Urban Devastation: The Bulldozing of Coney Island

Key Map of the Amusement Area listing the location of many landmarks. The yellow area is where outdoor amusements still existed prior to Thor Equities.
Key Map of the Amusement Area listing the location of many landmarks. The yellow area is where outdoor amusements still existed prior to Thor Equities.

 

For the past six years real estate speculator Joe Sitt and his company Thor Equities has been attempting to turn Coney Island's historic amusement district into an upscale resort with luxury condominiums. Initially after buying up eight acres Sitt proposed tearing down the entire amusement district and replacing it with a single resort that resembled the Atlantis hotel. Although Mayor Bloomberg initially backed Thor Equities things began to fall apart when Sitt announced the resort would also include condos. While he tried to downplay the condos as just a minor aspect of his proposed amusement resort critics complained that under Thor Equities plan the majority of the amusement district would be used for the condos, and only a small fraction for amusements. The city asked Sitt to remove the residential component to his resort and Sitt refused. When Sitt did not get the residential zoning he wanted he began a campaign of what locals called slash and burn; buying the property out from under the amusement parks, evicting them and then bulldozing the land. Just how much damage has Joe Sitt done to the amusement district? A series of detailed satellite photos from the past few years tells the story.

The first satellite image is from a decade before Sitt. This was Coney Island before Giuliani did his damage. To the left is the vacant Steeplechase park which at the time had been leased to a developer named Horace Bullard who wanted to build a new theme park. Just before construction was to begin Giuliani took office and cancelled the lease and built a stadium on the site instead. Other casualties of the Giuliani administration was the Thunderbolt Coaster ( the block just directly East of Steeplechase ) which was torn down because it was seen as an eyesore, and the Jumbo Jet coaster which was shut down due to new safety regulations.

The next satellite image is of Coney in 2005. The Jumbo Jet has just been sold to an amusement park in China. A large gap can be seen in the block where the ride use to be. Profits from selling the ride were used to build the mini golf course across the street from the batting range. Sitt is just about to buy his first eight acres of Coney Island property. This would be the "before" picture. The amusements were expanding to the vacant lots and if left alone it is possible that all the vacant lots and abandoned buildings would have been in use by 2010.

This image is from Spring of 2006. Thor Equities has just purchased their first eight acres, which would be the entire block below Nathan's ( see map ) and the entire block below the Henderson's Building. The Henderson's building was also part of the property Thor Equities bought. The former owner of this property was Herman Singer who in the 70's began buying up property. Singer seems to have been a shadowy figure who somehow knew about the city's plans to legalize gambling casinos before it became public and ended up owning prime development property. The rides and buildings on his property were hit with an unusually large amount of arson and vandalism, including a fire that destroyed the famous roller coaster The Coney Island Tornado. At the time Koch was trying to get the State Senate to legalize gambling, and the biggest sticking point was gambling's tie to the Mafia. Koch wanted the state senate to believe that the city would never allow organized crime to get a foothold in any of the casinos, so there were never any investigations of Singer's possible connection to the Mafia or the possibility that the Mob was burning down Singers property to scare him into dealing with them. Singer held on to his property for nearly thirty years hoping for gambling to be legalized and making a profit selling to casino developers, even passing up on selling his property to amusement park developer Horace Bullard in the 80's.

This is summer of 2006. If you notice in both images Thor Equities had paved over most of their property and had begun leasing it as a parking lot to school buses. Most of the buses ended up on the large lot to the West of the mini golf course. That particular lot was Thor's second purchase in the area. It belonged to the Handwerker family who were the owners of Nathan's Famous. The Handwerkers had also purchased property in Coney as an investment when there was a possibility of Casinos being built, and much like Singer held onto their investment for 30 years not allowing anything permanent to be built on it. According to a member of the Handwerker family they were pressured by Thor Equities to sell. No sooner did Thor purchase Singer's property then they began announcing they were going to build their resort. The city in turn expressed interest in making Thor Equities the new developer of the amusement district, this which Thor used to their advantage. They floated the possibility that eminent domain was around the corner for those who did not sell Thor their property, but promised that all those who did sell them land immediately would be permitted to operate their business on the new resort. Another Handwerker relative claimed on the Coney Island message board that Thor Equities had promised that they only wanted to develop a resort and that any rumors that they wanted to build condos was false.

 

This is summer of 2007. It turned out that Thor Equities did have plans to build condos, a lot of condos. In their plans the majority of their property would be used for condos with the lone exception being a hotel that leased rooms as timeshares. Any amusements on the resort would be indoors on the ground floor of the condo buildings and would only be built after the condos turned a profit and all of the investors were paid off. Any excess profit from that point on would be used to pay for amusements which at the time was limited in the Thor plans to an indoor water park in the hotel building and a carousel. The city announced they wanted Thor Equities to build, provided they remove plans for any residential from the project. Claiming that the project would not be profitable without the addition of condos Thor Equities president Joe Sitt began to retaliate and had all the businesses on his property evicted. He then had the land bulldozed and threatened to keep it in this state until the city changed it's mind. As summer approached the public relations firm that worked for Sitt knocked some sense into his head. Claiming that Thor Equities had cleared the lot because they had plans to use it that summer they quickly began filling the mini golf site over with sand and hired a large inflatable water slide known as the Hippo. Their other property was left vacant until mid summer when it was leased to a circus, then used the remainder of the summer to show outdoor movies every Friday night.

