Coney Island is on the verge of destruction, again. Ever since the 1930s when powerful New York politician Robert Moses deemed all amusement parks a public nuisance and vowed to wipe Coney Island off the map it’s historic amusement district has constantly been at threat. Succeeding mayoral administrations have tried to replace it with public housing, museums, aquariums, ice skating rinks, playgrounds, handball courts, parking lots, open air food markets, sports venues, and gambling casinos.
Many times these plans resulted in vacant lots but no construction. The amusement parks dwindled to three city blocks while the rest of the amusement area, mostly owned by the city through past eminent domain, remained vacant. There was a brief attempt by a developer to build a Disneyland quality theme park on the Western edge of the amusement district in the early 1990s. Mayor Dinkins had approved of it and ground had already been broken when Giuliani took office, killed the project, and used the property for a minor league ball stadium and large parking lot.
Once again Coney Island’s historic amusement district is threatened by development. Two plans exist, each which seek to wipe what is left off the amusement district off the map and succeed where Robert Moses had failed. Even more deceitful both plans are being promoted as saving and even expanding the amusement district.
The first plan was submitted by real estate mogul Joseph Sitt and his company Thor Equities. Sitt claims he wants to build a first of it’s kind 27 acre amusement resort with a huge Vegas style hotel with millions of dollars worth of new modern indoor amusements and a water park. The new resort was suppose to expand the amusement district to twice it’s size. The second plan was submitted by Bloomberg and called for a new 47 acre amusement and entertainment district with a state of the art amusement park with new rides.
Lets start with the Thor Equities plan if possible. The problem here is that every six months Thor changes their plans and submits new renderings of different looking resorts with different style buildings. The city had asked for floor plans to the Thor resort but was told by Sitt that they could not produce any concrete plans until the amusement district was rezoned to allow residential towers. And there lies the problem. The current zoning laws only allow amusement businesses and buildings no taller than five stories in the amusement district. The zoning was enacted decades ago by the city council to protect the amusement district from developers. But it has had an opposite effect. Property zoned for amusements only is only a fraction as valuable as property zoned for condos. Thor Equities was attracted by the cheap property and believed they could easily convince the city to rezone. Because of this they offered property owners four times what the land was actually worth and amassed half of the property in the Eastern end of the amusement district. Thor claims they can not attract any investors unless condos are included in the project, and can not produce final plans until they do have investors. One of the things they asked for was ‘mixed zoning’ that would allow either amusements or retail or residential over every inch of the amusement district and would allow buildings as tall as 200 stories tall.
On closer inspection Thor Equities plans to contribute nothing to the project. Outside investors would finance the construction of the condos which would be built and designed by an outside firm picked by the investors. Thor says that once the condos were completed and sold the profits would then be used to build rides, but on even closer inspection Thor would not even be contributing a cent towards the new attractions. Among them would be Cirque du Soliel, a Mario Andretti race track, a Nickelodeon kids park, and the House of Blues restaurant. Each of these attractions would not be built by Thor Equities but instead Thor would lease the property the attractions were built on by their owner companies. Even the promised water park was to be constructed by the hotel chain that leased one of the buildings. Sitt even requested that the city compensate him for the money he already spent on buying property in Coney with over $100 million in subsidies.
As for expanding the amusement district, this is only a clever manipulation. If anything the area containing amusements would shrink down to half a block. Since the entire resort would be defined as an “Amusement Resort” by expanding it across three city blocks that are currently being kept vacant by their owners Thor has claimed they are expanding the amusement area. But much of the expansion would be for condos and not traditional amusements. The city also has a lack of trust with projects Thor Equities was involved with in the past six years. They bought and tore down the Reveer Sugar Factory, an iconic building along the Brooklyn side of the East River which the city was trying to landmarked. According to “The Gowanus Lounge” bog Thor got the demolition permits claiming they were only going to do a partial demolition, only removing structures on the site that had deteriorated beyond repairable, and was going to preserve most of the factory and incorporate it into their development plans. Instead they used the permit to completely demolish the entire factory. In 2003 they purchased a lease in a city owned mall located at Albee Square. Claiming they wanted to build a bigger mall on the site they got the city to agree to sell them the property for a mere $5 million and rezone it to allow an office and residential tower. Sitt claimed in numerous magazine articles that the office tower was needed to finance the mall. In an interview given to the magazine Shopping Center Today he claimed that when completed it would be the “Bellagio Hotel of Malls”. No sooner had the city agreed to the rezoning and transfer of the deed Thor Equities demolished the standing mall and put the property on the market with it’s new zoning for $175 Million. Because of this and other projects Thor abandoned shortly after zoning and other subsidies were granted city officials began accusing Sitt of being a con artist and land flipper. Their fear was that once Sitt got whatever he was asking for that he would then flip the property to a different developer who would use the new zoning to build condos and nothing else.
Even if you chose to trust Sitt his plans are still flawed. He would partner up with other investors. Since Thor Equities would only be contributing $100 million worth of property the other partners who would contribute the rest of the estimated $2 billion it would take to build the resort would have majority control of the stock in the project. If the only thing that attracted them in the first place was the condos then there is always the risk that they would vote to eliminate the rides from the resort and use all the space for what is more profitable. Amusements would be financed from the sales of condo units. If sales are slow then no profit would be made. Another problem is that once condos are sold in any of the buildings the owners of those units then get to vote on any other use of the building. They could easily veto any building of amusements anywhere on the resort’s grounds.
Bloomberg’s plans are just as destructive. Originally the amusement district to the West would be rezoned for condos while the Eastern half would be preserved for amusements only. Bloomberg claimed he would do this by giving the East parkland designation. But as it turned out he had only proposed this so that he may move city park land designation off of city owned property in the West and onto private property in the East. The city owns most of the Western property, now being used as a parking lot, and needs to revoke it’s park land designation before they can sell it to an interested developer. It has already been rezoned for residential so the park land designation is the only thing holding the sale up.
When Joe Sitt and his political friends blocked the city from doing this Bloomberg appeased him by compromising the city plan. Now instead of preserving 15 acres of amusements in the East only 9 acres will be preserved while the rest was rezoned to allow non residential hotels and chain store retail. So far Sitt has not agreed to this plan although rumors still persist that he is in talks to sell the city the 9 acres so they may move park land designation out of the West.
Just like Sitt the city is being dishonest about their plans. Claiming it will expand the amusement and entertain district to 47 acres they have redefined hotels, movie theaters, and entertainment retail as part of an entertainment district. They are also including the city aquarium and a neighboring park with a bandshell. In total only 9 acres will be preserved for amusements. Of those 9 acres two will be used for a new street, two will be used by the parks department for an outdoor ice skating rink, another acre will be used as a skate board park, one to preserve buildings already existing along the boardwalk, with the remaining three acres to house the already landmarked Cyclone and Wonder Wheel leaving about a half acre for any open air amusements.