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Shiny, new Coney Island coming soon

By Lauren Johnston

May 4, 2005

Coney Island will join the city's legions of all that glitters if draft plans for massive renovations get a final go ahead.

Officials from the Coney Island Development Corporation Tuesday night unveiled plans to rejuvenate the iconic seaside destination by revamping its amusement park, boardwalk and aquarium and adding stores, restaurants, movie theaters and arcades.

Artist's renderings of Surf Avenue transform the crumbling roadway from a drab and dumpy highway to a bustling strip draped with flashing neon signs, polished pedestrian walkways and finely manicured landscaping.

The boardwalk is slated for a luxury spa, boutiques and open-air sidewalk cafes. The aquarium is in line for a makeover along with the Children's Restaurant. Plans for a multicultural center are also in the works.

Developers hope the renovation plan, which is still a work in progress slated to be finalized this summer, will help the area evolve from a summer recreation site to a hub of year-round entertainment.

Though some have aired concerns the widespread overhaul could erase the historic flavor of Coney Island, beloved for its grit, grease and oddities, developers say they are keeping neighborhood authenticity in mind.

Renovation plans cover the areas between Neptune Avenue and the ocean and span from W. 37th Street to W. Fifth.

The Coney Island Development Corporation is a 13-member board formed in 2003. The group is comprised of city officials, local and Brooklyn-wide and business and community leaders.

Members of the group, charged with spearheading plans to revitalize the neighborhood, serve two-year terms.

Coney Island's Surf Avenue as it looks today.

Artist's rendering of renovation plans for Coney Island's Surf Avenue.

Coney Island aquarium as it looks today.

Artist's rendering of renovation plans for Coney Island aquarium.

Coney Island Seaside Getaway as it looks today.

Artist's rendering of renovations for Coney Island Seaside Getaway.

Coney Island Steeplechase Plaza as it looks today.

Artist's rendering of renovations for Coney Island Steeplechase Plaza.

The Wonder Wheel and other Coney Island amsuements.

Artist's rendering for renovations to Coney Island amusements.

The Midway as it looks today.

Artist's rendering of renovations for The Midway.

7,536 Posts
New York Daily News

Mall maker eying Coney


Wednesday, August 10th, 2005

Be on the lookout for something really big.

Developers of Mall of America - the country's largest indoor mall - are eying Coney Island, the Daily News has learned.

Triple Five Group is about to close on a piece of land in the area and plans to build a mall with residential, retail and office space, according to a company vice president.

"We're talking to landowners," the executive said.

The group also built the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, one of the world's largest malls and amusement centers.

After years of neglect, Coney Island has become a focus of interest among developers, who are snatching up land there.

The city is about to announce a major overhaul for the once-grand seaside resort and another mall developer, Thor Equities, also has been buying up land.

"There's enough of Coney Island to go around for everyone," said real estate broker Michael Harari of Massey Knakal real estate, which handles many sales in the area.

"The big misconception in Coney Island is that it's only Thor - I've sold large properties to several large groups," Harari said.

He declined to identify other developers that have been buying land.

Thor plans to unveil its plans after the city releases its Coney Island master plan - which will likely include movie theaters, bowling alleys, arcades, a grand entrance for the aquarium and apartment buildings.

The Triple Five executive said he was not ready to discuss the company's specific plans for Coney Island.

"They contacted me, and they showed an interest in Coney Island," Councilman Domenic Recchia (D-Coney Island) said.

"I don't know how they play into the overall plan, but I'm interested in finding out," he said.

"Anybody that can bring financing and development and is willing to work with the City Council, the mayor, and the Coney Island Development Corp. - we welcome them," Recchia said.

Many amusement park owners are excited about the changes but fear being pushed out.

"We all want a bigger, better Coney Island," said Dick Zigun, president of the nonprofit Coney Island USA. "We just don't want it to transform from an amusement park into a shopping mall."


August 18, 2005 -- The sale of a massive swath of beachfront property on the Coney Island boardwalk was announced yesterday — with a titanic $85 million price tag attached.

The 168,000-square-foot parcel is the most expensive in the area in recent memory and could mean hundreds of apartments in a high-rise luxury building.

