Sitt Buckles Into Coney Rollercoaster

031207 article schuerman Sitt Buckles Into Coney RollercoasterJoe Sitt, a 42-year-old developer who has bought up Coney Island’s core, got stung a few weeks ago. The city’s planning director, Amanda Burden, knocked the economic engine that’s supposed to drive the whole thing—condominiums—months before the official rezoning process had even begun.

Luxury condominiums, Ms. Burden said at a Feb. 14 Crain’s New York Business breakfast, should not be “adjacent” to amusements.

Suddenly, Mr. Sitt finds himself $60 million lighter, his prime strategy to turn nostalgia into profits—two residential towers mixed in among the rides and the retail of a modern-day Coney Island—in disarray. Most recently, he was lambasted in the press because he required some vendors to sign gag orders as a condition for staying beyond their leases.

“We’re stuck in the bureaucracy of government,” Mr. Sitt told The Observer in a March 1 interview. “It’s just crazy that somebody from government would want us to mothball this entire thing for five or 10 years, to leave it to another administration to make it happen.”

Mr. Sitt, a businessman who founded the Ashley Stewart clothing chain at age 26 and climbed the ladder of bigger and bigger deals ever since, doesn’t blame Ms. Burden directly; he hardly knows her. He blames the low-level city planners he has dealt with, who he says resisted—at least at first—his $2 billion vision to reinvigorate Coney Island by bringing back its eclecticism.

“It is not the uniform office tower or residential tower that a lot of these folks at the junior-most levels of government are used to dealing with,” Mr. Sitt said. “This is Coney Island. This is zany. This is different. When somebody says to me, ‘You want to be careful what you want to do with Coney Island; make sure you don’t do anything too freaky here,’ I say, ‘Are you aware of the fact that this was the place where there were people like the Fat Lady and the Skinny Man and the Bearded Lady? What do you mean, you don’t want any restaurants in Coney Island?’”

A PRODUCT OF GRAVESEND, BROOKLYN, MR. SITT was sitting in his lower Fifth Avenue office, wearing an immaculately pressed, cuff-linked blue shirt that belied the chaos around him. Secretaries walked in and out with papers for him to sign. When his publicist interjected an elucidating comment or two, Mr. Sitt would jump up from his ergonomic chair, pick up his desk phone and buy another piece of property somewhere. Then he would plunge back into the conversation.

“It was a little bit of an education process,” Mr. Sitt began, his voice steadily rising in a combination of genuine and manufactured indignation. “‘No, we don’t want any restaurants on Coney Island,’ they said. ‘We want to maintain the spirit of the history of Coney Island.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about, the history of Coney Island? Coney Island had 232 restaurants at once!’”

(On the other hand, the only people who lived there were in that little shack underneath the Thunderbolt, memorialized in the movie Annie Hall.)

In some ways, Mr. Sitt jumped into the game too late to replicate the way another Brooklyn developer, Bruce Ratner, convinced the city and state to support a sports arena right next to a massive apartment village. Mr. Ratner saw a desolate rail yard in central Brooklyn and used it as a wedge to create an eight-million-square foot development. Mr. Sitt began buying property only four years ago, after the city constructed a minor-league baseball stadium and had already made its mind up to forge a community-led master plan for the neighborhood.

On the other hand, Mr. Sitt—unlike Mr. Ratner—never needs to use eminent domain. He has spent $150 million buying out dozens of landowners, according to reports, prying heirlooms from the families which created Nathan’s Hot Dogs and brought the Ferris wheel to New York City with the promise that he would put them to worthy use. After flipping land west of Keyspan Park to a residential developer for $90 million, Mr. Sitt is left with the four-block area next to the Cyclone roller coaster, the so-called amusement core.

The full-color renderings that he commissioned from architects Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn show a grown-up Disneyland with a giant martini glass, a roller coaster that passes through buildings, a jumble of shapes and extra dimensions that completely obliterates the street grid— even though it would actually add streets.

