The Education of Joe Sitt

At the center of the standoff is Mr. Recchia, the colorful local councilman who has backed Mr. Sitt numerous times throughout the years of discussions, unabashedly presenting himself as close to the developer. His main goal seems to be a deal between Mr. Sitt and the administration that will take the landlord out without leaving him bitter. Politically, a deal would allow him to show progress to constituents on his key issue, without a protracted legal battle obscuring a victory.

“He was there when nobody else wanted to be there,” Mr. Recchia said of Mr. Sitt. “He’s the one that said, ‘Alright, I’ll put the money up.’”

He seems frustrated that the city’s offer has not led to a deal with its price that Mr. Sitt says is far too low.

“You have to keep an open mind – and look what they did in Willets Point and look what they spend money on,” he said, referencing the hundreds of millions devoted toward the Willets Point development. “You know what? We’re going to spend what we need to spend to get this project done.”

And throughout all of this, Mr. Recchia has had the backing of an important friend, Councilman Simcha Felder. The Borough Park councilman is an administration ally and has worked mostly behind the scenes, particularly in the efforts to reach a deal late last year, joining Mr. Recchia in meetings with top city officials as they urged the city to make an offer (they ultimately resulted in more deadlock).

The administration’s line on the issue has been the same for months now: it has an offer on the table and it isn’t offering more money to reward a speculator who overplayed his hand. “We’re simply not prepared to make concessions in Coney Island that infringe on our plans to expand and protect the amusement district,” Deputy Mayor Bob Lieber said in a statement of Mr. Sitt. “He bought the site on speculation, and we’re prepared to pay him a lot of money for it. I can think of more than a few real estate speculators that are in a worse spot than he is.”

If it has done anything for the public review process, the Sitt-related imbroglio has obfuscated the litany of other issues that typically surround such a major development project and dominate debate in the Council. Affordable housing groups have been pushing for more low-income housing, a long list of unions wants various wage guarantees for contractors and workers, and there is not enough money in the city budget to carry out the plan, as officials acknowledge it would require hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure work.

Further, the loud group of well-organized amusement enthusiasts and Coney Island freaks, joined by the Municipal Art Society, has raised seemingly legitimate concerns about the density the city has proposed for the amusement district in its plan. Much like Mr. Sitt’s plan, the city envisions a modest outdoor amusement area of about 9 acres next to the Cyclone roller coaster, along with indoor amusements and a large set of hotels that were planned in part to subsidize the indoor amusements. But the Municipal Art Society and other groups say the hotels crowd out the amusements, which are too small to create the critical mass necessary to revitalize Coney.

Mr. Sitt’s main end-game is to get to a more favorable deal, something he says he still thinks will happen. Just how long Mr. Recchia will stay on his side is a key question. Given the councilman’s rhetoric about the need to revitalize Coney Island, it’s hard to see a situation where he votes against the plan in some form, particularly should the administration begin adding more pressure.

Speaking by phone Monday evening, he expressed backing for Mr. Sitt in principle—saying he was the first developer there, and shouldn’t be punished for that.

But when asked if he was in Mr. Sitt’s corner, he was non-committal.

“I am in everyone’s corner,” he said. “I aim to get something done.”

The Education of Joe Sitt