His detractors think he’s being naïve: Really, how many luxury-condo-dwelling paintball aficionados do you know?
“There will be no ‘Shoot the Freak’ at the new Coney Island,” predicted nearby merchant Dianna Carlin, whose tiny Lola Starr T-shirt shop reopened this spring after overcoming a prior eviction battle with Mr. Sitt.
Ms. Carlin, one of the few vendors who refused to sign Mr. Sitt’s gag rule, has emerged as an unlikely leader of the “Save Coney Island” campaign. “No one is opposed to redevelopment,” stressed Ms. Carlin. “It’s about preserving Coney Island’s character.”
This past March, the opposition group staged a protest at City Hall intended to sway city officials to reject Mr. Sitt’s requested rezoning of the amusement district to allow for residential development—a message somewhat thwarted, Ms. Carlin said, by the developer’s apparent P.R. tool from the nearby paintball concession.
“There’s really not too much left to save,” argued Mr. Berlingieri, who noted that the amusement district has been in steady decline for decades, with many lots sitting vacant long before Mr. Sitt started buying up property. “Where were the protests 50 years ago?” he asked. “Thor Equities are the only ones who’ve ever stepped up to revitalize.”
Several iconic Coney Island attractions—including the rickety, whiplash-inducing Cyclone rollercoaster and scenic 150-plus-foot-tall Wonder Wheel—are already city-protected landmarks that Mr. Sitt can’t touch. Same goes for the long-defunct Parachute Jump structure, commonly referred to as Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower, and the original Nathan’s hot-dog stand, built in 1916.
And the nonprofit group Coney Island USA, which operates the freaky circus-themed Sideshow by the Seashore, is in contract to buy its own 12,000-square-foot building along of Surf Avenue for more than $3 million.
The contested turf, therefore, mostly boils down to a dense, three-block-long stretch of video arcades, bumper cars, kooky haunted houses, various food and beverage vendors, and trite plush-toy prize contests.
Does the public really care if that stuff gets bulldozed? It invariably depends on what comes next.
“I think people would accept anything new or futuristic—Coney Island’s always been about new technology—as long as it’s used for recreational purposes,” said Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found.
“But not for housing,” Mr. Denson stressed. “That would kill it. Once that land is rezoned, it’s worth a fortune. Condos would sprout like mushrooms.”
If history is any indicator, Mr. Denson said, Coney Island will survive the Sitt era, just as it has endured various bust-and-boom periods in the past.
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Take Coney Island Arcade owner Manny Cohen, whose most popular attraction these days isn’t skeeball or video games but the large “Coney Island R.I.P.” sign out front; it depicts the developer Mr. Sitt as the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.
Mr. Cohen is presently contesting the eviction of his 27-year-old business in court.
Yet while his counterpart, Mr. Berlingieri, chose to make nice with the powers that be and now envisions a new spruced-up boardwalk-area setting for “Shoot the Freak,” the arcade owner seems resigned to an inevitable relocation outside New York altogether.
“It’s all greed here,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’m going to Vegas.”