"There's not too many developing areas that offer so much buildable square feet, and this is on the shore and offers those ocean views," said Michael Harari, a broker for Massey Knakal, which is selling the vacant property on West 21st Street.

"We're not going to any small developers — this is a huge project," he added. "We've already talked to some of the top developers in the city."

The city, along with local business owners and activists, is already working on a master plan to revitalize Coney Island as a regional entertainment district.

The blueprint could include a housing component, and Harari said he believes the city will rezone the boardwalk land — adjacent to the Cyclones' baseball stadium — to allow for up to 14 floors.

But city officials working on the plan said no specific rezoning proposals had yet been decided.

Harari likened the proposal for high-end towers in Coney to an earlier luxury housing complex, roughly a mile up the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, called Oceana. Apartments in the 850-unit, 15-acre complex have sold for up $2 million.

"This is a very rare product," Harari said.

Super Moderator
11,394 Posts
well I still don't plan to visit Coney Island, and I doubt that will change anything.
Although, if they're going to make Midway like Fremont street in Vegas, then count me in, I loved it
I'm sure Coney Island has lots of potential though

Long live the Twins!
1,116 Posts
im sure those guys are not gonna touch the cyclone and the wonder wheel. i wouldn't be surprised if both of them are designated as city landmarks, since both of them are pretty old (but still going strong!) and popular.

it's good to see that they're working to inject more life into coney island. but i think they purposedly exaggerated the sweeping change they're gonna make by taking the area's present conditions on cloudy and desolate days and make it look like some abandoned entertainment center.

7,536 Posts
I might go to Coney Island next week, and that's mainly b/c I haven't been there since I was pretty young.

Special Sauce
564 Posts

PR- 351-05
September 14, 2005


Mayor Commits Additional $50 Million to Carry Out Implementation, Raising Total Funding Commitment to $83.2 Million

Public Improvements Will Spur More Than $1 Billion In Private Investment, Creating 2,000 Permanent And 10,000 Construction Jobs In Area Over Next 20 Years

Video (56k)
Video (300k)

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today unveiled the strategic plan for Coney Island, which will transform the area into a year-round entertainment destination with seaside attractions and a stronger residential community. The Mayor also announced an additional $50 million to implement the plan after previously pledging $23 million. Combined with the Brooklyn Borough President's $7 million and Congressman Jerrold Nadler's $3.2 million, a total of $83.2 million is now dedicated to making improvements to the area. The Coney Island Strategic Plan calls for enhanced entertainment attractions that take advantage of the area's unique appeal, a new community center for job training and recreational uses, and the increase of affordable housing on vacant City-owned land. Borough President Marty Markowitz, Council Member Domenic M. Recchia Jr., Deputy Mayor for Economic Development & Rebuilding Daniel L. Doctoroff, Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) Chairman Joshua Sirefman and Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe joined the Mayor for the announcement on Coney Island's historic boardwalk.

"Coney Island holds a special place in New York City's history, and the redevelopment plan will celebrate its unique character while ensuring a spectacular future through infrastructure improvements, enhanced public spaces and appropriate development of vacant property," said Mayor Bloomberg. "We will capitalize on key assets such as the beautiful waterfront and KeySpan Park while attracting diverse new businesses that will transform Coney Island into a year-round visitor destination. Our collective commitment of $83.2 million will jumpstart the infrastructure improvements required to attract the kind of private development partners necessary to make these goals a reality. This has been an extraordinary planning effort over the past two years, and I want to thank everyone who has worked so hard to bring us to this important milestone."

"Coney Island has been much imitated but never duplicated," said Borough President Markowitz. "This plan will preserve Coney's famed freakishness and fun-loving spirit, while residents and businesses benefit from their neighborhood's rebirth as a 24/7 tourist and family destination. The whole world knows that Coney Island is the ultimate in American character and funk. Coney Island has been called America's playground and it will be so again."

"I am thrilled that in collaboration with Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Miller, the Coney Island Development Corporation has produced a brilliant and visionary strategic plan for the future of Coney Island," said Council Member Recchia. "Coney Island has always been New York's playground and I am confident under the guidance of this plan, Coney Island will once again be the playground of the world."

