Experts say that for the project to work, its stores need to command about $400 or $500 per square foot in sales. (By way of comparison, Times Square retailers net up to $1,000 per square foot, experts say.) Those are ambitious numbers, but they’re in the realm of what other big retailers, including Banana Republic, the Gap, and Express, make in places like the Kings Plaza mall or Brooklyn Heights, according to Gene Spiegelman, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield real estate and the company’s expert on Brooklyn retail.
“That’s a sign that the Brooklyn market remains very underserved by retail—which suggests that this project can move those numbers,” says Spiegelman. “Across the country, there’s typically an average of twenty square feet of retail to each person. In Brooklyn, the ratio is six to one, and that’s in a community—Brooklyn—with 2.5 million people.”
Then there’s the problem of getting a big hotel operator. Sitt’s own analysts say it would have to charge from $250 to $300 per night and have at least 70 percent occupancy year-round. “To achieve that, we’ll need to figure out how to position the hotel—whether as a meeting place for conventions or more as a resort-type tourist attraction,” says David Malmuth, managing director of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., which Sitt has hired to crunch the plan’s numbers.
In Sitt’s conviction that retailers and hotel operators will come, it’s easy to hear echoes of his softheaded side. “Quality purveyors will fit right in here,” he insists. “It’s got the beach, the boardwalk, the brand—Coney Island! It’s got sooo much potential!”
Sitt, of course, is hardly the only person enamored of Coney Island’s “brand,” and his billion-dollar vision is stirring some worry among locals who harbor their own deep nostalgia for the place. Take Dick Zigun, the unofficial “mayor” of Coney and founder of Coney Island USA, which runs the Mermaid Parade and the Coney Island Museum. He hopes Sitt’s cosmopolis will help the community, but as the self-appointed guardian of Coney Island kitsch, Zigun feels protective of the neighborhood’s heritage. His museum is housed on a property not owned by Sitt, and he worries about eviction. What better way for Sitt to prove good intentions toward Coney, Zigun asks, than to rent the museum a home in the new complex?
“We’d like him to rise to the occasion and earn us as his partner,” Zigun says. “He hasn’t said no, but he hasn’t said yes, either.”
Zigun also wonders about the fate of locals operating food shacks and souvenir stands on Sitt’s property. “There are businesses here I love very much, like Ruby’s Bar [on the boardwalk],” he says. “Let’s be realistic—some of them won’t be able to afford the new rents, thanks to what’s unofficially called ‘progress.’ ”
Sitt is working to win over the locals. Mindful that an isolated monolith could be unpalatable to the community, his chief designer, Stan Eckstut, is working on a plan to weave the complex seamlessly into the neighborhood beyond. “This can’t be self-contained, like something in downtown Stamford,” says Eckstut, who also designed the MGM Mirage City Center in Vegas. “It has to be accessible to everyone—kind of the town center of Coney Island.”
Or, as Sitt puts it: “Our vision is lights, camera, action, entertainment. But it can’t be too cleaned up. It has to have that special Coney flavor.”
Though such hopes have proved vain for nearly half a century, the moment may be ripe for Coney’s big comeback.
He’s promised local merchants whom the project will displace that they will get first crack at renting space in the new project. And as Sitt well knows, his local-boy-made-good bio is a big help in selling his scheme. He often makes the rounds among Coney locals, always calling himself “Joey.”
These efforts have slowly made Coney denizens warm up to Sitt—perhaps partly because they’re all desperate for a cash infusion into the area. “Joe is a Brooklyn guy that wants to do right by Coney Island,” says Dennis Vourderis, who’s owned Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park with his brother for almost 25 years. “The general consensus here is, we would love him to succeed. If he succeeds, so does Coney Island.”
Though such hopes have proved vain for nearly half a century, the moment may be ripe for Coney’s big comeback as the next step in Brooklyn’s astonishing resurgence over the past two decades. The irony is that until now, big builders have played little role in Brooklyn’s bounce-back, achieved largely by gradual gentrification, through entrepreneurship and the rehabbing of neighborhoods one warehouse at a time. The result has been an enormous boost of disposable income that’s made Brooklyn safe for big-time investment. In other words, after all the hard work by small businesspeople and fixer-upper homeowners, the cashing-in stage has arrived for the big developers: Witness plans for high-rises on the Williamsburg waterfront; Bruce Ratner’s planned arena on the Atlantic rail yards; and now, Sitt’s plan for Coney Island.