blimp-pad? At this point the protestors seen above would settle for go-karts. Of course the go-kart tracks (operated for decades by Norman Kaufman) have been gone for two summers now. In their absence, today there is a flea market brought in by Joe Sitt of Thor Equities. Despite many promises, he has so far only given us fewer rides and a city of tents. More on Sitthead later.
After nearly 100 years, The Kaufman family's ties to the People's Playground, are now over.
We mentioned Norman Kaufman in last month's rant. More than anyone except for the rival Albert family (operators of the world famous Cyclone and owners of what until recently was Astroland) no one has done more to keep Coney alive since Fred Trump's demolition of Steeplechase back in 1966.
Some 40 years later, the work of the Kaufmans and Alberts (as well as the Vourderis family, operators of the Wonder Wheel and its kiddie park) seemed to have been finally paying off. For the first time in that long era of doom and gloom, Coney finally seemed to have gained a pulse. Invigorated by the new ballpark and train terminal, as well as the refurbished boardwalk and beach, Coney seemed to be headed in the right direction. And then came Joe Sitt. Thanks to his land grab (beginning in 2005) and calls for luxury high rise condos on Coney, the area has been on one of the most turbulent rides that even the most experienced roller coaster aficionado has ever experienced.
We start the recent coverage of peaks and valleys however with an article written by a free lance journalist back in the spring of 2003. May, 26th, 2003 to be exact, well before Sitt's predatorial sights were set on Coney Island.
On that date, way back when today's most recent crop of college grads were still preparing for finals, in the 10th grade, City Councilor Domenic Recchia (with the help of Mayor Michael Bloomberg) first announced plans for a Coney Island "Renaissance" through the creation of the Coney Island Development Corporation. The CIDC, a collection of city officials, local business owners and local community leaders was established to, after 40 years of false starts, to finally invigorate America's First Playground.
Jesse Serwer, a freelance journalist was one of the few (non-jaded) reporters covering that news conference which featured the type of plans that the Kaufman, Albert, and Vourderis' families had dreamed about for decades.
What did all the excitement consist of? At the time, only three things: 1) An arena (one which could house a professional basketball team) 2) A water park 3) One hotel (outside of the amusement district)
Over the next 6+ years the city's plans for the "Renaissance" greatly expanded although, in one case, actually imploded.
The arena was to be an updated version of the old Sportsplex project. After years of financing, the original Sportsplex was supposed to be built by Bruce Ratner in the late 90's but was shelved by Rudy Guiliani in place of KeySpan Park. Talks of again building Sportsplex (this time west of the ball park, near the Child's building) took a few more hits beginning on January 20th, 2004.
That's when the same Bruce Ratner purchased the NJ Nets with the intent of moving them to Brooklyn. Moving them to Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (on top of a growing community) that is.
But while the basketball arena was first changed back to a smaller venue (rumors were that it could serve as a Brooklyn Nets practice facility) and then, during the NY2012 Olympic bid, as a venue for team handball and other obscure Olympic sports, and then (after the New York 2012 Olympic bid failed) as an "extreme sports" skating and rock climbing complex, and finally, changed yet again to nothing, other additions to the original plans sprouted.
This included a ferry terminal, a domed amusement park, even a super coaster stretching the entire length of the amusement district.
Enter, Joe "The Flipper" Sitt. Given his nickname by the NY Post's Rich Clader in 2005. In the early months of that year Sitt began gobbling up amusement area land from long time absentee, do nothing owners like Horace Bullard and Herman B. "Hy" Singer.
As beloved as Kaufman was by many of Coney's old timers, Bullard (founder and owner of the Kansas Fried Chicken chain) and especially Singer (at the time still Brooklyn's Republican Party Chairmen) were despised. Coney's two largest property owners, Bullard and Singer, were rivals who both bought in during previous redevelopment schemes which never materialized, and both later let their land deteriorate for decades.
In fairness, neither Bullard (who did make his own attempts at building an amusement park) nor Singer received much help from the city during those many lost decades. Still, for a brief time, Sitt was seen as a breath of fresh air. Someone who would actually do something.
Sitt, a childhood friend of Domenic Recchia, announced his own Coney Island plans after buying out Singer and Bullard, respectively. One centered on a luxury, Las Vegas Mirage look-a-like hotel. Like the Mayor, he too made promises. This included an indoor world class water park as well as a blimp landing pad in his Freemont Street Experience-styled "The Future of Cony Island" renderings. For the most part, Sitt's plans were mocked and in time most realized them to be a front for his true goal, bringing condos to Coney's amusement area.
Either way, none of it could ever get built without help, in terms of rezoning, from the city. Likewise, the city couldn't follow through on their own amusement park plans (also a front to hide their addiction luxury condos and the quick tax dollars they produce) without Sitt's newly purchased land.
In the summer of 2007 Bloomberg finally announced more details to his plans which were only slightly more realistic than Sitt's. The Bloomberg plan included a land swap with Sitt out and did not include any Mirage-like hotel. That said, it did call for the construction of two hotels within the amusement park area. Hotels conveniently hidden in the drawing below by a super coaster which would stretch from the Cyclone to the Parachute Jump.
