrian Benape, one of the park's boosters. "It has a potential to be a huge draw. We hope to be building a park for the 21st century on Randalls Island."

The water park, designed by the New York-state-based Aquatic Development Group, is  virtually a done deal. The city's Franchise and Concession Review Committee voted on April 11 to allow the proposed 35-year lease with the group.

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And so New Yorkers will soon have access to an amenity previously found only in locations like Scotrun, Pa., or Mason, Ill., or Grapevine, Texas.

The New York attraction will include wave pools, action rivers and wading pools, and plenty of slides. A seven-acre indoor beach will give New Yorkers a year-round attraction. Coney Island, in contrast, is strictly seasonal (except to those twisted Polar Bear Club swimmers who take an annual winter dip in the Atlantic).

The new construction won't affect any of the other events on the island, including concerts and various track meets at Icahn Stadium.

According to David Sangree, a water-park consultant and president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, the vast majority of the nation's 71 water parks are located far from urban centers.

Wisconsin, with 30, is the state with the most water parks.

The New York facility would operate under unique circumstances. The new breed of water parks -- like the Great Wolf Lodge that opened recently in Pennsylvania and a Six Flags indoor water park that opened in upstate New York -- are typically attached to hotels, with admission reserved for overnight guests only. The New York operation, since it's on city parkland, will work with day passes and without a hotel.

It took seven years for the city to take the plunge on the water park. The plan was proposed in 1999 by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a 12-acre facility. Seven years later, under the Bloomberg administration, the light at the end of the water funnels is here.

Henry Stern, who spent two decades as parks commissioner, was less surprised by word of the burgeoning water park than most New Yorkers. He sorted through various proposals for Randalls Island, including a ski jump, while in office.

"Tennis courts, stadium, concert hall, golf course -- people see land, and they want to build," Stern says. "They salivate."

Since its purchase from the local American Indians in 1637, Randalls Island served as a burial ground for the indigent, a home for juvenile delinquents, an asylum for alcoholics and a rest home for Civil War veterans. After the island was designated a city park in 1933, its high points came as a sports and concert venue.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the opening ceremonies for a stadium on the island. The Olympic trials were held as the first event, with Jesse Owens warming up for the Berlin Games with victories in the 100 meters and the long jump.

Pele played there as a member of the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. The Dave Matthews Band is one of the musical headliners who played there in recent years. And by next summer, several hundred thousands people will splash and slide their way around Randalls.

As for former parks commissioner Stern, he offered another suggestion. "I think it would be no problem if it was left alone," he said. "It's doesn't have to be a happening. It's an open space, an island in the heart of the city."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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