Joe Sitt is pacing the Coney Island Boardwalk.
“Imagine something like the Bellagio hotel right now—just stop and see it,” he says, sweeping his hand in a long, slow arc over his head. “The lights. The action. The vitality. The people. We wanna evoke the same feeling you get when you’re in Vegas. It’s exciting. It’s illuminated. It’s sexy.”
Behind him is an aggressively down-market stretch of fast-food stands, dingy arcades, and cheap souvenir shops that have as much in common with the Bellagio as does a three-card-monte table. But when this wiry, frenetic 41-year-old looks at the seediness, he sees an opportunity to do something big. And he can—because all those ramshackle properties belong to him.
Over the past few years, Sitt’s real-estate company, Thor Equities, has quietly spent nearly $100 million buying up a huge swath of Coney Island from multiple owners, painstakingly overtaking perhaps twelve acres of land along the boardwalk, mostly between KeySpan Park, home of the Cyclones, and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Sitt, a little-known Manhattan mogul who’s made his fortune building inner-city shopping malls across the country, now lays claim to Coney’s prime turf, its real-estate trophy. It’s no surprise, then, that Sitt’s mysterious plans have stirred plenty of rumors among Coney locals, who worry he’s plotting to develop a shopping mall or a Wal-Mart on their hallowed grounds.
But Sitt’s scheme for reviving the world’s once-premier amusement park is far more ambitious than the whispers suggest. He plans to build a glittering resort paradise right next to the Coney Island boardwalk—a retail and entertainment colossus every bit as outrageous and flamboyant as the Bahamas’ Atlantis. The plan includes megaplexes. An indoor water park. A 500-room, four-star hotel—four stars, in Coney Island!—and, at the center of it all, an enormous, psychedelic carousel laced with visual cues to a Coney Island that Timothy Leary could have dreamed up. Equally spectacular, Sitt hopes, will be a blimp that will take off from the complex’s roof, carrying tourists on joyrides over the city as it flashes the resort’s name in giant technicolor letters: THE BOARDWALK AT CONEY ISLAND. “The dirigible will leave every ten minutes,” Sitt says, jabbing his finger excitedly toward the sky. “On an ongoing basis. Another. Another. Another. Lifting off and taking people on a tour, spreading the message that this is the place to be.” The total price tag: $1 billion, which Sitt hopes to raise from private investors. Sitt has seen Coney Island’s future, and it looks like Vegas—turned up a few notches.
As we talk, Sitt’s cell phone repeatedly interrupts his reverie. He takes the calls, standing not far from a wooden sign advertising a game called SHOOT THE FREAK, a glaring reminder of the enormous gap between Coney’s present state and Sitt’s decadent vision. He’s in the middle of closing a $230 million deal to buy the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, an old, underperforming property he hopes to turn around. This is how Sitt has gotten rich—by pouncing on real-estate and retail opportunities others have overlooked, either because they were decrepit or in undesirable neighborhoods. The son of a Brooklyn textiles merchant, Sitt had his first big financial success in 1990, when, at the age of 26, he took a then-unusual gamble and founded Ashley Stewart, a chain of shops for plus-size, upward-aspiring African-American women.
Sitt was among the first to sense the vast untapped purchasing power of urban ethnic customers, then being ignored by national retail chains. As Alan Barocas, senior vice-president of real estate for the Gap, puts it, “When national retailers were concentrating on suburbs and exurbs, Joe saw a void. Instead of running, he saw opportunity.”
Not long after founding Ashley Stewart, Sitt had a second revelation: The inner-city landlords renting to his stores were asking for far less rent than he—and other retailers, he suspected—would willingly pay. So Sitt began buying up cheap properties in decaying urban areas and opening malls on them. Thor Equities eventually amassed an empire of about 14 million square feet in a dozen cities.
Though Sitt’s scheme for Coney Island is also a massive gamble on a down-on-its-luck part of the city that many have written off, this deal has another element: personal nostalgia. Sitt grew up in nearby Gravesend, and trips to Coney were an integral part of his childhood in the late sixties and early seventies, when memories of Coney’s glorious early-twentieth-century heyday were already fading. He still lives near Coney (albeit in a much bigger house) and jogs on the boardwalk. “I love Coney Island,” he says, frequently—giving in to a gushing sentimentality about the project that worries some of his Thor executives. To them, the scheme seems fraught with frightening unknowns: Will the right mix of businesses agree to take a chance on a neighborhood that remains something of a dump? Can a high-end hotel survive so far from midtown? Would a Vegas-style entertainment complex shatter the patchwork quality that gives Coney its mystique?