Before long the two sides were at odds. Below a look at Bloomberg's plan, preserving 15 acres for amusements, and the Sitt plan, which for all the many bells and whistles only looked to preserve 6.5 acres of amusement:
Eventually, in the spring of 2008, Bloomberg announced a compromise. A new plan which looked like Sitt's but would first require buying Sitt out. A plan which would preserve only 9-12 acres of amusements while opening the rest of Coney's vast vacant lots to condo-loving developers. Devolpers like Sitt's company Thor Equities as well as Taconic Investment Partners.
Earlier Sitt purchased land from Horace Bullard for 13 million dollars. Land located to the west of the new ballpark (Bullard still owns the land east of the ballpark where his Thunderbolt roller coaster was razed by Rudolph Giuliani in 2000) that Bullard had purchased for 6 million dollars and allowed to remain vacant. Sitt then made good of his "Flipper" nick-name by selling it to Taconic Investment Partners for over 90 million dollars. Taconic's rationale for greatly overspending came with the hopes that Sitt would get Bloomberg to rezone the area so that they could build condos.
While inflated real estate changed hands quickly, local businesses including the Kaufmans, Carol Albert, Dick Zigun, and especially t-shirt maker turned roller rink operator, Lola Staar, began speaking out against the environment Sitt created on Coney Island.
Despite a compromise (seen above) which seemed to favor Sitt, the developer refused to sell his lots to the city, the same way he refused any previous deals for a land swap. For over a year Sitt and Bloomberg bickered back and forth in the press. This as Sitt began clearing his newly acquired property (including razing Astroland) and Bloomberg was left powerless to stop him. Still, Bloomberg insisted that Coney's amusement area would not be rezoned and Sitt would not be able to build until the city had control of the land. In the meantime, with Astroland gone, Coney entered the 2009 summer season with its fewest amount of rides since the early 1870's.
As the prospects of a nearly ride-less Coney loomed, both sides scrambled for public support. Bloomberg brought in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey's Circus while Sitt created a giant outdoor flea market in bringing acres of tents to an area where previous crowds were once thrilled by acres of rides and pavilions. Ironically both the circus tents and the flea market tents are located on parcels that Bloomberg and Sitt both look to put condos on.
Still both fronts stalled as neither side could move ahead with their respective goals.
Thanks to Recchia and other political friends of Sitt (including NY State Senator, Carl Kruger and US House Rep, Anthony Wiener) Bloomberg's biggest weapon, the threat of eminent domain, was never on the table. On the other hand, thanks to the City Council's approval of Bloomberg's proposal to curb City Hall of term limits, the Mayor gained the time needed to wait Sitt out. Time, especially with plummeting real estate values, appeared to be on Bloomberg's side.
But while the two sides fought over what appeared to be duplicate plans, Coney Island locals united behind a third option. One sponsored by the Mutual Arts Society and endorsed by the NY Times which looked to preserve 25 acres of land for amusements. Below, diagrams showing the difference between the MAS plan and the one Bloomberg was trying to get Sitt to sign on to:
Finally, in July of 2009 Sitt, through Recchia, began hinting that he'd agree to the Bloomberg compromise. But he did so only before first being allowed to keep 4 out of his current 10 acres worth of land.
Assured that Sitt would sell 6 of his 10 acres, and that it would fall under city control, Bloomberg asked the council to vote on the purchase of Sitt's 6 acres and the rezoning of Coney Island. Rezoning to open most of it up to hotels, condos, and retail.
On July 29th, 2009, the City Council capitulated. Out of the Council's 50 members (1 of the 51 districts is currently open) only two members (Tony Avella of Whitestone, Queens, and Charles Baron of East New York, Brooklyn) voted against rezoning and making the Bloomberg compromise a reality. One (Rosie Mendez of the Lower East Side, Manhattan) abstained, 3 were absent, and a whopping 44 went along.
While, in this cash strapped economy, the compromise means spending over 100,000 MILLION dollars in tax payer's money to buy out 6 of Sitt's 10 acres (remember, Sitt only began buying these lots after Recchia's original announcement) let's take a look at what the approved compromise does NOT include:
1) No arena. 2) No water park. 3) No "one hotel" outside of the amusement district. 4) No ferry terminal. 5) No domed amusement park. 6) No super coaster. 7) No blimp landing pad.
Instead, after over 6 years, this is what the city has finally hammered out:
1) A revamped but smaller amusement district. 2) FOUR highrise hotels, each inside the current amusement district itself. 3) Entertainment retail inside the current the amusement district itself. 4) Up to 25 highrise condos around the current amusement district. 5) Four acres of land inside the amusement district for Joe Sitt to build whatever he wants.
(Our guess is this will be high rise condos and not a water park.)
Being that all of this started with the idea of a basketball arena, a water park, and one hotel, all sides should be applauded. After six years of back and forth, Bloomberg, Sitt, and their middleman, Domenic Recchia, have pulled perhaps the greatest Bait-N-Switch swindle Coney has ever seen. Maybe Brooklyn. Maybe all of New York. Renaissance (wink-wink) indeed.*