The $83.2 million public investment will be used to make necessary infrastructure and public environment improvements. These include the creation of new streets and open space, better parking and transportation solutions and site preparation work, along with targeted projects that reflect the character of Coney Island such as improvements to the aquarium, parachute pavilion and the construction of the community center. It is anticipated that these public improvements will lead to more than $1 billion in private investment over the next 10 years, creating about 2,000 permanent jobs and 10,000 construction jobs in the area over the next 20 years. As part of the next phase of the plan, the Department of City Planning will work with CIDC to refine the zoning strategy by setting design guidelines and determining the appropriate square footage for entertainment, retail and hotel space as well as the number of residential units and square footage of new parks and open space, while also ensuring the protection of the existing amusements.

Mayor Bloomberg, working closely with the City Council and Borough President Markowitz, established the Coney Island Development Corporation in September of 2003 to develop and implement a comprehensive planning process and economic strategy for Coney Island. The 13-member board held dozens of meetings with community constituents including amusement operators, local businesses and residents, and held numerous public outreach meetings to ensure that all facets of the Coney Island community were represented in the planning process.

The vision for Coney Island in the plan includes:

- The transformation of Stillwell Avenue into Stillwell Midway, a spectacular public open space connecting existing amusements with new development.

- A redesigned Steeplechase Plaza incorporating new open space around the iconic Parachute Jump between KeySpan Park and the boardwalk. It will feature the winning design of the Parachute Pavilion Design Competition by the London team of Kevin Carmody, Andrew Groarke, Chris Hardie and Lewis Kinneir.

- New entertainment uses and retail amenities east of KeySpan Park that will further support the existing amusement attractions.

- An increase of year-round activity on Surf Avenue including the possible addition of a hotel and spa.

- The establishment of a multicultural community center that will contribute to making western Coney Island a vibrant residential neighborhood and provide essential job training and community services.

- The development of affordable housing on City-owned property in the residential area.

- Improving the public environment and making improvements to both Surf and Mermaid Avenues.

- Enhanced boardwalk activity with added cultural activities, changing facilities and connections to the beach and boardwalk.

- Better integration of the New York Aquarium with the adjacent amusement area by building on the aquarium master plan.

- Improvement of the area's parking and transit infrastructure.

Design and implementation of the public components of the plan will begin immediately, with the majority of the projects expected to be completed in the next few years. For example, it is anticipated that improvements to the boardwalk will be completed by the end of 2007, while the revamped steeplechase plaza, the redesigned midway and the community center will be built by 2009.

"This comprehensive plan takes advantage of Coney Island's incredible waterfront location and historic past, while providing a substantial and sustainable basis on which we can build a very promising future," said CIDC Chairman Sirefman, who also serves as Chief of Staff to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development & Rebuilding Daniel Doctoroff. "Special thanks go to Borough President Markowitz, Councilmember Recchia, Congressman Nadler, the CIDC board and the many members of the community for their tremendous support, cooperation and input that made this plan possible. I am extremely grateful for the countless hours and the incredible dedication of all the members of the Coney Island Development Corporation."

The amusements and seaside attractions have been drawing visitors from all over the world for more than a century. According to the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, an estimated 5.3 million people visit the area via public transportation each season. In recent years, the City has invested $39 million for the construction of the highly successful KeySpan Park baseball stadium, and $18 million toward the restoration of the Riegelmann Boardwalk and construction of new comfort and lifeguard stations. Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced the City's plan to acquire the historic Bishoff & Brienstein (B&B) Carousell for $1.8 million to make sure this wonderful attraction remains in Coney Island. The 50-horse amusement attraction has been a fixture on Surf Avenue for over 70 years and will be restored and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. In addition, the Metropolitan Transit Authority completed a $240 million renovation of the Stillwell Avenue subway station, and the New York Aquarium is currently undergoing a $45 million master plan and renovation.

Copyright 2005 The City of New York

Urban Addict
423 Posts
I love going to Coney Island in the summer. It's about time they do something to that place. Except for the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, Coney Island seems to be forgotten.

