- Travel and Places»
- Visiting North America»
- United States»
- New York
The Road To Nowhere: Bloomberg's Coney Island
PART I: BLOOMBERG
Let's call this person "Axe To Grind". Axe To Grind, who wished to remain anonymous, recently lost a lot of money at Coney Island, and blamed it all on Bloomberg. According to Axe To Grind, Bloomberg's plan all along was to get rid of all the businesses in the amusement district, perhaps even completely ridding Coney Island of amusements altogether, then bring in the luxury condos.
"Bloomberg is a very smart businessman." said Axe To Grind. "He knows the people would never allow 'Boston Mike' to tear down something as beloved as Coney Island and replace it with homes for the rich. So he got pawns to do all his dirty work. Joe Sitt was a pawn. Bloomberg brought Sitt in through [ councilman Domenic ] Recchia, allowed him to bulldoze down half the amusements, then paint him as the villain. [ Bloomberg ] called his plan a compromise to what Sitt was doing. It was not. Zamperla is another pawn of Bloomberg. He got them to tear down Feltman's kitchen the Astrotower before they could be landmarked. He got them to evict the vendors on the boardwalk. Zamperla gets painted as the villains, but it was what Bloomberg wanted all along."
Axe To Grind is not the first person to accuse Bloomberg of secretly wanting to raze Coney Island to the ground and replace it with an upscale Miami style beachfront community. After all, Sitt did seem to show up at the same time Bloomberg announced he wanted developers to redo the resort. And although city hall could have taken steps to stop Sitt, such as eminent domain for him deliberately blighting a neighborhood, he was more or less left alone. Bloomberg didn't even stop Sitt from violating zoning by opening a flea market on C7 zoned property, something he did for more than one summer. But was Thor Equities secretly hired by Michael Bloomberg to demolish the historic amusement district of Coney Island?
The Coney Island that Bloomberg inherited was already a shambles. Depending on which historian you talk to, it's heyday was either the early 1900s when it had three theme parks, or the 1920s when most of it's most popular rides were built. It's downfall is also a matter of opinion. Some say it was 1911 when Dreamland burned down, taking the Eastern end of the amusement district with it. Others say it was the Great Depression that began a slow decline. Luna Park closed in 1944 after a dispute between the parks owners and the bank that held the mortgage on their land turned ugly. There had been a fire earlier that year, and both Luna Park and their bank fought over who should claim the insurance money. Eventually the bank settled things by foreclosing on the property, and selling it to a real estate developer. In spectacular fashion, while the park was being dismantled, it burst into flames again, becoming one of the city's biggest fires. What replaced it was a housing development. Steeplechase Park closed ten years later, and it too was slated to be replaced with a housing project. But the local amusement district fought hard to prevent that from happening, and the land was eventually sold to the city.
The amusement district once spanned 21 city blocks from end to end, with a few stray amusements built outside it's boundaries. It went from the beach inland to Surf Ave, and in some parts beyond Surf. Luna Park was a half block North of Surf Ave, was at it's peak nearly 15 acres. By the time Steeplechase closed the amusement district had shrunk to six blocks. Without the large theme parks, and the city continuing to build hosing projects for the poor in the neighborhood, millions began to spend their vacations elsewhere. The remaining amusements needed a new theme park to bring back business to the area. But the city owned the Steeplechase site, and ended up mismanaging it. It was given to the parks department who promptly turned it into a lawn, and then fenced it off. When gambling was legalized at Atlantic City, NYC wanted the same at Coney Island. The possibility of casinos caused a land rush. Property was cleared of rides and buildings. But the casinos never came. The city almost allowed a developer to build a theme park at Steeplechase, but then Giuliani decided to use the property for a minor league stadium instead. By the time Bloomberg took office the amusements had shrunk to 3 blocks, with two more blocks in the district kept vacant by their owners. One of those owners was Herman Singer.
