No one knows the answers, which gives rise to even bigger questions: Is Sitt’s Coney scheme the product of the same business acumen that created Ashley Stewart and his real-estate empire? Or is it merely a hugely expensive sentimental journey for Sitt, a nostalgia-fueled boondoggle-in-the-making?
To realize his vision, Sitt needs the support of another New Yorker who hopes Coney’s best days are ahead: Michael Bloomberg. City officials say they’re not prepared to publicly comment on Sitt’s plan until they review it in detail, but they’re generally supportive. “Although we haven’t gotten into specifics of his plan, I’m confident we’ll be able to get together on a project that helps achieve our vision for Coney Island,” says Josh Sirefman, City Hall’s point man on Coney redevelopment. While city officials have worked successfully with Sitt before—such as on an office tower he’s building in downtown Brooklyn—and are encouraged by his ideas for a water park, carousel, and music venues, there are still potential sticking points. For instance, they don’t want to see Coney Island become “a huge mall gussied up with a bit of entertainment,” one Bloomberg aide says. “We want a large entertainment component, because that will preserve Coney’s heritage and protect its authenticity and uniqueness.”
Another potential cause of friction, they say, could arise over the project’s scale. To be economically viable, Sitt says, the complex has to be at least 2 million square feet, a size that could overwhelm the low-rise neighborhood. “We have a lot of work to do—we have to figure out the appropriate scale for Coney,” the aide says.
Mindful of the powerful symbolism of reviving Coney, the Bloomberg administration has invested tons of capital, political and otherwise, in the area. Last spring, officials unveiled a new $240 million subway terminal at Surf and Stillwell Avenues, Coney’s main intersection. And last Wednesday, Bloomberg journeyed out to Coney’s boardwalk to announce that the government was committing a total of $83 million for neighborhood improvements such as new parking and a community center. He also said the city had completed a master plan for the area, a general set of guidelines meant to encourage private developers—like Sitt—to try to turn Coney into a revitalized, year-round destination.
But the dream of a reborn Coney has proved elusive since the sixties, when Mayor John Lindsay built the low-income housing that hastened the neighborhood’s decline. Since then, a string of failed revival schemes have come and gone. Ed Koch’s plan for casinos tanked when the State Legislature failed to legalize gambling. A subsequent plot by Horace Bullard, the flamboyant founder of the Kansas Fried Chicken chain, to rebuild Coney Island’s historic Steeplechase Park died amid a bitter squabble with the city.
Coney’s historical resonance as the birthplace of the beach-based amusement resort—not to mention the hot dog—has made its decline all the more dispiriting. Unlike other historically significant neighborhoods—places like Times Square and 125th Street, whose heydays, declines, and subsequent rebirths have embodied the larger story of New York—Coney hasn’t rebounded. The 2001 opening of KeySpan Park has given only a modest boost to local merchants because fans largely disappear after games. Come autumn, everyone disappears. Six months of the year, Coney Island is desolate—or, as Gregory Bitetzakis, who owns two restaurants there, puts it, “cold. Very cold. Not a soul around.”
Who in their right mind would travel to Coney Island in February? Sitt’s biggest problem, so far, is that his plan conspicuously lacks a single economic engine, the way Atlantic City has casinos. He’s got his blimps, his carousel, the fireworks he wants to launch from a new pier jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. He also hopes to entice Cirque du Soleil, the House of Blues, and other name-brand draws. Another idea is turning Coney’s major winter liability—proximity to the wind-whipped beach—into a visual asset. “Imagine kids going down a 100-foot-tall waterslide in an indoor water park on a frigid day in January, staring at the ocean outside,” Sitt says. But he says he needs 13 million people a year to spend money in his complex. That’s going to have to be some waterslide.
Another big challenge for Sitt is attracting the right retailers. Sitt says he’s currently in talks with movie-theater companies Loews and UA/Regal, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum chain, and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream. Done right, the complex could entice New Yorkers who now drive to Atlantic City or Great Adventure. But well-heeled retailers may yet conclude that the neighborhood’s traffic is too shallow-pocketed to support them, and Sitt could find himself stuck with down-market chains (Foot Locker, Tad’s Steaks). Think Rye Playland in the middle of a freezing, forbidding urban landscape.