Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

There would be 11 stories of residences, starting at 150 feet above the ground. Sandwiched in between the residential floors would be entertainment areas that would hold the largest ballroom and the largest theme park in the world, a revolving, glassed-in restaurant, an entire observatory, an "Aerial Palm Garden," and an "Aerial Hippodrome" with enough room for a four-ring circus and 5,000 spectators. At night, it would look like a towering pillar of fire.

A combination of almost every attraction ever built or imagined on Coney, it took two whole seasons of much-ballyhooed groundbreaking, and drilling 30-foot foundation holes, before the whole thing was revealed as a lucrative hoax. Things are rarely what they seem at Coney, and the same razzles are pulled decade after decade, no matter how outrageous they are. It's no wonder that the place has attracted some of the slickest operators in New York history, from Tilyou to Robert Moses to Fred Trump—to Joseph Sitt, Thor Equity's chairman and CEO.

Like many rich men, Joe Sitt likes to tell stories that make his life into an epic. He is full of anecdotes and portents, such as the time that he was 11 and Sam Walton handed him a sweet in Benton, Arkansas (although he genially refuses to answer direct questions about just where he grew up, or the exact nature of his relationship with Coney's blustery City Councilman, Domenic Recchia).

A new gateway will try to capture  some of Luna Park’s charm.
Irving Underhill / Library of Congress
A new gateway will try to capture some of Luna Park’s charm.
Living infants and hissing lights: A Coney long gone
Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress
Living infants and hissing lights: A Coney long gone

Sitt got his start, appropriately enough, as a teenager running flea markets in the parking lots of local racetracks. While still in college, he began grabbing up abandoned properties sold at tax auctions along East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx—the once thriving, integrated neighborhood famously devastated by Robert Moses in the 1950s—and converting them into urban retail strips.

Sitt's company is named not after the Norse god, but a comic-book hero who protects Earth from intergalactic monsters, which "fit in with my concept of being the protector of the cities." Much of his working life, as he tells it, has been spent fulfilling the unmet needs of embattled urban minorities. He started apparel chains such as Ashley Stewart, for instance, to cater to "a lot of African-Americans [who] happened to be fuller-figured, larger-size."

Having made the world safe for plus-size black women, Sitt turned his full attentions to developing real estate. Or, more accurately—perhaps compelled by his wonderfully Dickensian name—he found he could make more money by acquiring key parcels of land and, well, sitting on them.

Thor Equities has actually developed some properties, such as the Palmer House in Chicago, but its real specialty has always been holding them hostage. A couple of years ago, the website for arts organization Coney Island USA traced, complete with pictures, the trail of Thor's destruction around Manhattan and Newark.

Sitt's modus operandi, it revealed, was to buy cheap buildings facing the "threat" of being landmarked or some zoning problem, in "an area being marked for redevelopment." Existing tenants were forced out by means of raising rents or refusing to renew leases; new tenants were kept away by exorbitant demands for long-term leases. Then, as Coney Island USA summarized:

"Allow the building to deteriorate a bit. . . . Petition the city for removal of landmark status, rezoning and demolition permits. Send them renderings of some fantastic new building Sitt claims he wants to build with what the neighborhood supposedly needs in it. Once the rezoning and/or landmark approval and/or building permits get approved and any subsidies are handed out, suddenly put the property on the market to other developers."

Probably the most successful example of this strategy was in the Albee Square Mall in downtown Brooklyn. In 2000, Thor bought the lease on the city-owned land from Forrest City Ratner for a reported $25 million. Sitt promised to build "the Bellagio hotel of malls," including an enormous "Thor Galleries tower" and a million square feet of office and retail space.

Instead, over the next few years, Sitt let the property slowly deteriorate, while wheedling zoning changes from the city and an agreement that the leaseholder could buy the property outright for a mere $20 million. At the same time, he got all of Albee's tenants to agree to give up their leases in exchange for space in the new, forthcoming mall. Everything was in place . . . and, in 2007, Sitt flipped the lease to another developer for $125 million—a cool $100 million profit. Currently, Albee Square is mostly flattened, awaiting grand new schemes of one sort or another.

It was a razzle to warm the heart of Samuel Friede—and in 2005, before it was even completed, Sitt turned his eyes to Coney Island. First, he laid out $13 million for some lots near Keyspan Park, the Mets' minor-league stadium out at Coney (and the planned location of the Friede Globe Tower!), several of which the city had zoned for parkland. When, 14 months later, the city made it clear it would allow these lots to be developed, Sitt flipped them to another developer, Taconic Investment Partners, for $90 million.

He then moved in on the amusement district itself, 27 acres located between the boardwalk and Surf Avenue and stretching for seven blocks to the east of Nathan's Famous. He plunked down $95 million to buy up dowdy little Astroland Park, and pretty much everything else but those landmarked perennials, the Cyclone and Deno's Wonder Wheel. Now, Sitt morphed back into Thor, Protector of Cities. He started talking about how, growing up in Gravesend, he used to cut school so often to hang out on the boardwalk that he was called "Joey Coney Island."

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