PART II: ENTER THOR EQUITIES
Herman Singer and his company Singer Coney, LLC had held onto property since the late 1970s which he had hoped to build a casino on. Singer had stubbornly held onto that property for more than two decades, turning down offers from Horace Bullard and even the Disney Company, always hoping the state would reconsider and legalize gambling. Then suddenly in late 2001, weeks after Bloomberg won his first election for mayor, Singer decided to finally unload his property. According to real estate broker Doron Ishmailoff, Singer hired him to put parcel's A and B on the market, offering them for lease or for sale at the price of $20 million for the pair. Parcel A, half the block that was the former site of Stauches Bath House which Singer once hoped to build a casino on. Parcel B was slightly larger. One and a half blocks combined which included the site of the Tornado coaster that had burned down before Singer purchased it. It also included a well known boardwalk building called The Atlantic Club which is still standing. While it is not known exactly what Singer wanted parcel B for, a hotel or parking lot perhaps, most suspect that he simply wanted to prevent a rival casino from opening up across the street.
Within days of putting Singer's property on the market, Doron says he was approached by David Dayan who claimed his son was a wealthy developer who was looking for a site to build a basketball court. Doron said that his impression at the time was that Dayan was lying, and the developer wanted to build something else. A meeting was arranged between the developer, who turned out to be Joe Sitt, and Herman Singer. No deal was reached, but the two exchanged phone phone numbers. Doran, who was owed a commission should Sitt buy any of the parcels, was promised he would be kept in the loop should Sitt contact Singer again. Sitt waited until Doran left the country on a vacation in April of 2002 and then arranged another meeting with Singer. There Sitt and his top executives not only talked Singer into cutting two million dollars off of his asking price, but to throw in all of his other Coney Island holdings. Not just selling them parcel's A and B, but The Henderson Building which was on the other side of Bowery from parcel B. And Sitt had heard that Singer had shares in Coney Island Enterprises. He wanted that too. Doron, who would later sue Thor Equities and Singer Coney, LLC for defrauding him of his promised commission, felt that Sitt and his lawyers took advantage of Singer without him there, convincing him his property was not that valuable.
Sitt next approached Nathan's Famous, Inc. It is very possible that Domenic Recchia accompanied him at this meeting. Sitt let the Nathan's executives know that he ws about to be named as the developer of a resort that would take up the entire amusement district. He wanted Nathan's to be part of that resort, on condition that the company sell Thor Equities their Coney Island property. Nathan's Famous relied heavily on their Coney Island image. They dreaded the possibility that a developer would come along and drive Nathan's out of Coney Island, bringing in one of their competitors instead. The company pressured the Handwerkers to sell Sitt their properties, assuring them that Sitt was a man who could be trusted.
Nathan Handwerker had built his hot dog stand up from a rental front near Stillwell Ave, to owning every building on the block, and by the time of his death, expanding his empire to include a few satellite restaurants across the city. His family continued to grow the company into one of America's most successful fast food chains. Expanding on their Coney Island properties, the Handwerkers bought the other half of the block that Singer owned, one that once had a sizable bath house which burned to the ground somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s. The family planned to one day expand Nathan's beyond Bowery and to the boardwalk. But they never got around to developing that property. In 1987 the family sold the company. As for the original Nathan's restaurant and the undeveloped land behind it, they retained half ownership with Nathan's Famous, Inc. co-owning the property. Nathan's Famous, Inc. also failed to develop the property. The Handwerkers also owned sizable stock in Coney Island Enterprises.
The Handwerkers refused to sell the original restaurant, but agreed as an act of good faith to Sitt to sell Thor Equities their other Coney Island holdings, including their Coney Island Enterprises stock. But before this would happen, members of the Handwerker family wanted all assurances that once Thor Equities owned the property they would not use it to build residential buildings. Nathan Handwerker's final years had been spent keeping housing projects out of the amusement district. The last thing his family wanted was to sell any property to a residential developer. Lawyers from Thor Equities assured the Handwerker family that the zoning clearly did not allow for residential, and therefore condos could not possibly be part of the new resort. Once again the closing on the Nathan's property would take place in 2005.
The Handwerkers believed Sitt, as did many other land owners. He assured them with the story that he wanted to combine the amusement district into a single resort where they were all the local amusement businesses would be welcomed to continue operating. Land owners did not need to feel guilty about selling the land out from under the amusement operators who had been leasing it for decades. Coney Island would finally be combined into one big happy amusement park. If the spiel sounded familiar to the Coney Island property owners, then it was because they had heard it before, from Horace Bullard.
