Labor Day Pains

Will this be the winter of Coney's discontent?

The coming Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of summer at Coney Island, the final blowout before the ride operators pack up and fly south for the winter. And if it's more a theoretical than an actual milestone—Astroland and Deno's Wonder Wheel Park will still be open for business next week, not to mention the Cyclones haven't held their Brooklyn Bridge Bobblehead Night yet—it packs more emotional punch this year for one simple reason: No one knows what the beachfront will look like when the warm weather returns. As the standoff between the city and would-be Coney redeveloper Thor Equities passes the half-year mark, the coming winter could determine whether beachgoers are greeted by neon or by empty lots next spring.

The two sides are likely to throw down within the next few weeks, once the city issues its long-awaited Coney Island rezoning plan, which is widely expected to send a message to Thor that the developer is not going to be allowed to build condos, time shares, or anything of the like in the swath of beachfront between the Cyclone and Keyspan Park. That would leave the Skee-Ball in the palm of Thor principal Joe Sitt, who has vacillated between the conciliatory and the confrontational throughout the zoning dispute. Since Sitt has repeatedly said he won't put shovel to earth without some residential component, that will leave him with three choices:

Flip his Coney properties to another developer who's willing to build within the city's zoning guidelines. Movie theaters, restaurants, and catering halls would all be OK, according to Coney Island Development Corporation president Lynn Kelly, as a means to expand the "shoulder seasons" of late spring and early fall without detracting from Coney's traditional amusements.

Take a bulldozer to the buildings he owns along Surf Avenue—which include the Grashorn Building, Coney's only surviving 19th-century structure, and the Henderson Building, where Harpo Marx made his stage debut—and gamble that either this mayor or the next will cave on the rezoning once faced with vacant lots.

Accept the city's offer to swap his 10 acres of amusement-district land for eight acres of city-owned property where the Abe Stark skating rink and Keyspan parking lot now sit, which would presumably be OK'd for condos. (Kelly won't confirm the offer, but other sources have.) If this land is valued at the same $500 per square foot that Sitt got for the adjacent Washington Baths site, which he sold to fellow developers Taconic Investments last year, it would be worth $180 million—more than double what he paid for his amusement-district properties.

Most Coney denizens would prefer door number three, and soon. While some Coney operators can afford to wait and see—last week, Sideshows by the Seashore bought its current building with the help of a city grant, and Deno's has a long-term lease on its site, part of which was bought by Thor earlier this summer—Astroland's future could be decided in the next month. Astroland owner Carol Hill Albert, who has put her rides on the market twice this summer, only to pull them off in the hope of an eleventh-hour reprieve, says, "We're swinging in the breeze on a couple of fronts"—both whether to sell the park's rides and whether to keep key employees on the payroll. "I'm just hoping desperately that the city's thing with Thor gets resolved by early September."

Coney business owners say their requests to their landlord for information have been met with a deafening silence. "I haven't been able to get any answers from Thor Equities," says Dianna Carlin, whose Lola Staar boutique has a lease that runs out at the end of September. "I spoke to Joe recently and asked him if he's going to be giving us leases for next year, and he hadn't decided yet. I asked him, 'When are you going to let us know?' And he said, 'In a couple of months.' Well, we're supposed to be out in a couple of months."

The city's timetable for its rezoning plans, meanwhile, has been equally murky. Kelly at first promised to unveil a proposal by the end of the summer, but now says it might not come until October, with the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to launch next spring and run through the end of 2008. She blames summer vacations and the Jewish holidays for scheduling headaches; others suspect it's a sign that she hopes to have a deal with Thor worked out first.

Sideshows by the Seashore impresario Dick Zigun, who has held on-again, (mostly) off-again talks with Thor about buying one of its historic buildings to house his organization's Coney Island Museum, couches his hopes for the off-season strictly in the speculative. "What I would like to see happen is for Thor to sell us the Grashorn Building, for Astroland to get a one-year reprieve, for the city to stick to its guns with rezoning, for the CIDC to pick the best designers possible . . . and for world peace to break out across the universe."

If Zigun's dreams do come true, the shoot-out with Sitt could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Coney Island. With all the "last summer ever" hoopla this year, attendance was up sharply—as much as 30 percent, by some accounts—despite what's set to be the wettest New York summer on record. "Business has just been incredible," says Carlin. "So many people come into my store and tell me they've always wanted to come to Coney Island, but they never have."

Right now, not even the proprietors know whether Coney's summer-long going-out-of-business sale will turn out to be an unintentional feint or truly a last hurrah. For Albert, all that's certain is that Sunday, September 9, will be the last day to visit Astroland—for 2007, at least. "At one point, we thought this was going to be the end-of-everything party," she says. "Now it's the end-of-season party. And the question-mark party."

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