For years now, the Bloomberg administration has been pushing a plan to redevelop Coney Island, trying to ensure its approval in the City Council against resistance from the amusement district’s main landowner, Joe Sitt.
Now, as the Council approaches a vote on the plan in coming weeks, one major line of resistance is emerging: Domenic Recchia, the area’s councilman, is siding with Sitt on almost all of the developer's key points, threatening the administration’s proposal.
Recchia has been generally supportive of Sitt’s arguments with the city for at least a year now, but at a Wednesday Council hearing, he seemed to stake out a position of clear opposition to the mayor on a number of topics. At the hearing, Recchia aimed pointed questions at city officials, many of which matched the set of talking points that Sitt and his consultants have been reciting in recent weeks, both privately and publicly.
Recchia’s questions, voiced in a frustrated and at times angry tone, set the stage for a showdown with the Bloomberg administration over its plan, which imagines thousands of new apartments and year-round indoor amusements to accompany a revitalized outdoor amusement zone.
Specifically, he made clear his rejection of the administration’s proposal to classify a portion of the site—including Sitt’s property—as parkland. That would allow the use of eminent domain on Sitt’s land (though that’s not the city’s stated intention) and clear the way for more housing on another portion of the site. Sitt has pushed this point, as his land would presumably be far less valuable and developable with the potential cloud of eminent domain hovering over it, an argument that has won the ear of Recchia and key elected officials in Albany.
The owner of the neighboring Wonder Wheel, the Vouderis family, has also been concerned about the parkland, and when Recchia addressed the issue, he did not mention Sitt directly.
“If the Vouderis family is not happy—if the Wonder Wheel got taken up in parkland, I am recommending we turn this down,” he said of the administration’s plan.
Recchia also took up a second point that Sitt has pushed: remove a new planned street from the plan, “Wonder Wheel Way,” which would divide up his parcels and make his land more difficult to develop.
The city has been battling to buy Sitt’s land for about $100 million, though he has resisted, saying he would lose about $30 million in investment at the site. As no deal has emerged—though the two sides have discussed a compromise proposal with a smaller acquisition—Sitt and his attorney, Jesse Masyr, have pushed these and other points in an attempt to salvage some value in his property, which he paid over $100 million to assemble.
While it's often a fool's errand predicting just where these development fights end up—council members and city officials tend to stake out extreme positions backed by dramatic rhetoric before meeting somewhere in the middle before a vote—it seemed Recchia and others on the Council were staking out a path toward a compromise being pushed by Masyr and Sitt. That plan involves a few changes to the zoning, including the elimination of Wonder Wheel Way and not designating Sitt’s land as parkland, though still completing the broader rezoning of the area.
Of course, there are numerous other issues to settle, including affordable housing and a push by unions to wrest numerous concessions from the Bloomberg administration and another private developer to give wage and hiring guarantees.
In all, the issue has turned into a giant headache, and, more broadly, there are a number of open questions that the administration is unable to answer now, causing multiple council members to raise larger concerns about the plan’s viability. For one, city officials have said the plan will have to be phased in over at least 10 to 15 years, putting its fate into the hands of future administrations—a concept the Bloomberg administration tries to avoid.
Officials have acknowledged the redevelopment will require hundreds of millions of dollars in investment for acquisitions and infrastructure, such as new water systems, for which they have only a fraction of the necessary money budgeted. The term “pie in the sky” is thrown around frequently by observers and critics, particularly as multiple prior administrations have tried to redevelop and revitalize the area with very limited success.
A peeved Councilwoman Helen Sears offered some criticism in her questions to city officials:
“I think it’s flawed,” she said of the plan. “I think you didn’t answer my question, and I also think that the timeframe of Willets Point and Coney Island is overwhelming. From my perspective, I’m not sure of where all this money is coming from.”
Still, city economic development officials are committed to Coney Island, and they argue that this project has the potential to transform a neighborhood entirely, perhaps bringing billions in investment to an area that is mostly marked by vacant lots.