PART III: HORACE BULLARD
I suspect that Bullard was the first property owner that Sitt approached. The founder of a successful fried chicken franchise, Bullard desired to use his fortune to rehabilitate Coney Island after it's decline in the 70s. In the late 70s when politicians talked about legalizing casino gambling and bringing it to Coney Island, the amusement district went through a land rush. As already mentioned, Singer had spent a fortune amassing property along Stillwell, the most logical site for the first casino. It was probably the same time the Handwerkers bought their boardwalk lot, perhaps envisioning a Nathan's Famous casino. Other property owners, including the corporation Coney Island Enterprises, looked to develop their own land with competing casinos. Bullard saw casinos as an opportunity for the amusement district. Instead of tearing all the rides down and building dozens of small gambling halls, the property owners could pool it all into one large parcel. A single solitary casino could be built, and the profits would be used to build new rides in a surrounding amusement park.
But that idea fell on deaf ears. When the state legislature decided not to allow the casinos, and the value of speculation on property plummeted, Bullard attempted to buy up most of the amusement district. He tried to do this using different corporations. But the owners caught on fast and refused to sell him their property. Failing again to combine Coney Island into a single amusement park, he decided to use his fortune to revive Steeplechase Park. At that time the former site of Steeplechase Park was owned by the city, fenced off, and only used a few times a year for fairs and festivals. Bullard succeeded in buying the entire blocks directly to the East and West of the former Steeplechase site, and offered to combine his land with Steeplechase creating a large mega theme park. City hall agreed, and Bullard was leased Steeplechase Park. But since it was a city park, he needed state approval to build. And a number of state senators had already promised the same site to a company called Sportsplex to build something similar to Chelsea Piers. This delayed construction, giving some of the investors in the park time to have second thoughts and back out. Finding new investors caused more delays. Then Giuliani became mayor. Giuliani had his own agenda for developing Coney Island, and it did not involve amusement parks. Bullard's lease was overturned, and the city announced that instead the property would be used to build a stadium for the Mets farm team, who would later be renamed The Brooklyn Cyclones.
Bullard had sunk most of his fortune into rebuilding Steeplechase Park, and in an instant lost it all. But it did not end there. He still owned the block next to the stadium, which included The Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt roller coaster was built in 1925 right above the two story Kensington Hotel. It became iconic in the 1970s when Woody Allen used the Kensington in his movie Annie Hall, saying he had grown up living in a house beneath a roller coaster. In 1982 a car on The Thunderbolt got stuck on one of the turns, and the ride needed to be shut down. A city inspector demanded the entire track be replaced before the ride would be allowed to reopen. The elderly widow who owned the coaster and lived in the hotel below, did not have the millions to repair the track, so it sat unused for years. Bullard convinced her to sell him the property. When his plans for rebuilding Steeplechase were dashed, Bullard decided to use what little he had left to restore the Thunderbolt and build a mini amusement park around it.
But Giuliani had his own idea as to what should be built next to the new stadium. In the dark, just past midnight on November 17, 2000, the bulldozers were dispatched. Giuliani had no legal authority to demolish the coaster, so he wanted demolition to begin while everyone was asleep. According to some accounts, the police showed up and illegally arrested the lot's night watchman, claiming the property was owned by the city and he was trespassing. Another erroneous document claimed that a building inspector who never stepped foot on the property proclaimed from the boardwalk that the coaster was in danger of collapsing, and that it and the hotel below had to be demolished immediately. When Bullard sued the city over the destruction of his coaster, the judge agreed that what Giuliani did was illegal.
Bullard had lost a fortune trying to revive Coney Island. Now all he had left was empty lots and an abandoned arcade building on Surf deemed unsafe for lease. He also had The Shore Theater across Surf Avenue from Nathans which he bought during the casino rush, believing the old structure had a good chance of becoming a casino. The theater remained closed. The lots unused. If he could not build an amusement park at Coney Island, he could still get revenge against Giuliani and the Cyclone's owner The Wilpons. He could block any development of the property on either side of the stadium. The stadium would be by itself surrounded by desolation, it's only companion being the abandoned Parachute Jump.
Reportedly, Sitt had a number of meetings with Bullard early on while still scouting for cheap amusement district property. Bullard bought Sitt's story, believing that he was a dreamer just like him who wanted to use his fortune to build a spectacular amusement park at Coney Island. It is most likely through Bullard that Sitt learned everything he needed to know as how to own the amusement district. What to do. What not to do. And the secret to getting his hands on the crown Jewel of Coney Island, Astroland.
