By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
According to Corsillo, the company intends to turn the land into a "Coney Park" with a hotel and a roller coaster that would dip under the boardwalk. Thor hasn't supplied opening or groundbreaking dates, though, and given that this is a company that has previously floated such ever-changing plans as an offshore Ferris wheel and a roller coaster that would run through buildings, locals are dubious. "I haven't seen any plans," Albert says. "What they're going to put here is very much a question."
For historian Denson, it's a familiar story. In 1966, he recalls, Fred Trump bought Steeplechase Park in hopes of building high-rise apartments. Then, when the Lindsay administration balked at a zoning change, Trump razed the historic complex, hosting a party where guests smashed the Steeplechase pavilion's famed glass facade with bricks. "He figured once it was torn down," Denson says, "they would have to let him build it. The city didn'tthey took it over for a parkbut Trump made a huge profit."
Joe Sitt, says Denson, "has taken a page from the Fred Trump playbook: If you don't let me have my way, I'm going to tear everything down, and you'll have a vacant lot."
The most damning indication that Joe Sitt is a mere "flipper"less interested in building anything than in buying land, getting it rezoned, and selling it for a quick buckis that he's done that before, say his detractors. At the other end of Brooklyn is another working-class mecca that was likewise purchased by Thor Equities amid promises of a rebirth, only to end up the target of a get-rich-quick condo scheme, while local business owners were left struggling to survive.
The Albee Square Mall off Fulton Street, with its mix of discount jewelry shops, fast-food joints, and a venerable Toys "R" Us, may seem an unlikely cultural icon. As the focal point of the nearby Fulton Mall shopping drag, though, it's long been a popular hangout, earning a memorable shout-out from Biz Markie on his 1988 debut album Goin' Off("Any other shoppers that try to compare/There ain't no way they could hang out with Albee Square"). Two decades later, even as neighboring Fort Greene and Boerum Hill fill up with young white gentrifiers, the mall's clientele remains overwhelmingly African American, as are many of its shopkeepers and cart vendors.
In 2001, Sitt bought the mall from Forest City Ratner for $25 million and, say merchants, promised to rehab it. Some changes were made: The entrance got a new facade, and the apparel store Forever 21 took up residence in the outdoor storefront along Fulton Street. Thor claims it spent $10 million on what it renamed the Gallery at Fulton Street but did not respond to repeated requests for an itemized accounting.
Inside, there's little sign of an influx of cash. Escalators are out of order (for more than a year, shopkeepers say), the half-empty food court bears a jury-rigged patchwork of floor tiles, and the bathrooms are a disaster. "Before [Sitt] got there, it was ragtag, but the place was full, and it was making money," says Randy Leigh, a board member of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), which has been organizing the mall's shopkeepers and customers. "When Thor bought it, [Sitt] got rid of all the amenities. He got rid of the restaurants, so people coming to shop had no place to eat. He claims he does so much, and all he does is run the place down."
Shortly after Sitt bought Albee Square, the Bloomberg administration launched a massive rezoning of downtown Brooklyn intended to carpet the district with office towers. Sitt presented the city with plans for a 60-story combined hotel/office/condo tower on the site of the mall's parking garage. Instead, in early February, a different consortium of developers announced they had agreed to buy the mall, demolish it, and erect a still larger skyscraper to take advantage of the new zoning. Thor's take: $125 million, for a profit of a cool 400 percent.
Albee Square's shopkeepers only learned their stores were targeted for the wrecking ball when they read about it in the paper. Eric Waltower, a former street vendor along Fulton Street who made the leap to a storefront selling women's accessories two years ago, says his time in the mall "has been greatother than they're trying to sell the place without informing me." He and his wife have put at least $15,000 into the store, he says, an outlay they'll have to eat if evicted.
Whether that will happen is anyone's guess. The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which must sign off on the condo plan because it involves city-owned land in an urban renewal site, abruptly canceled a scheduled hearing last month without explanation; FUREE organizers say they later learned it was because the consortium's housing developer had backed out. Now shopkeepers are in limbo, waiting to hear from their landlord about their future. "You cannot get in touch with them," says Teddy Priftakis, who has run the Top Potato in the mall's food court for the past 26 years. "Since three years ago, nobody returns my calls."