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The Coney contrast: the city sticks to its guns, challenges developer

On Sunday, I caught the annual “State of Coney Island” address, delivered by Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor—“I’m not a real mayor; the truth is, I’m an arts guy”—of the amusement zone, the founder of Coney Island USA, the organization that sponsors the Mermaid Parade and the Sideshow and the Coney Island Museum, maintaining and advancing the district's raffish spirit. (More, including photos and video, from The Gowanus Lounge.)

Zigun’s speech at the museum, preceded by a rendition of Amos Wengler’s song “Save Coney Island,” came as the future of the amusement district is very much up in the air, as developer Joe Sitt of Thor Equities has purchased about three-quarters of the central area, and has proposed putting lucrative residential units (originally condos, now apparently time-shares) near the beach as part of a ten-acre amusement and entertainment project.

The city has said no; next season could leave much of the amusement district razed and boarded up; meanwhile, a land swap, in which Sitt instead got city land west of KeySpan Park, is under discussion.

For Atlantic Yards watchers, it was stunning to notice:
--city government hailed
--a city plan adhered to (so far) rather than bent for a developer
--a developer denounced as duplicitous by a person of authority.

Bloomy's competence

While Mayor Mike Bloomberg believes in capitalism and development, Zigun said, “his administration, compared to others I’ve seen, is shockingly competent.” (Atlantic Yards watchers might disagree, given that PlaNYC 2030 proposes a much more consultative process to develop over railyards.)

Zigun recounted how Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia put Robert Moses in charge of Coney, leading to public housing in the amusement district. Mayor Ed Koch was wary about Coney. Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s was eager to build a minor league baseball stadium as legacy, hassled the Mermaid Parade, and ripped down the Thunderbolt roller coaster, not even for a parking lot.

For the first time in 60 years, he said, Coney has three politicians with a positive attitude, citing not just Bloomberg, but also Borough President Marty Markowitz, who marches in the Mermaid Parade and got city to put lights on the Parachute Jump. City Council Member Dominick Recchia helped get the terra cotta-clad Child's Restaurant west of KeySpan landmarked, helped get the subway terminal rebuilt, and got the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) funded. (Zigun’s now on the CIDC board.)

Real estate scams

“The history of Coney Island has been the history of real estate scams,” Zigun observed, pointing to the current exhibit at the Coney Island History Project in a Surf Avenue space under the Cyclone. The CIDC had agreed that property west of KeySpan and north of Surf Avenue could have ground floor amusement or entertainment uses, and condos above—but not in the central amusement zone. “Goddamn it, these competent people have never budged off that initial compromise,” Zigun said.

“The city’s good intention was to fill in the problem areas,” he said, pointing to a coming plaza under the Parachute Jump that will house the relocated and repaired B&B Carousell and a restaurant. “It wasn’t the city’s fault Joe Sitt began buying up what already was good.”

Zigun hinted that nostalgia was inappropriate, as Coney has always changed and could always improve. The Albert family, “our industry leaders,” sold Astroland to Sitt, but “if you go back to the start of Astroland, it was a real estate deal,” given that Dewey Albert bought the famed Feltman’s restaurant. “You’d be protesting [then],” he told about three dozen people in the audience.

Dealings with Thor

Coney Island USA would like to preserve and make use of the Grasshorn Building, a historic space on Surf Avenue, and has on-and-off negotiations with Thor. Three weeks ago, said Zigun, breaking some news, Thor called up and reopened the deal, but set conditions that made it impossible to buy the building.

While as a CIDC member, Zigun said, he must judge proposals by their merit, “personally, I will tell you Thor has been dishonest, has lied to us." He ramped up his criticism, "Here in Brooklyn, excuse me for going a little Jewish… Joe Sitt, let my building go.”

Sitt, he observed, has a history of being “a flipper,” turning over properties for quick profit and, indeed, has already done so in Coney. “His specialty is to jump into marginal urban areas and assemble a package,” Zigun said. He has met Sitt a number of times, calling the developer “incredibly accessible,” but warning, “My personal experience is, I don’t believe a word he says.”

“This is a game for very big stakes,” Zigun said. “This is New York City, where the big boys play.”

The Ratner contrast

Indeed. In contrast to Sitt, Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner got his support lined up from the start. Markowitz wanted Brooklyn to be major league more than anything else. Bloomberg likes big projects. Ten thousand office jobs sounded good too.

Except, unlike with Coney Island, the city established no guiding principles. The city agreed to let the state override zoning, and did not set any upper limit on the size of the project, which grew, went through two strategic cuts,then settled at about the same square footage as announced. At 6430 apartments over 22 acres, the number of apartments per acre would top 292, “extreme density” in comparison to projects like Battery Park City or Stuyvesant Town.

And the supporters remained quiet. Ratner said he wouldn’t block the clock of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, but when his design shifted, no supporters criticized him. The 10,000 office jobs evaporated, with space for 1340 jobs, maybe 375 new, but no one said a word. And the $6 billion lie—the developer’s spurious claim of new tax revenues—has earned no skepticism from supporters.

Even a bald-faced lie like the claim that the three affected community boards participated in the "crafting" of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement met with criticism from no previous supporters or major newspapers.

Unlike Sitt, Ratner has not had to win over skeptics or opponents—he’s been protected from scrutiny (though he could not evade that famous spontaneous kiss from ACORN’s Bertha Lewis).
Superior political skills? A much easier process? Both?

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