7,536 Posts
Coney plan tops Vegas, mag sez


The first glimpse of a developer's plans for Coney Island is being revealed by New York magazine - and it makes the Bellagio in Las Vegas look like a monument to minimalism.

Thor Equities magnate Joe Sitt has dreamed up a garish $1 billion entertainment and retail complex that's part Taj Mahal, part Xanadu.

If he gets his way, a shimmering double-flanked, 500-room hotel with a waterfall cascading down one side will loom over the Boardwalk.

Blimps will land on the roof, a 100-foot slide will anchor an indoor water park, fireworks will explode off a new pier and an enormous carousel will leave visitors dizzy.

"We want to evoke the same feeling you get when you're in Vegas," he told New York's Greg Sargent. "It's exciting. It's illuminated. It's sexy."

It's also just a fantasy - for the moment.

Sitt has snapped up a dozen properties in Coney and is negotiating for more, but he still has to raise cash from investors and get the city to sign off on his plans.

Joshua Sirefman, chairman of the Coney Island Development Corp., called Sitt's sketch "just a conceptual image."

"There is a lot of work to be done to understand the scale and the style," he said. "We care a lot that the character of Coney Island is maintained."

The owners of most Coney Island fixtures - the freak show, Astroland, Ruby's bar, Faber's arcade - support development, as long as they're not displaced or eclipsed.

But Kenny Kaufman, 33, who owns the batting cages, go-carts and minigolf course near the Boardwalk, was aghast when he saw a drawing of the Thor complex.

"Unless you're planning on putting a casino here, there's no way that hotel is going to make any money," he said. "This is not something the people of Coney Island want."

Customer Eric Murooney, 25, of Sheepshead Bay called Sitt's vision "a monstrosity."

"It would be a shame if you took all this away," he said of the shabbily enchanting landscape around him.

Still, Donna Vernon, 52, who lives on Mermaid Ave., said she would welcome any change in the neighborhood - even a hotel that charges $300 a night.

"I'm tired of them saying that they're going to build something up in Coney Island," she said. "Just do it already."

Originally published on September 18, 2005

In Time
3,070 Posts
The Incredibly Bold, Audaciously Cheesy, Jaw-Droppingly Vegasified, Billion-Dollar Glam-Rock Makeover of Coney Island
A first look at its not-preposterous future.

An early conceptual rendering of the shopping,
entertainment, and hotel complex

By Greg Sargent
September 26, 2005

Joe Sitt is pacing the Coney Island Boardwalk.

“Imagine something like the Bellagio hotel right now—just stop and see it,” he says, sweeping his hand in a long, slow arc over his head. “The lights. The action. The vitality. The people. We wanna evoke the same feeling you get when you’re in Vegas. It’s exciting. It’s illuminated. It’s sexy.”

Behind him is an aggressively down-market stretch of fast-food stands, dingy arcades, and cheap souvenir shops that have as much in common with the Bellagio as does a three-card-monte table. But when this wiry, frenetic 41-year-old looks at the seediness, he sees an opportunity to do something big. And he can—because all those ramshackle properties belong to him.

Over the past few years, Sitt’s real-estate company, Thor Equities, has quietly spent nearly $100 million buying up a huge swath of Coney Island from multiple owners, painstakingly overtaking perhaps twelve acres of land along the boardwalk, mostly between KeySpan Park, home of the Cyclones, and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Sitt, a little-known Manhattan mogul who’s made his fortune building inner-city shopping malls across the country, now lays claim to Coney’s prime turf, its real-estate trophy. It’s no surprise, then, that Sitt’s mysterious plans have stirred plenty of rumors among Coney locals, who worry he’s plotting to develop a shopping mall or a Wal-Mart on their hallowed grounds.

