By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In 2003, the city convened the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC), made up mostly of well-connected local business owners and city functionaries, to help shape the neighborhood's future. The strategic plan that emerged presented a bifurcated Coney: West of Stillwell Avenue, on the mostly vacant blocks around the baseball stadium, would go mixed-income housing, with the ground floors devoted to "entertainment-oriented" retail such as restaurants and gaming arcades. To the east, the area currently zoned "C7" for amusements would remain sacrosanct, to protect Coney Island's traditional attractions from neighbors who might complain about "Bump-bump-bump your ass off!" blaring into their apartment windows every night.
Joe Sitt, however, had plans of his own. In March 2005, Sitt bought the old Washington Baths site west of the stadium for $13 million; 14 months later, once it had become clear that the CIDC plan would allow housing on that site, he flipped it to an investment group for $90 million. Thor poured this money into more purchases, this time in the heart of the amusement district. By the time he purchased the land under the Astroland amusement park last fall, Sitt had title to virtually all of central Coney Island save for the isolated islands of Nathan's and Dino's, whose owners decided to stay put, and the city-owned Cyclone, run by Astroland under a long-term lease.
A big-box-store developer who made his name and fortune with the Ashley Stewart line of plus-size clothing stores, Sitt reassured anyone within earshot that he was a local boy, having grown up in nearby Gravesend; he skipped school so often to head for the boardwalk, he said, that his friends called him "Joey Coney Island." He boasted of talks with movie theater chains, with Ripley's Believe It or Not, with Nickelodeon for a "family hotel" (with time-shared condos). For the amusement district, Thor issued a steady stream of artists' renderings, each more dazzlingly grandiose than the last, featuring futuristic buildings surrounded by holographic mermaids, a giant elephant with a "Mom" tattoo, and, inexplicably, Batman. Locals, who had seen so many plans come and go over the years, were cautiously optimistic. "It is the natural order of things for New York City to keep rebuilding itself," Coney Island USA director and Mermaid Parade impresario Dick Zigun told the Voice two summers ago regarding the early plans. "It could be exciting."
The first signs of trouble came last year, when Thor handed out month-to-month leases at increased rents to tenants of its newly acquired three-block stretch of storefronts along the boardwalk. Two refused to sign: Steve Bitzekas, who runs the Ocean Grill House west of Stillwell, and Carlin, proprietor of the Lola Staar Souvenir Boutique next door to the historic Ruby's restaurant. For Carlin, the main sticking point was a gag order that would prohibit her from saying anything in public about Coney Island redevelopment. Worse yet, she says, violations would be decided by Thor Equities, not a court of law.
Finally, in January, Carlin gave in and agreed to Thor's lease. "I went to their office and met with them and signed the agreement," she says. "The following day, Sam Sabin from Thor Equities called me uphe had to talk to me about something really important. I asked him, 'Did this have anything to do with the agreement I signed yesterday?' And he said, 'No, no, everything's fine with that. I just have to talk to you about something private.' "
The next day, she says, "he came to my studio and served me with eviction papers."
Thor spokesman Tom Corsillo wouldn't comment on Carlin's situation, beyond saying that "all tenants on the boardwalk were offered the same opportunity to renew their agreements" and "a couple did not." What seems likely, though, is that Sitt had gotten fed up with the city's refusal to allow condos on his land and decided to start playing hardball. On January 30, Thor spokesman Lee Silberstein told the Post that without condos, the entire construction project would be scrapped. Two weeks later, at a Crain's breakfast meeting, city planning director Amanda Burden countered that "amusements are incompatible with immediately adjacent residential use." It was about then that Thor's bulldozers arrived on West 12th Street and the demolitions began.
"Joe Sitt had always been very friendly with me and told me that if I ever needed anything, just to give him a call," Carlin recalls. "So I called him every hour to try to get through to him." Finally, she reached Thor lawyer Joseph Matalon, who, according to Carlin, "said that their decision on whether or not they were going to proceed with this eviction against me was contingent upon the results of their negotiations with the city"no condos, no lease. "He was telling me," she says, "that I was being used as a bargaining pawn: We're serious about building these condos on the boardwalk, and if we can't do that, we're just going to destroy Coney Island."
At the same time, Astroland operator Carol Hill Albert, who'd sold out to Thor for $30 million in November, was approaching her new landlord with an offer to extend her lease into 2008 if development plans were stalled. Instead, she was told, the park her family had operated since 1962 had to be out by the end of December so Thor could "clear the property."