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The season's first visitors to Coney Island can already see that the batting cages and the go-karts along Stillwell Avenue are gone, as is a miniature golf course that went up just a few years ago. From the base of the Wonder Wheel on West 12th Street all the way to the bus lot behind Nathan's, bulldozers have cut a large swath, leaving little more than barren asphalt and a few stray tires surrounded by a plywood fence.
It looks like a construc- tion site. And that's what it's meant to be, according to its owner, Thor Equities.
Two summers ago, Thor CEO Joseph Sitt announced a huge redevelopment project in Coney Island, featuring an indoor water park, a hotel, and even a rooftop landing pad for blimps. All this would be financed by beachfront condos towering as high as 50 stories over the boardwalk.
Sitt says high-priced housing is vital to his business plan; the city insists that condos in Coney Island would violate the hard-fought rezoning plan that the community and the city's Economic Development Corporation have hashed out over the past several years.
Thor's plans sparked a recent "Save Coney Island" protest on the steps of City Hall, including marching bands and at least one mermaid (with sideburns).
But what's at stake is far more than a view of the Parachute Jump unobstructed by balconied towers. While Thor denies it, denizens of the amusement district fear the developer is preparing to raze and leave fallow as much as two-thirds of Coney's amusement district. The idea would be to hold the heart of Coney Island hostage to force the city to rezone and let Thor cash in on condos.
If Sitt follows through with stated threats to wait for a new mayoral administration in 2010, Coney Island's already diminished amusement district could spend years as a torn-up wasteland, leaving only the Cyclone, Dino's Wonder Wheel Park, Sideshows by the Seashore, and Nathan's standing amid a vast empty plain.
"You're still going to have a beach," Charles Denson, an author of two books on Coney Island history, says of a post-Sitt era. "You're still going to have a boardwalk, if they still fix it up. And the memory of Coney Island will survive. But I think people will be disappointed when they come down and just see vacant lots."
Dianna Carlin, a boardwalk shopkeeper who was forced to close last month after a run-in with Thor, says company officials "are sacrificing the livelihood of small businesses such as mine and using the prospect of a shut-down Coney Island as leverage against the city in their negotiations." This summer's demolitions, she warns, are just "the beginning of what is to be a vicious war over the rezoning of Coney Island."
Coney Island has been considered ripe for redevelopment seemingly ever since there was a Coney Island. By the 1940s, two of Coney's three Golden Age amusement parks, Dreamland and Luna Park, had succumbed to fire; Robert Moses, the city's great redeveloper who never hesitated to remake a neighborhood with a sweep of his hand, replaced them with the New York Aquarium and the Luna Park Houses. Moses also bulldozed the ancient working-class neighborhood known as the Gut, handing over the land to Fred Trump, father of Donald, to build still more high-rise housing.
Once Steeplechase Park, with its famed mechanical horse-race ride and soaring glass gaming pavilion, shut down in the mid '60s, all that was left was an echo of the beachfront's onetime glory: the landmarked Cyclone and Wonder Wheel, and around them a collection of small-time amusements offering arcade games, Skee-Ball, and the occasional carnival ride and spook house.
But the crowds never stopped coming. In the 1970s, when the great old bathhouses along the boardwalk seemed to be burning daily, millions of people a year still visited. Even now, the tattooed hipsters who visit Sideshows by the Seashore or the annual Mermaid Parade are still far outnumbered by the throngs of mostly working-class families who descend on Coney Island every summer for the same reasons they always have: sand, sun, and entertainment, all for the price of a subway ride and a fistful of game tokens.
"It's always been popular with people of small means who can't afford to go anywhere else," Denson says. It's also served as a place for new immigrants to gain a foothold in running businesses. "You didn't need a lot of money to get in," he adds. "You could run a game or an attraction for the season and make enough money to get ahead."
Rumored casinos and other phantom developments never materialized, and for decades it seemed Coney Island would remain in slowly crumbling stasis. Then, in 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent $39 million to build KeySpan Park for the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones on the old Steeplechase site. (He also razed the derelict Thunderbolt next door, sending in bulldozers at 6 a.m. to pre-empt those who were hoping to have the 75-year-old wooden coaster landmarked and perhaps reopened.) Another $240 million in MTA money followed to build the airy new Stillwell Avenue subway terminal, and city-built comfort stations and playgrounds began sprouting along the beachfront.
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."
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."
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."