With just 75 days left in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, we’ve been taking stock of the new Coney Island, which began to take shape after the July 2009 rezoning and during the Mayor’s third term. Most of the City-owned land in the amusement area has been re-activated with amusements, starting with Luna Park (2010) and Scream Zone (2011) built by Central Amusement International on the vacant lots bought from Thor Equities for $95.6 million, and continuing with the installation of the B&B Carousell and relighting of the Parachute Jump in the new Steeplechase Plaza this year.
The same can’t be said for adjacent property held onto by Thor CEO Joe Sitt. It became vacant after Thor acquired the land and evicted ride and park operators and remains vacant despite a history of various amusement operators efforts to negotiate lease deals. The latest project that never happened was Big Mark’s Action Park, which planned to bring a rock climbing wall, a vertical wind tunnel and other extreme attractions to Thor’s Stillwell lots in 2013. It’s a similar story as ATZ’s previous post “The New Coney Island: A Tale of Two Jones Walks” contrasting the activated City-owned and vacant Thor-owned sides of the Walk.
This week last year, ATZ was saying goodbye to McCullough’s Kiddie Park, which had been on Coney Island’s Bowery for more than 50 years. The McCullough family, descendants of Steeplechase Park founder George C Tilyou, were dismantling the Bumblebees and other rides and leaving Coney forever after failing to come to a lease agreement with property owner Thor Equities. Since then, the lot has remained vacant, just another one of Joe Sitt’s collection of interminably vacant lots in Coney Island.
What Michael Daly wrote in the Daily News in 2009 after the City bought Sitt’s Boardwalk property is still true today: “Sitt is the city’s most successful un-developer. He spoke grandly of building a billion-dollar Las Vegas-style resort. What he has built is a string of vacant lots, the most depressing being where Astroland amusement park stood until a year ago.” Just substitute McCullough’s for Astroland.
The sole building that Joe Sitt has built in Coney after years of real estate speculation is a temporary building at Surf and Stillwell with retail stores like It’Sugar and a Brooklyn Nets Shop but devoid of amusements. You’ve heard the phrase “dummy corporation” but did you know Thor Equities has introduced a new concept to Coney Island of dummy arcades? All season long, dummy arcade signs fronting empty space with “Retail Space Available” signs have made a mockery of the City’s 2009 rezoning requiring a percentage of amusements on the property.
The rest of Thor’s Coney properties and lots remain vacant today. Unlike 2007, when Sitt first evicted Batting Cage and Go Kart City as well as the Zipper ride, which is the subject of a riveting documentary, Coney Island’s vacant lots are no longer in the news. In 2008 and 2009, when the City was pushing the rezoning, Coney’s infamous vacant lots were mentioned by City officials as a reason for the rezoning. “THE END OF CONEY ISLAND IN 2009?,” said a “fact sheet” called “Coney Island Throughout The Ages” from the Coney Island Development Corporation. “Today, Coney Island is a ghost of its former self. Under the current zoning, amusement operators have divested, leaving illegal uses and vacant lots throughout the area.” Four years after the rezoning, the lots are still vacant with no end in sight.
Photographs of newly created vacant lots like the ones in this post are rarely seen and illustrate the dark side of Bloomberg’s New Coney Island. Most people are happily snapping pictures of the new roller coasters and the crowds on the Boardwalk, which is as it should be. In fact, we’ve held off till the tail end of the season to post these depressing photos to avoid creating any bad publicity for Coney.
On the other hand, our photos of vacant lots are free advertising for Thor Equities, whose new website “Thor Equities Presents Coney Island” revives their “Retail Ride of a Lifetime” slogan: “Thor Equities presents a new retail opportunity at a scale New York hasn’t seen in years! ThorConeyIsland.com is a retailers ticket to joining the retail ride of a lifetime taking place in Coney Island.” The site touts such stats as “18 million people visit the beach every season” and “4.7 million subway riders visit Coney Island every year” to lure retailers. The leasing plan pitches Thor’s buildings including the Grashorn, Coney Island’s oldest building, which has been vacant since 2008, but not the long-vacant lots.
While the subject of Coney Island’s vacant lots has dropped from the headlines, the question looms: What is the future of Thor Equities vacant lots and buildings in the next administration? Some of the property was rezoned to accommodate 30-story hotels and retail in the heart of the amusement area but still requires an amusement component. Putting up glittery arcade signs where there are no arcades is a slap in the face of the zoning requirement. Will the City enforce its own zoning? Will Sitt try to get a variance? Will he continue to “sit” on the land and wait for infrastructure improvements? Will he flip the property?
Will this land ever see amusements again? On Stillwell Avenue, where the Tornado Roller coaster (1927-1977), the Bobsled (1941-1974), and Stauch’s Baths and Dance Hall (1930-1998) once stood, Norman Kaufman’s Batting Range and Go Kart City amused the zillions until Joe Sitt emptied out the amusements in 2007. Last year, NY1 reported Sitt’s plans to put a movie theater with stadium seating on his Stillwell lot behind Nathan’s was being held up by the fact that the theater required an amusement element to it. Rumor had it the city wanted him to put a ride on the roof. How cool would that be? As long as Sitt can’t be bothered to install the minimum amusements required by the new zoning in his first building in Coney Island — a couple of tiny arcades– don’t hold your breath.
Related posts on ATZ…
June 18, 2013: Thor’s Coney Island: Shoe Store Invades Amusement Area
December 19, 2012: Will Coney Island’s Surf Ave Become a Mecca for Franchises?
October 7, 2012: ATZ’s Big Wish List for the New Coney Island