PART IV: ASTROLAND
Nathan Handwerker began as an employee of Feltman's Beer Garden & Pavilion, the restaurant where the hot dog is said to have been invented. In 1916 he opened his own competing restaurant, Nathan's Famous, near the corner of Surf Avenue and Stillwell Avenue. Nathan was fortunate. When the subways were expanded to Coney Island, the terminal was built right across the street from his restaurant. When Luna Park closed in the late 1940s, visitors began going exclusively to Steeplechase Park, bringing unprecedented foot traffic right past Nathan's Famous. But even with the increase in business, Nathan lamented the demolition of Luna Park and despised the housing project that replaced it. When Feltman's closed in 1954, Nathan wanted to buy the property. He claimed he wanted to move Nathan's Famous there, but in reality had no intention of moving his successful restaurant away from the best location at Coney Island. Nathan could not bare the idea of another iconic Coney Island institution being replaced with housing projects.
The problem was that Nathan could not come up with enough money for a winning bid for the property. He contacted a friend Dewey Albert for a loan. Since Albert owned a construction business, the deal was that if Nathan should not be able to pay him back, then he could foreclose on the property and use it to build houses. Albert did not have enough money on hand, so suggested that Nathan bring in more investors. Nathan formed the corporation Coney Island Enterprises to buy Feltman's. Since Albert and family members invested the most money, the Albert family owned a majority of the company. Nathan Handwerker owned several shares. Another of Nathan's friends brought in as an investor was Herman Singer. At least three other investors bought stock in the company. Everyone thought that Nathan's Famous was to relocate to the old Feltman's property in a few years time, but in the meantime the Alberts would lease the property to independent amusement operators so that the investors could recoup part of their money.
Years went by without Nathan moving his restaurant. After a fire took out half of the property, the Alberts realized Nathan's Famous would not be relocating there. After years of leasing the property for amusements, Dewey Albert decided he wanted to buy his own rides and run his own amusement park, one with a space. Astroland opened in 1962, taking up the entire block where Feltman's once stood. When Steeplechase Park closed two years later Astroland became Coney Island's only remaining amusement park. There were still plenty of independently owned rides and games located on the five blocks between Astroland and Steeplechase, all which were now relying on Astroland to draw visitors to Coney Island. Nathan Handwerker died in 1974, the ownership of both Nathan's Famous and his shares in Coney Island Enterprises split between his family.
A few years later city hall wanted to bring casino gambling to Coney Island. The only independently owned lot large enough for a casino, and the only one which stretched between the boardwalk and Surf Avenue was Astroland. Rumors abounded that casino developers were making offers to Coney Island Enterprises. Suddenly shares in that companies stock became valuable. But since the Alberts owned majority shares, they would be the ones who developed the casino. Deciding he wanted to develop his own casino, shareholder Herman Singer began buying up property along Stillwell Avenue. Once he had amassed two entire blocks he began clearing his land, tearing down rides and buildings. This included Stauches Bath House, the boardwalk's largest standing building which was immortalized in the film The Warriors. Singer sat on his property for two decades waiting for the state to legalize gambling. He continued to hold onto his shares of Coney Island Enterprises, as did the Albert Family. It is not clear what happened to the shares owned by the other investors, but word is that once they became valuable they had changed hands many times. The Alberts still maintained controlling shares of the stock. When Dewey Albert died in 1992 shares were distributed between the heirs. His son Jerome and daughter in law Carol inherited Astroland, but they still leased the land Astroland occupied from Coney Island Enterprises.
This is the same Coney Island Enterprises that Thor Equities began owning shares in beginning in 2002. They owned Singer and the Handwerker's shares, and were most likely tracking down the other share owners. Possibly Bullard himself had purchased shares in this company back in the 70s, and had sold them to Sitt. What was clear was that once Thor Equities owned minority shares in Coney Island Enterprises, then they could force the sale of the Feltman property to Thor Equities for as little as $1. And it is quite possible that some Albert family members were ready to sell Thor Equities their shares. By now Sitt had individually approached many of the families that owned property in the amusement district and gave them the same story. He said he wanted to turn the amusement district into a single indoor amusement park, and that he not only needed their property, but he wanted them to continue operating their businesses in the new park. Sitt would contribute new expensive rides and attractions. Some bought into it, including the decedents of George Tilyou. According to some sources, Sitt told Jerome and Carol Albert that Astroland was important to his new resort. It would be the anchor of his indoor amusement building. He wanted the Alberts to continue operating their amusement park even though Thor Equities would own the land.