Mr. Sitt contends that 975 residential units—an unspecified mix of time-shares and condos—would provide the eyes and ears (and pocketbooks) that would make the complex work year round, to say nothing of compensating for the losses he expects from running the amusement area. On a total square-foot basis, according to figures from Thor Equities, Mr. Sitt’s development firm, the apartments would constitute 34 percent of the square footage of the complex, while amusements would constitute only 14 percent. (Hotels, retail and parking would make up the rest.) The actual land area covered by the footprints of the residential towers would be much smaller, however—in part because one of the towers would rise 50 stories.

Despite Mr. Sitt’s confrontational rhetoric (a mark of desperation, or some sort of Brechtian government-relations strategy?), the Thor plan has a lot in common with the one dreamed up by the Coney Island Development Corporation, an offshoot of the city’s Economic Development Corporation with community members on its board. Hotels, restaurants and music venues would draw people until late at night; indoor amusements would be impervious to the cold; and together they would produce enough revenue to justify the latest gizmos.

“Thor is not necessarily the enemy. A lot of what they are proposing is exactly what we want,” said Dick Zigun, the founder of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and a member of the Coney Island Development Corporation. “We want affluent people from around the world to come and spend a week here and spend a lot of money. But people who come here for a week want the noise and excitement; people raising families complain. People renting apartments across the street complain on a regular basis as it is.”

He added, “If Thor presented a plan that was 85 percent amusements and 15 percent condos, I would not vote for it—but it would not surprise me if it went through.”

While city officials wouldn’t respond directly to the charges of juvenilia, they did assert that they are following the direction laid out in September 2005, when the Coney Island Development Corporation approved an 18-page “strategic plan” outlining what sort of uses would be permitted where along the entire peninsula. It called for rezoning blocks to the north and west of Keyspan Park to permit apartments, and to increase the density of some other residential areas, adding another 8,000 residents or so.

But the area where Mr. Sitt is focusing would be reserved for “active and historic amusements” and “extended seasonal entertainment.” (Current zoning only permits things like amusement parks, sports facilities, miniature golf and boating facilities—even sit-down restaurants are prohibited.) That said, city planning officials are stressing that residential development wouldn’t be appropriate right next to amusements, but they leave open the question of how the two uses would co-exist if they were a block away from each other.

“There is an inherent land-use conflict when you put a use that we hope would be a 24-hour use, where there would be bright lights and noise and crowds, right next to residential,” said Purnima Kapur, director of the Brooklyn office of the Department of City Planning. “You don’t want somebody’s windows opening up right onto that.”

STILL, MR. SITT SAID THAT HE WAS LED TO BELIEVE that the development corporation approved of residential uses and pointed to a public statement made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg this January calling for “a diverse use of a piece of land if it’s really going to succeed.”

City officials say that the Mayor’s statement referred to the larger Coney Island neighborhood, not the amusement core. Mr. Zigun, the member of the Coney Island Development Corporation, acknowledged that an architecture firm working as a consultant to the city, Arquitectonica, had once suggested a plan that incorporated residential into the core, but the plan was quickly dismissed.

At one point in his interview with The Observer, Mr. Sitt said: “I could care whether it was hotels, condos, time-shares—I want humans.” But a spokesman for Mr. Sitt said later that hotels and time-shares wouldn’t make the project financially viable enough without condos.

To make his argument, Mr. Sitt even commissioned a telephone poll of 400 randomly selected residents of the Coney Island City Council district; it showed that 62.1 percent supported residential housing “in or near the boardwalk.” When asked whether they would change their minds if “a limited amount” was needed in order to make the amusements, restaurants, retail and “hundreds of new jobs,” about half of the opponents ended up supporting the idea.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sitt complains about the city’s slow pace. The Department of City Planning anticipates issuing zoning recommendations by the summer. The Coney Island Development Corporation expects to begin the land-use process by the end of the year, meaning that the area will not be rezoned until mid-2008.

“The city is going to take the time to get it right,” Ms. Kapur said. “The area has been in decline for over 40 years. We need to make sure all the constituencies are on board, and that takes time.”

Mr. Sitt is now pulling down buildings, making it clear that the old Coney Island will enjoy one more summer—but only one. He owns all the property and could try to starve Coney Island until he gets the residential zoning that he wants. It is another matter, though, whether Ms. Burden will give in.