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Coney Island Story

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on September 15, 2009

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Coney Island Story

CLAblogConey Island’s high tide was in the first half of the 20th Century. By the 1960’s, like so much in New York, disinvestment and demographic change accompanied the decline of the amusement district. See the movie “The Warriors” for a 1970’s image of its fall.

Fast forward to 2005. The area was weak but not dead. The minor league baseball Keyspan Park was drawing good crowds but they didn’t linger after the games. A fraction of the amusements held on but the boardwalk itself was in good shape. And the big beach was still there.

Enter Joe Sitt. He is from the neighborhood and people call him Joey. He has made millions buying derelict urban property and building inner city malls. His company, Thor Equities, has millions of feet in property throughout the country. Over a number of years he bought up most of the amusement district between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk. Sitt’s 2005 concept, he said, was to build a Vegas style, Bellagio complex from Keyspan to the Wonder Wheel on about 12 acres. There would be a hotel, shops, an indoor water park (swimming in February), megaplexes, and a giant merry-go-round. Complete glitz.

Initially the City was supportive but Joey never seemed to pull the trigger and move the project along. He has the local council member on his side but the community was divided. The small time operators, the people who make this New York’s Coney Island, were afraid the indoor mall aspect would drive them out. There is a housing component of 4,500 units of housing, 35% affordable according to Sitt, at the west end of the project. While the affordable and market housing is a far cry from the low income units that went up in the 1960s, there is a great deal of neighborhood resistance to more demographic change.

By spring 2009, the City was actively hostile to Joey. They have been offering $110,000,000 to buy him out and he won’t sell. (He bought the property, according to the City, for $93,000,000.) The City is calling him a speculator, not a developer, and he is saying the City is trying to steal his land. It’s a stand off. Sitt can’t do too much in this financial climate without a zoning change permitting his mixed usages. The City can’t do much either without the land.

At the end of July the City Council approved the zoning changes needed to execute the City’s, i.e. the Mayor’s, concept for the property. It turns out that the mayor wants hotels, restaurants and amusement park rides too. On the same 12 acres. Even the housing is there in the same place.

Like so many of Mayor Bloomberg’s planning efforts, he is trying to develop land he doesn’t control. This happened with the Jets Stadium, the West Yards and Willets Point.

An eminent domain struggle with Thor would be very messy. Joey may be gaming the City but he is a real developer elsewhere.

Given the similar approaches that Sitt and the City are taking to the site, it is not clear why the City wants to buy the site. Why doesn’t the City come to an agreement about what Sitt includes in the project and approve that agreement as the zoning change? Is Joey too unstable to be a partner in such a project? Time will tell. Nevertheless this is shaping up as yet another grand New York development that sinks beneath the waves.

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