But Sitt’s scheme for reviving the world’s once-premier amusement park is far more ambitious than the whispers suggest. He plans to build a glittering resort paradise right next to the Coney Island boardwalk—a retail and entertainment colossus every bit as outrageous and flamboyant as the Bahamas’ Atlantis. The plan includes megaplexes. An indoor water park. A 500-room, four-star hotel—four stars, in Coney Island!—and, at the center of it all, an enormous, psychedelic carousel laced with visual cues to a Coney Island that Timothy Leary could have dreamed up. Equally spectacular, Sitt hopes, will be a blimp that will take off from the complex’s roof, carrying tourists on joyrides over the city as it flashes the resort’s name in giant technicolor letters: THE BOARDWALK AT CONEY ISLAND. “The dirigible will leave every ten minutes,” Sitt says, jabbing his finger excitedly toward the sky. “On an ongoing basis. Another. Another. Another. Lifting off and taking people on a tour, spreading the message that this is the place to be.” The total price tag: $1 billion, which Sitt hopes to raise from private investors. Sitt has seen Coney Island’s future, and it looks like Vegas—turned up a few notches.

As we talk, Sitt’s cell phone repeatedly interrupts his reverie. He takes the calls, standing not far from a wooden sign advertising a game called SHOOT THE FREAK, a glaring reminder of the enormous gap between Coney’s present state and Sitt’s decadent vision. He’s in the middle of closing a $230 million deal to buy the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, an old, underperforming property he hopes to turn around. This is how Sitt has gotten rich—by pouncing on real-estate and retail opportunities others have overlooked, either because they were decrepit or in undesirable neighborhoods. The son of a Brooklyn textiles merchant, Sitt had his first big financial success in 1990, when, at the age of 26, he took a then-unusual gamble and founded Ashley Stewart, a chain of shops for plus-size, upward-aspiring African-American women.

Sitt was among the first to sense the vast untapped purchasing power of urban ethnic customers, then being ignored by national retail chains. As Alan Barocas, senior vice-president of real estate for the Gap, puts it, “When national retailers were concentrating on suburbs and exurbs, Joe saw a void. Instead of running, he saw opportunity.”

Not long after founding Ashley Stewart, Sitt had a second revelation: The inner-city landlords renting to his stores were asking for far less rent than he—and other retailers, he suspected—would willingly pay. So Sitt began buying up cheap properties in decaying urban areas and opening malls on them. Thor Equities eventually amassed an empire of about 14 million square feet in a dozen cities.

Though Sitt’s scheme for Coney Island is also a massive gamble on a down-on-its-luck part of the city that many have written off, this deal has another element: personal nostalgia. Sitt grew up in nearby Gravesend, and trips to Coney were an integral part of his childhood in the late sixties and early seventies, when memories of Coney’s glorious early-twentieth-century heyday were already fading. He still lives near Coney (albeit in a much bigger house) and jogs on the boardwalk. “I love Coney Island,” he says, frequently—giving in to a gushing sentimentality about the project that worries some of his Thor executives. To them, the scheme seems fraught with frightening unknowns: Will the right mix of businesses agree to take a chance on a neighborhood that remains something of a dump? Can a high-end hotel survive so far from midtown? Would a Vegas-style entertainment complex shatter the patchwork quality that gives Coney its mystique?

Behold the Freakenspiel, a
merry-go-round and water fountain
topped by a pyrotechnic elephant.

No one knows the answers, which gives rise to even bigger questions: Is Sitt’s Coney scheme the product of the same business acumen that created Ashley Stewart and his real-estate empire? Or is it merely a hugely expensive sentimental journey for Sitt, a nostalgia-fueled boondoggle-in-the-making?

To realize his vision, Sitt needs the support of another New Yorker who hopes Coney’s best days are ahead: Michael Bloomberg. City officials say they’re not prepared to publicly comment on Sitt’s plan until they review it in detail, but they’re generally supportive. “Although we haven’t gotten into specifics of his plan, I’m confident we’ll be able to get together on a project that helps achieve our vision for Coney Island,” says Josh Sirefman, City Hall’s point man on Coney redevelopment. While city officials have worked successfully with Sitt before—such as on an office tower he’s building in downtown Brooklyn—and are encouraged by his ideas for a water park, carousel, and music venues, there are still potential sticking points. For instance, they don’t want to see Coney Island become “a huge mall gussied up with a bit of entertainment,” one Bloomberg aide says. “We want a large entertainment component, because that will preserve Coney’s heritage and protect its authenticity and uniqueness.”