Still holding the majority of the stock, the Alberts could have pushed the land transfer through. But Jerome and Carol were apprehensive. While they seemed to have trusted Sitt, they were also did not like the idea of the property owned by someone other than their own family. Thor Equities may have promised them a permanent lease, but could easily change their minds. There was less of that risk leasing the property from their own family. And there was another reason for worry. Thor Equities was actively buying out shares in Coney Island Enterprises. Once they had a majority then the Alberts would no longer have a say in the future of the property. There was one solution to this problem. Jerome and Carol said they wanted to redevelop the property. If they could pull this off then the remaining shareholders including members of the Albert family were willing to sell Jerome the property. If Jerome could not redevelop Astroland then their best option was to sell to Sitt before he gained majority shares of Coney Island Enterprises and hope he keeps his word on allowing Astroland to continue operating on the site.
Astroland had gone downhill since the 70s. In the mid 70s the city bought the blocks between Astroland and the Coney Island Aquarium with plans to expand it's parking lot. This put the Cyclone in danger of being demolished. After weeks of public protest, the city agreed to save the Cyclone on condition that an outside operator agree to pay for it's restoration and upkeep. The Alberts stepped in, using the profits from Astroland to finance maintenance on the coaster. They had hoped the city would allow them to close off the street between the Cyclone and Astroland so the two could be connected, but this request was turned down. For the next three decades maintenance on the Cyclon siphoned off what profits Astroland made. And on top of that they needed to pay off the Coney Island Enterprises shareholders. Astroland itself suffered. At one time the park had the latest cutting edge rides. But since they took on responsibility for the Cyclone, they could only afford carnival rides. The park grew a little bit dingier. If redeveloped, the new Astroland would be a completely enclosed two story building with the latest rides. Reportedly the Alberts had investors and were ready to build. All they needed was approval from the city. The city said no.
Soon after the city rejected the Alberts bid to redevelop Astroland, the remaining share holders of Coney Island Enterprises sat down for a meeting. Some wanted to sell to Sitt who promised to build what Jerome and Carol could not, a better Astroland. They realized that once Thor Equities gained the majority of the stock then they would no longer be offered millions to sell the property. Already Sitt had reduced his offer once he learned that the city rejected the Alberts redevelopment plan. They realized that even if Sitt did not succeed in buying out the shareholders, Astroland was still doomed. Thor equities would be building their resort to the West, and the city was scheduled to rebuild the aquarium to the East. Most of Coney Island would be shut down for the next few years during this building phase. People would avoid it. Astroland would go bankrupt. If Astroland was doomed anyway, then they may as well sell their remaining shares to Thor equities and hope for the best.
In 2006 the papers announced that Astroland had been sold. This always seemed odd to me because Astroland was obviously not sold. The Alberts would be retaining the name as well as keeping any rides that could be moved. Carol Albert even said she was hoping Astroland could be relocated onto another lot in Coney Island. What had really happened was the remaining share holders agreed to sell their shares for a reported $30 million dollars for the combined shares. Each would get a cut of that money depending on how many shares they owned. Jerome and Carol Albert saw very little of that money. As part of the deal the family gave them full ownership of Astroland. But without an alternative site to relocate it at, they would be at the mercy of their new landlord Joe Sitt. And by this time Sitt was someone to fear.
PART V: 2005
Joe Sitt had wanted to keep his purchase of Coney island property a secret until 2005. He had even hoped to own two key properties, Astroland and a strip of land called Jones Walk. Both stretched from Surf Avenue to the Boardwalk and would block Sitt from connecting his resort to the Aquarium. Another key property that Sitt was unable to acquire before the deadline was owned by the Russo family, and was not even inside the amusement district. By now Joe Sitt had meetings with most of the property owners and with many if not all of the businesses in the district. By now he had perfected his spiel, and was convincing most of them that he was the messiah of Coney Island they had been waiting for. He convinced them all to keep these meetings secret. And perhaps none of them realized just how much property Thor Equities would control on closing day. Days before the closing, Sitt finally bought property from Bullard for $13 million. It was the block on the West side of Steeplechase Park, then referred to as Washington Baths after the bath house that once occupied the site.
