The tone of a City Council hearing last week on Mayor Bloomberg’s major Coney Island redevelopment plans was music to Joe Sitt’s ears.
The red-carpeted Council chambers in City Hall quickly became an interrogation room as successive Council Members took their turns bellowing aggressive questions and assertions at a trio of Bloomberg economic development officials.
Why not rule out the use of eminent domain? Where is the needed government funding going to come from? Why designate a private landowner’s property as parkland? Doesn’t the city government have a bad track record redeveloping Coney Island? Why use city money to bus in supporters to testify in favor of the city’s plan?
It just so happens that each of these questions had been urged by Mr. Sitt, the private landowner who has bought up the better part of the central amusement area in the onetime entertainment hub and who is now vigorously fighting key elements of the Bloomberg plan.
“I was pleased,” Mr. Sitt said. “It was the first honest forum on the future of Coney Island that’s ever been held, where every side and every perspective had to be upfront and candid.”
A previously low-profile and relatively little-known landlord, Mr. Sitt now finds himself planted squarely in Mayor Bloomberg’s path to victory on one of his top economic development priorities–in an election year, no less. It’s a standoff that is rapidly headed toward a final round in coming weeks (the City Council must deliver a thumbs up or down on the mayor’s plan by early August).
The city’s vision for the area imagines new rides, hotels and retail in the main amusement area, and a large swath of parkland that would be city-owned—land that Mr. Sitt now, in large part, controls.
And for two years now, city economic development officials have been desperately attempting to extricate him from the amusement district, but throughout, the Brooklyn native has proved astoundingly obdurate, resisting overtures, followed by demands, to vacate in an attempt to strike a better deal. What is remarkable, thus far, is that he is still in place and dominating discussion, displaying an ability to beat back the Bloomberg steamroller politically, as, at least for now, he has the ear of local Councilman Domenic Recchia, whose support is considered essential for the plan’s passage in the Council.
Now, as the Bloomberg administration is averse to any sort of defeat on its Coney plans, the question for Mr. Sitt becomes how much more fight does he have, or what kind of deal can he strike to make an exit?
THE CHAIRMAN OF THOR Equities, which owns and has redeveloped retail nationwide, Mr. Sitt, 45, doesn’t come across as the typical New York landlord of a multi-generational real estate dynasty that would typically undertake one of the city’s major development projects. His background is in retail for low-income areas, and he has no large, ground-up developments to his name in New York. Unlike many of the clubby real estate industry’s top names, he is a first-generation large-scale landlord. He grew up in South Brooklyn and carries a thick accent to show it. He has short black hair, an average frame, and frequently puts on a teeth-baring smile that overtakes his face, adding to his salesman-like charm.
His involvement in Coney Island has been a nauseating up-and-down ride filled with the closure of numerous attractions at Coney Island including the signature Astroland, a public relations war, the creation of a less-than-popular flea market where rides once stood, and a rare attempt by the city to remove the private landlord (not usually the course of action for the developer-friendly Bloomberg administration). He is reviled by organized amusement supporters trying to preserve the freakish nature of Coney Island and his fight with the city has dominated discussion on the topic, obscuring other issues that are perhaps more consequential in the long run (for one: how big should the amusement area be?).