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City’s Coney Island Design Revised to Break Deadlock

City’s Coney Island Design Revised to Break Deadlock

New York Times 4/17/2008

By CHARLES V. BAGLI

The Bloomberg administration has revised its redevelopment plan for the Coney Island waterfront in an effort to break a deadlock with some landowners and elected officials while still preserving the area’s historic amusement district, which includes the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone roller coaster.

The proposal, which would turn the area into a year-round attraction, still calls for a lot of stores and as many as 5,000 apartments along Surf Avenue, but it would reduce to 9 acres from 15 a city-owned open-air amusement park north of the Boardwalk between KeySpan Park and the New York Aquarium.

The city would buy the land for a permanent amusement district from local property owners including Thor Equities and the Vourderis family, which owns Deno’s Amusement Park and the Wonder Wheel.

But in a departure from the original plan unveiled in November by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, those owners would be able to develop the remaining parts of their property themselves as long as they followed the city’s master plan, which must still undergo an environmental review and a land-use review.

The city’s plan for the area north of the amusement district calls for a series of buildings that could include a glass-enclosed water park, games and amusements, a bowling alley, restaurants and entertainment-oriented businesses like House of Blues, Dave & Busters, NikeTown and movie theaters. Finally, the new zoning would allow for hotel towers on the south side of Surf Avenue.

“This is a plan that will preserve the iconic nature of Coney Island and enhance the amusement district, while generating economic opportunities and jobs for local residents,” Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber said. “We’re trying to bling it up.”

The revised plan is the result of meetings with local property owners and others since November.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” said Jesse Masyr, a real estate lawyer for Thor Equities, which has been at loggerheads with the Bloomberg administration. “We have to look at the size of sites we have left and what we could build.”

As the largest landowner in the area, Thor was in a position to block the city’s redevelopment plan, and appeared willing to wait out the Bloomberg administration. Thor’s chairman, Joseph J. Sitt, has spent more than $120 million in recent years buying about 10 acres in the heart of Coney Island’s traditional amusement district and developing his own $1.5 billion proposal for the area.

Mr. Sitt proposed a glitzy amusement park, as well as stores, game rooms and condominium hotels. But the city and some urban planners opposed generic retailing and any housing near the Boardwalk, saying that it would inevitably crush a noisy, late-night amusement district.

In recent months, the two sides have been discussing a mutually acceptable compromise. Mr. Sitt’s recent counterproposal called for a smaller, 6.5-acre amusement area and far more stores and hotels — 2.9 million square feet — spread over 24 acres. The city’s revised plan allows for 1.9 million square feet.

Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr., a critic of the original plan who has supported Thor, said the city was headed in the right direction, as did Dennis Vourderis, of the family that owns the Wonder Wheel.

“We’re optimistic,” Mr. Vourderis said. “We’re hoping that they’re going to let us develop our own properties.”

The glory days of Coney Island’s amusement parks are long gone, and the area is speckled with empty lots and dingy buildings. But the old-fashioned rides, sword swallowers, go-carts, wide-open beaches and cool breezes still attract hundreds of thousands of visitors in the summer months.

The “stars may finally be realigning,” said Brooklyn’s borough president, Marty Markowitz, a longtime advocate of revitalizing Coney Island.

“Coney Island was always a working-class playground,” he said. “We should preserve the amusements for future generations. I welcome a water park, movie theaters, a bowling alley and House of Blues. I do not want to see another generic shopping mall.”

The key issue for all sides is how to attract visitors to Coney Island in the winter, when the area is cold and windswept. Mr. Sitt had insisted on traditional retail space and housing to offset the cost of the amusements. But the redevelopment plan goes beyond the amusement district. There are plans for housing and retail businesses on the north side of Surf Avenue and west of the KeySpan ballpark.

In recent months, the Bloomberg administration has sought to redesign and refurbish the historic 271-foot-tall Coney Island Parachute Jump, which sits on 2.2 acres west of the amusement district. The centerpiece of the new plaza would be the restored Bishoff & Brienstein carousel, and could include a glass pavilion, an observation deck and restaurants.

Mr. Sitt is bringing the Reithoffer Shows traveling carnival to Coney Island from May 22 through June 1. The Astroland amusements, which Mr. Sitt bought and planned to close, will also reopen for one more season.

Both sides need a victory. Many of the city and state’s development plans have been battered by a slowing economy and the credit crisis, which has effectively ended lending for large-scale real estate projects.

So if Mr. Sitt fails to compromise on Coney Island, he risks alienating City Hall and jeopardizing two other projects he would like to build on the Brooklyn waterfront. He has proposed a $100 million shopping center at a former bus depot along Shore Parkway in Bensonhurst, where he lives. In Red Hook, Mr. Sitt bought the long dormant Revere sugar works, and would like to build a marina and luxury apartments there, next to the soon-to-open Ikea furniture store.