By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
FUREE has likewise struck out in repeated attempts to meet with Sitt or other Thor officials. "If what he's doing here happens in Coney Island," says Leigh, "Coney Island's in a lot of trouble."
Escapades like the Albee Square bait and switch haven't won Joe Sitt any friends at City Hall, according to sources who've spoken with city officials. Publicly, both sides say that "negotiations continue," but it looks more like a game of chicken, with Sitt and the city each waiting to see who blinks first. Last month, Sitt told the Observer that the city was forcing him to "mothball this entire thing for five to 10 years." (Asked under what conditions Sitt would be forced to "mothball" it, Thor spokesman Corsillo said he'd get back to the Voice, then never did.) In the past week or so, Sitt has switched to a more conciliatory tone, offering to condense his condos into one building west of Stillwellalbeit a 40-story oneand approaching some Coney merchants, including Carlin, about new leases.
The city, meanwhile, has held firm, with CIDC president Lynn Kelly's public statements swearing allegiance to the strategic planwhich means no residential buildings in the amusement zone. Yet the city itself isn't blameless for the mess. By declaring at the very beginning of the CIDC's deliberations that Coney Island should become a "year-round" attractionin part to provide more than seasonal jobs for residents of the economically depressed housing projects that Moses scattered across the beachfront in the '60sthe city set in motion two powerful forces.
First, it attracted the attention of developers like Sitt, who would never have thrown around multimillion-dollar offers without the prospect of evicting the kiddie rides for more lucrative ventures like restaurants and movie theaters, which haven't been allowed previously under C7 zoning. Simultaneously, the city spooked the traditional amusement operators, who saw little room for their inherently seasonal attractions in the new Coney Island. Asked why she sold the land her family had owned for nearly 45 years, Astroland's Albert says that "all the discussion was that the city wanted a year-round entertainment area"and roofing over Astroland wasn't in her budget.
For now, Astroland sports "Open for 2007" signs, and its pirate ship will swing thrill-seekers high above Surf Avenue for one fi nal season. Albert, who says that before Thor came to town she was about to embark on a set of major purchases ("We were going to buy a new spinning coasterI loved that ride"), is instead scrambling to find a smaller space where she can relocate some of her rides. "You can't support a payroll of 350 people surrounded by a construction site," she says, "whereas a smaller operation could survive that." Though Sitt declared last week that he's willing to keep Astroland open in some form for 2008, Albert says she's heard nothing from the developer. She's asked the Parks Department about renting out West 10th Street, which runs between her current property and the Cyclone, but so far nothing has been finalized. Meanwhile, she says she has to decide within weeks whether to sell off her remaining rides and close up shop for good.
"Although half of Coney Island as we have known it will not be here next year, Coney Island will be alive and open next year," insists Zigun. He rattles off the places that will still be around: the Cyclone, Dino's, Zigun's Sideshows by the Seashore, the El Dorado bumper cars, Nathan's, the aquarium. "There will be a smaller Coney Island, but plenty to do here next year."
Others are less optimistic. Albert says others in the amusement industry have told her that even if Thor started construction promptly, the disruption would drive attendance down by 25 percent to 50 percent, particularly among school groups that would face traffic and parking tie-ups. In a low-margin business like amusements, she worries that could leave the remaining operators one rainy summer away from economic ruin.
Meanwhile, the biggest game being played on Coney Island is the game of chicken between Sitt and the city. Privately, many Coney Islanders say that if Bloomberg really wants to call Sitt's bluff, he'll threaten to swoop in and seize any vacant land by eminent domain. But no one thinks that's likely. More realistically, the best-case scenario is that once the city starts the rezoning process in June, Sitt will realize his condo dream is a non-starter and either quickly agree to build something that fits the CIDC's vision or sell to someone who does. In the worst, the stalemate drags on for years, with Sitt shuttering every building he ownsor flipping the land to another developer who likewise sits on the property while deciding how to develop it.
Even that, though, would be preferable to many than the city allowing condos on the boardwalk, which they see as the death knell for Coney Island as New Yorkers have known it. "An amusement area like Coney Island is organic," says Denson, who runs the Coney Island Historical Society and with Carlin is the driving force behind the Save Coney Island movement. "It's transformed year by yearnew rides are brought in, new attractions. But once residential is put in there, it's fixed. For a hundred years, that property is gone."