City Offers Coney Island Plan That Conflicts With a Developer’s
New York Times 11/9/2007
By Charles V. Bagli
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled his administration’s long-awaited proposal for revitalizing Coney Island yesterday with a zoning plan that he said would create the nation’s largest urban amusement park, promote the development of stores and 4,500 apartments along Surf Avenue and preserve historic attractions like the Parachute Jump.
The proposed rezoning, which covers 19 blocks and 47 acres from the New York Aquarium west along the oceanfront to Highland View Park, would transform an area pockmarked with empty lots and seedy buildings that still manages to attract millions of visitors every summer to the beaches, a ballpark and assorted attractions from roller coasters to sword swallowers.
“It really could be spectacular,” Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday after a speech outlining the plan to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “But it’s fallen on hard times.”
The city’s plan could create a standoff with Joseph J. Sitt, a shopping center developer who said he had spent more than $120 million buying 10 acres in the heart of Coney Island’s frayed amusement district.
Mr. Sitt, chief executive of Thor Equities, has promoted his own $1.5 billion plan for a new amusement district, which bears some similarities to the city’s vision. But it diverges from the city’s plan by including hotels, time-shares and an enormous indoor water park. City officials contend that housing in the proposed 15-acre amusement district would lead to an inevitable clash over noise, late hours and swirling lights.
Mr. Sitt, who has until recently been very vocal about his differences with the city, released a statement yesterday expressing disappointment with the mayor’s presentation. The statement said he was still optimistic that a deal could be reached among landowners, the city and the community.
Mr. Sitt, who has insisted that hotels and time-share units are required to make the project economically viable, vowed to continue working with the Bloomberg administration and other elected officials “to do what’s best for the people of Coney.”
But his conciliatory tone belies the rising tension between him and City Hall. Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff has sought since June to get Mr. Sitt to agree to a land swap, in which he would trade his property for a city-owned parcel on the north side of the nearby baseball stadium, KeySpan Park. Mr. Sitt has refused, saying the properties are not comparable in value.
Mr. Doctoroff said yesterday that the city wanted to find an experienced, world-class amusement park operator to run the district, which is “a very different business than building a shopping center.”
“He doesn’t have the experience to do it,” Mr. Doctoroff said, adding that the city expected Mr. Sitt to play a role in building housing or retail just outside the amusement park.
But some officials and community groups fear that Mr. Sitt could initiate a lawsuit, or let his land sit idle until Mayor Bloomberg leaves office and, presumably, a more amenable replacement succeeds him.
City Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. said he had been working with city officials and the City Council to resolve the dispute; he has been supportive of Mr. Sitt.
The city’s proposed zoning plan, which was devised in consultation with the Coney Island Development Corporation and community leaders, would ultimately establish a nearly 50-acre park, from the site of the Steeplechase ride to Asser Levy Park.
The plan divides the 19 blocks into three distinct areas. The first, on the north side of Surf Avenue, from Stillwell Avenue to West 20th Street, would be zoned for up to 1,800 apartments and retail space. A second residential district would be created between West 19th and West 24th Streets, from the south side of Surf Avenue to the Boardwalk. Building heights would step down to the water.
“Coney East,” the third district, would range from the east side of the ballpark to the Cyclone roller coaster and include a 15-acre amusement district. New streets would help improve the flow of traffic and pedestrians from Surf Avenue and the subway to the Boardwalk. The zoning there would allow for a hotel, a water park, enclosed amusements, catering halls, movie theaters, restaurants and bowling alleys along Surf Avenue, in an effort to make the area a year-round destination.
Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director, said the amusement park would be “open, accessible and affordable,” in keeping with Coney Island’s populist history as the country’s first resort.
Charles Reichenthal, the longtime district manager of Community Board 13 in Coney Island, said the city’s plan was “on the right track,” with a few things that have to be straightened out, including the fate of landowners like the Vourderis family, which runs Deno’s Amusement Park and the Wonder Wheel, and Mr. Sitt of Thor Equities.
“If Thor Equities has done everything, it’s put Coney Island back on the map,” he said. “We now get calls from people interested in doing all kinds of things out here. This plan’s certainly on the right track, with some snags that have to be figured out.”