Beyond Sideshows, the City and a Developer Face Off Over Coney Island’s Future
It was John Strong III who threw down the gauntlet in the latest Coney Island showdown.
“Dick Zigun and his Coney Island Circus Sideshow had better hold onto their hats, because we’re bringing the weirdest, most bizarre, outlandish and strangest collection of freaks and oddballs that the People’s Playground has ever seen,” said Mr. Strong, a newcomer to Brooklyn but a well-known figure on the carny circuit as the head of one of the largest carnival side shows in the country.
Bring it on, replied Mr. Zigun, the reigning impresario at what remains of Coney Island’s historic amusements.
“He says he has the world’s largest freak show,” Mr. Zigun said. “It’s bluster. It’s likely you’ll see a lot of strange animals and only one live person. We’re a classic 10-in-one circus sideshow with a cast of sword swallowers, fire eaters and other freaks. No animals.”
Then the city jumped into the fray, announcing plans to bring to Coney Island a summer encampment of elephants and clowns from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.
Beneath the good-natured battle of the carnivals is a harder-edged struggle between the city and Mr. Strong’s patron, the developer Joe Sitt, over the future of Coney Island.
The city’s plan for the revival of Coney Island’s historic amusement and entertainment area is now wending its way through the public approval process.
But the Bloomberg administration fears that Mr. Sitt, who has in the past put forward his own billion-dollar proposal, will subvert its effort with the help of his childhood friend, City Councilman Dominic M. Recchia Jr., when the matter reaches the Council later this year.
In the meantime, neither Mr. Sitt, chief executive of Thor Equities, nor the Bloomberg administration wants to be blamed for turning Coney Island into desolation row this summer.
As is traditional, the season began last week on Palm Sunday, with the opening of the historic, city-owned Cyclone roller coaster. But Coney’s amusement district is much smaller than it once was.
During the standoff between the two sides, Mr. Sitt has evicted the Astroland amusement park, the batting cages, miniature golf course and the Lola Staar boardwalk boutique, leaving only three acres of active amusements on adjacent land.
So Mr. Sitt announced in a press release last week that he would bring in Mr. Strong’s sideshow, John Strong’s Shows, and 25 rides, including the Himalaya and the Flying Bobsled.
Although a similar “Summer of Hope” amusement park petered out after a couple of weeks last year, he said it would run from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The city, in turn, is talking to Ringling Brothers about bringing the circus to a vacant lot just west of the Cyclones ballpark. Mr. Sitt’s own effort to cut a deal with Ringling Brothers foundered last month when the developer insisted on selling concessions in competition with the circus, according to two executives who were briefed on the discussions and insisted on anonymity because they did not want to get drawn into the squabble.
“Without decisive action now, Coney Island’s amusement district will continue its decline,” Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber said at a Council hearing April 1.
The city has proposed establishing a 27-acre entertainment district between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk, with 9.4 acres devoted exclusively to arcades, freak shows, roller coasters, Ferris wheels and other rides.
New zoning would allow for hotels, as well as 4,500 apartments north of Surf Avenue and west of the Cyclones’ ballpark. The city originally proposed swapping land west of the ballpark for Mr. Sitt’s land within the amusement district.
Mr. Sitt, who contends that the city’s plan is not economically feasible, favors a smaller amusement park and many more large stores and taller, time-share hotels to offset the costs of the special entertainment district.
The Bloomberg administration counters that Mr. Sitt really wants to build housing and a mall in the special district, which would ultimately overwhelm the amusements.
The city acknowledges that it may take a decade for its vision to be realized.
But some urban planners and executives wonder exactly who will build this entertainment district and whether the city’s plan will suffer the same fate as a half-dozen other redevelopment strategies that came before it.
The city remains optimistic and is trying to buy out Mr. Sitt, who has spent $93 million acquiring 10.5 acres in the heart of the historic district.
City officials, Mr. Zigun and others say the central issue is price. One day before the April 1 hearing, the city offered Mr. Sitt $105 million, down from the $110 million it suggested in November. Not enough, replied Mr. Sitt’s lawyer, Jesse Masyr, suggesting that the proper number was more than $130 million, despite the collapse of real estate prices.
“Our offer — above what he paid to acquire the land — is fair,” said Mr. Lieber. “The deal will allow us to restore and protect the Coney Island the world knows and loves. Maximizing profit by destroying rides and building high-rise residential and big-box retail in the amusement district is totally counter to what Coney Island needs.”
It is difficult to gauge how far real estate values have fallen, given that few deals are taking place today. Some brokers say that land prices in Downtown Brooklyn have fallen by half in the last year.
Mr. Masyr and Mr. Recchia, the councilman whose district includes Coney Island, say that Mr. Sitt wants to do some good in the neighborhood. Mr. Recchia has gone to great lengths to support his friend, including involving himself in the negotiations over a land price. At a time when the city is slashing its budget, Mr. Recchia has urged the city to pay more.
In a moment captured on audio by The Village Voice, Mr. Recchia also pushed the local community board into adopting a list of 20 “stipulations” when it voted last month on the city’s revitalization plan.
Five of the stipulations had been drawn up by Mr. Sitt’s team and were vehemently opposed by the city. The city fears that Mr. Recchia could get the votes in the Council to impose the stipulations.
“I view Joe as someone who took a chance when no one else wanted to get involved in Coney Island,” Mr. Recchia said. “He is willing to work with the administration to see that something happens.”
Mr. Sitt certainly has made more money in Brooklyn trading properties than in actually building things.
He bought the Albee Square Mall near Downtown Brooklyn for $25 million in 2001, promising a complete makeover. He sold it in 2007 for $125 million, without the facelift.
After the Bloomberg administrated announced its plans to revitalize Coney Island in 2005, Mr. Sitt bought a parcel west of the ballpark for $13 million, selling it 14 months later for $90 million to another developer, Taconic Investment Partners. He then focused on acquiring property within the proposed entertainment district.
At the same time, Mr. Sitt has evicted longtime operators, like Dianna Carline, who has since moved her Lola Staar Souvenir Boutique and opened the Lola Staar Dreamland Roller Rink in the former Childs restaurant building west of the Cyclones’ stadium.
Like Mr. Zigun, who runs Coney Island USA, a museum, and the annual Mermaid Parade, she would like Mr. Sitt to sell his land to the city.
“Sitt is an obstructionist,” Mr. Zigun said. “He needs to sell.”
By CHARLES V. BAGLI