There are no satellite images available beyond summer 2007. The following image was made using photoshop to show what Thor Equities has done to Coney Island since. Still pressuring property owners into selling they managed to get the Albert family to sell the property from under Astroland. According to Carol Albert the decision to sell came after a long meeting with all the other family members and stock holders in Astroland. The consensus was that if the city was going to take Astroland away from the Albert's using Eminent Domain to give to either Thor Equities or another developer then they would rather sell now when Thor was offering thirty million dollars. Carol had proposed to the city that Astroland be able to develop their own property and had investors interested in building a new park, but were told by the city that they would rather bring in outside developers. Thor Equities had promised the Alberts that they could continue to lease the property to Astroland until they were to begin construction on their resort. Going back on their word Thor had Astroland evicted as well as the rides that leased property along West 12th Street. This would be the view of Coney Island as of February 2009.

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brimancandy 6 years ago from Northern Michigan

I am not at all surprised by this. But, it is sad. There was a lot of talk among rollercoaster enthusiasts, that there would eventually be a bigger, better, Astroland.

The owners of the businesses around Astroland really have nobody to blame but themselves for this downfall. What they should have done is get together under one umbrella many years ago, and built eachother up, and worked to create a better place. Instead, a lot of them just boarded up and sat

on their property waiting for the value of the land to go up. Instead of seeing any potential in what it could have become. Nothing really changed there for years.

While other amusementparks were adding new high tech thrill rides, and multimillion dollar coasters. What was astroworld doing, besides trying to preserve what they already had, and, doing little else.

I'm curious as to how many years the Thunderbolt coaster sat riderless before it was torn down. A lot of it was just a neglected eyesore. Only the historians were truly interested in preserving it, not the people who actually had businesses and land there.

I personally would have loved to see what it was like when it was thriving. I have seen old footage, thought I might not want to ride some of the rides, that hardly looked safe, just to be there, and see it at night, I think, would have been something to remember.


stethacantus 6 years ago Author

Your assessment of the situation is not as simple as that. In order for any Coney Island amusement business to have either expanded or have added new amusements they would have needed permission from the owners of the property they leased. Most of them rented the land their rides an/or games sat on. The owners were usually the grandchildren of the original property owners or speculators who purchased their land during the 70's hoping to flip it to casino developers. You can't just allow new rides built on your property if you are looking to sell it at any time. Nor would anyone want to build anything expensive in the area if they were leasing the property. Spend $60 million on a new coaster and after only one year the owner decides to cancel your lease? Whoever owns the property would end up owning your coaster, thank you very much, and you would walk away with nothing. When Luna Park was built Thompson and Dundee made sure they had an iron clad 40 year lease. It was not the fire that did in Luna but the lease finally expiring.

The only amusement operators who were lucky enough to own their property were Denos who owned just the land under and in front of the Wonder Wheel but leased the rest, El Dorado Partners who owned the single building that the bumper cars and arcade of the same name are in, and Astroland although by the 70's ownership was spread between 14 different individuals from both the Albert and Handwerker families, many which did not live anywhere near Brooklyn.

You also have to take into account that public officials were threatening to use eminent domain to take away the amusement district and give it to developers since the 1950's. First they threatened to turn it into public housing, then a large Jones Beach size parking lot, then gambling casinos, then a fish market and baseball museum, then as a site for the 2012 Olympics, and finally as the original resort that Thor Equities said they wanted to build. Why would anyone build anything or bother to maintain what they had if every year the city was threatening that it would be the last?

You have also made the mistake of equating Coney Island with modern theme parks. Theme parks like Universal can afford to add high tech thrill rides because they made their money at the gate and not through ride capacity. A ride like Space Mountain if built alone at Coney Island could only seat 6,500 passengers a day it would take five years just for that coaster to make back construction costs, by which time it would need maintenance which would offset profits for another two to three years. That is nearly a decade in the red by tens of millions before anyone sees dime one. Disney was able to pull this off because for every person who paid to get into Disney World to ride Space Mountain brought along 3.5 family members, such a mom and pop and little sis, who were not going on the ride. Add to that the 30% who chickened out before getting on and you have over 38,000 people visiting the park a day because of that coaster even if only 6,500 actually get on it. The year the ride opened Disney World saw a boost of 62,000 guests per day over the Memorial Day weekend.

Coney Island is not gated. If it was they could afford to build expensive rides and offset the construction cost through admission fees and concessions. This does not mean that you can no longer build something like the Cyclone, but just that you can't take a risk on building something astronomically expensive like "Back To The Future: The Ride" and hope no one burns it down before it finally turns a profit ten years from now.

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The Thunderbolt was shut down by the city after the 1982 season due to an accident where a train got stuck on the second lift hill. In order to rebuild the lift hill the coaster would have been forced to upgrade to modern safety codes. The owner, an elderly woman who lived in the house beneath the coaster, did not have the money for the extensive upgrades and the ride remained closed for another four years while she looked for a buyer. It was sold to amusement park developer Horace Bullard who at first planned to tear it down and build a new coaster in it's place, but then decided it was classic enough to include in the theme park he was building on the adjacent Steeplechase property. The coaster sat idle for another decade while Bullard tried to find investors for his park. He had just found investors in the 90's when Giuliani pulled the plug and built the stadium instead. Bullard reportedly lost his entire fortune on the aborted park and had no money to rehabilitate the coaster. He did have some investors interested in building a scaled down amusement park provided the Thunderbolt could be included as it's centerpiece. Those plans came to an end on November 17, 2000 when unannounced a demolition crew accompanied by riot police trespassed on the Thunderbolt property, arrested the guard, and began tearing the ride down claiming it was a dangerous hazard. Fred Wilpon later admitted that Giuliani tore the coaster down as a favor to him so that they could sell the naming rights to his new stadium to Keyspan, something Keyspan would not do unless the East face of the stadium was visible from the boardwalk.

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