Another potential cause of friction, they say, could arise over the project’s scale. To be economically viable, Sitt says, the complex has to be at least 2 million square feet, a size that could overwhelm the low-rise neighborhood. “We have a lot of work to do—we have to figure out the appropriate scale for Coney,” the aide says.

Mindful of the powerful symbolism of reviving Coney, the Bloomberg administration has invested tons of capital, political and otherwise, in the area. Last spring, officials unveiled a new $240 million subway terminal at Surf and Stillwell Avenues, Coney’s main intersection. And last Wednesday, Bloomberg journeyed out to Coney’s boardwalk to announce that the government was committing a total of $83 million for neighborhood improvements such as new parking and a community center. He also said the city had completed a master plan for the area, a general set of guidelines meant to encourage private developers—like Sitt—to try to turn Coney into a revitalized, year-round destination.

But the dream of a reborn Coney has proved elusive since the sixties, when Mayor John Lindsay built the low-income housing that hastened the neighborhood’s decline. Since then, a string of failed revival schemes have come and gone. Ed Koch’s plan for casinos tanked when the State Legislature failed to legalize gambling. A subsequent plot by Horace Bullard, the flamboyant founder of the Kansas Fried Chicken chain, to rebuild Coney Island’s historic Steeplechase Park died amid a bitter squabble with the city.

Coney’s historical resonance as the birthplace of the beach-based amusement resort—not to mention the hot dog—has made its decline all the more dispiriting. Unlike other historically significant neighborhoods—places like Times Square and 125th Street, whose heydays, declines, and subsequent rebirths have embodied the larger story of New York—Coney hasn’t rebounded. The 2001 opening of KeySpan Park has given only a modest boost to local merchants because fans largely disappear after games. Come autumn, everyone disappears. Six months of the year, Coney Island is desolate—or, as Gregory Bitetzakis, who owns two restaurants there, puts it, “cold. Very cold. Not a soul around.”

Who in their right mind would travel to Coney Island in February? Sitt’s biggest problem, so far, is that his plan conspicuously lacks a single economic engine, the way Atlantic City has casinos. He’s got his blimps, his carousel, the fireworks he wants to launch from a new pier jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. He also hopes to entice Cirque du Soleil, the House of Blues, and other name-brand draws. Another idea is turning Coney’s major winter liability—proximity to the wind-whipped beach—into a visual asset. “Imagine kids going down a 100-foot-tall waterslide in an indoor water park on a frigid day in January, staring at the ocean outside,” Sitt says. But he says he needs 13 million people a year to spend money in his complex. That’s going to have to be some waterslide.

Another big challenge for Sitt is attracting the right retailers. Sitt says he’s currently in talks with movie-theater companies Loews and UA/Regal, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum chain, and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream. Done right, the complex could entice New Yorkers who now drive to Atlantic City or Great Adventure. But well-heeled retailers may yet conclude that the neighborhood’s traffic is too shallow-pocketed to support them, and Sitt could find himself stuck with down-market chains (Foot Locker, Tad’s Steaks). Think Rye Playland in the middle of a freezing, forbidding urban landscape.

An early sketch of Sitt's Coney Island resort, complete with landing pad for blimps.

Experts say that for the project to work, its stores need to command about $400 or $500 per square foot in sales. (By way of comparison, Times Square retailers net up to $1,000 per square foot, experts say.) Those are ambitious numbers, but they’re in the realm of what other big retailers, including Banana Republic, the Gap, and Express, make in places like the Kings Plaza mall or Brooklyn Heights, according to Gene Spiegelman, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield real estate and the company’s expert on Brooklyn retail.

“That’s a sign that the Brooklyn market remains very underserved by retail—which suggests that this project can move those numbers,” says Spiegelman. “Across the country, there’s typically an average of twenty square feet of retail to each person. In Brooklyn, the ratio is six to one, and that’s in a community—Brooklyn—with 2.5 million people.”

Then there’s the problem of getting a big hotel operator. Sitt’s own analysts say it would have to charge from $250 to $300 per night and have at least 70 percent occupancy year-round. “To achieve that, we’ll need to figure out how to position the hotel—whether as a meeting place for conventions or more as a resort-type tourist attraction,” says David Malmuth, managing director of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., which Sitt has hired to crunch the plan’s numbers.

In Sitt’s conviction that retailers and hotel operators will come, it’s easy to hear echoes of his softheaded side. “Quality purveyors will fit right in here,” he insists. “It’s got the beach, the boardwalk, the brand—Coney Island! It’s got sooo much potential!”

Sitt, of course, is hardly the only person enamored of Coney Island’s “brand,” and his billion-dollar vision is stirring some worry among locals who harbor their own deep nostalgia for the place. Take Dick Zigun, the unofficial “mayor” of Coney and founder of Coney Island USA, which runs the Mermaid Parade and the Coney Island Museum. He hopes Sitt’s cosmopolis will help the community, but as the self-appointed guardian of Coney Island kitsch, Zigun feels protective of the neighborhood’s heritage. His museum is housed on a property not owned by Sitt, and he worries about eviction. What better way for Sitt to prove good intentions toward Coney, Zigun asks, than to rent the museum a home in the new complex?

“We’d like him to rise to the occasion and earn us as his partner,” Zigun says. “He hasn’t said no, but he hasn’t said yes, either.”

Zigun also wonders about the fate of locals operating food shacks and souvenir stands on Sitt’s property. “There are businesses here I love very much, like Ruby’s Bar [on the boardwalk],” he says. “Let’s be realistic—some of them won’t be able to afford the new rents, thanks to what’s unofficially called ‘progress.’ ”

Sitt is working to win over the locals. Mindful that an isolated monolith could be unpalatable to the community, his chief designer, Stan Eckstut, is working on a plan to weave the complex seamlessly into the neighborhood beyond. “This can’t be self-contained, like something in downtown Stamford,” says Eckstut, who also designed the MGM Mirage City Center in Vegas. “It has to be accessible to everyone—kind of the town center of Coney Island.”

Or, as Sitt puts it: “Our vision is lights, camera, action, entertainment. But it can’t be too cleaned up. It has to have that special Coney flavor.”

He’s promised local merchants whom the project will displace that they will get first crack at renting space in the new project. And as Sitt well knows, his local-boy-made-good bio is a big help in selling his scheme. He often makes the rounds among Coney locals, always calling himself “Joey.”

These efforts have slowly made Coney denizens warm up to Sitt—perhaps partly because they’re all desperate for a cash infusion into the area. “Joe is a Brooklyn guy that wants to do right by Coney Island,” says Dennis Vourderis, who’s owned Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park with his brother for almost 25 years. “The general consensus here is, we would love him to succeed. If he succeeds, so does Coney Island.”

Though such hopes have proved vain for nearly half a century, the moment may be ripe for Coney’s big comeback as the next step in Brooklyn’s astonishing resurgence over the past two decades. The irony is that until now, big builders have played little role in Brooklyn’s bounce-back, achieved largely by gradual gentrification, through entrepreneurship and the rehabbing of neighborhoods one warehouse at a time. The result has been an enormous boost of disposable income that’s made Brooklyn safe for big-time investment. In other words, after all the hard work by small businesspeople and fixer-upper homeowners, the cashing-in stage has arrived for the big developers: Witness plans for high-rises on the Williamsburg waterfront; Bruce Ratner’s planned arena on the Atlantic rail yards; and now, Sitt’s plan for Coney Island.

It’s tempting to see Sitt as a kind of Coney Island Bugsy Siegel (sans the wiseguy ties), the notorious gangster who reimagined a grubby little town in the Nevada desert as the gambling mecca of the United States. “I feel like him,” Sitt says. “Bugsy Siegel went into a town and there were a couple of small gambling casinos. His dream was to take the inspiration from what was there before and magnify it. Give it more variety. Give it choices . . . That’s exactly the turnaround opportunity that we see here in Coney Island!”

Sitt starts jabbing at the air again. “People said I was nuts for opening upscale stores in the middle of some of the toughest African-American neighborhoods in the United States,” he practically yells. “You know what? They were wrong.”

Copyright © 2005 , New York Metro
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