When that day did come all of New York was abuzz. Thor Equities bought most of Coney Island? What company is Thor Equities? According to their website they build and manage malls. Are they going to tear down the amusement parks and replace it with a mall? Joe Sitt made his plans public in an interview for New York magazine. Not exactly the indoor amusement complex he had been promising the locals, the seaside resort he was now promoting would surround a huge $300 a night resort hotel. And there would be retail, upscale retail. Sitt said he wanted to bring Las Vegas glitz to the Brooklyn shore with a resort that would span from the Parachute Jump to the Aquarium. Coincidentally, the Coney Island Development Corporation was about to release the results of a two year study which concluded that what Coney Island needed was a hotel and to bring Las Vegas glitz to Stillwell Avenue. Their strategic plan also called for an ocean pier at the foot of Stillwell Ave. Coincidentally Sitt's resort would have an Ocean Pier at the foot of Stillwell Ave. Sitt's resort was exactly what the strategic plan called for. City hall praised Joe Sitt's plans, but held back on fully endorsing it saying they wanted a few revisions. It seemed as if the die was cast and Thor Equities would be named as the developer of Coney Island.
There was very little mention of amusements at the proposed resort. At first Sitt only committed to building one ride, a carousel. But he did promise that the other amusement operators in the area would be invited back to lease space at his resort. Even though the amusement park he had been promising the locals had morphed into an upscale beach side resort, everyone seemed to trust him. He was still the messiah. Even Coney Island USA, the non-profit arts organization and home of the amusement district's last surviving sideshow, seemed to endorse Sitt. It did not seem to matter that Coney Island USA had not been invited to be part of Sitt's resort. And then cam a lone voice of decent.
Scott Fitlin ran the El Dorado bumper cars on Surf Avenue, which in turn operated out of a building his parents owned. The Fitlin's had resisted selling Joe Sitt their property, perhaps at Scott's request. On the Coney Island USA website, Scott created an account called Thor Hater, and began posting anti Thor threads on the sites bulletin board. It appears that the Fitlins had some sort of insight to Sitt's plans that no one else did. He was the first to assert that Thor Equities wanted to build condos, this long before anyone else was mentioning it. The condos were Thor Equities dirty little secret. New York magazine had already questioned the profitability of Sitt's proposed resort. It would have needed to attract $300 a night paying customers for at least 70% of the rooms year round, even in winter. "Who would got to Coney Island in February" they asked. It turned out that it would be condos that financed the resort. That little tidbit of information was not yet public.
Sitt continued to play the savior until that summer. The architect firm of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn was hired by Thor to design the resort. Joe Sitt released to the press conceptual renderings of the resort. Select renderings that only showed the amusement district from ground level, and disguised buildings with festive signage. Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn mistakenly though this meant Thor Equities wanted all the renderings made public, and published all the renderings on their website. The other renderings showed a series of tall buildings giving credence to Fitlin's claims that Sitt was going to build condos above his resort. The blogs published these renderings long before Sit was able to get the design firm to take them down. Sitt fessed up to the condos, now saying there was no other way he could find investors for his resort. But the renderings made it clear that almost every square foot would be condo buildings, while very little space would be available for outdoor rides.
Once the condos were exposed, Sitt decided there was no longer any need to play Mr. Nice Guy. Norman Kaufman started on Bowery leasing part of Singer's property for a Jumbo Jet coaster. This expanded into batting cages, go cart tracks, climbing walls, and across the street miniature golf. He was well on his way to building an amusement park that rivaled Astroland when Singer sold the land he was leasing to Thor Equities. Midway through 2006 Sitt announced he would be evicting Kaufman and bulldozing his amusements. Coney Island's second biggest amusement park was now history. This was the beginning of a number of evictions and demolitions. Property that once had active amusements were turned vacant and fenced off with shoddy looking plywood fencing. Tenants who leased the buildings Thor bought were evicted, and the buildings windows were covered with plywood. Eventually even those buildings were demolished. Sitt made it clear, either he gets to build his condos or he would turn Coney Island baron. If Bloomberg would not give him what he needed to build his resort, he was just as happy to wait until the next mayor took office.
PART VI: SITT'S SCHEME
Sitt said he had had spent $100 buying up property in Coney Island. Shortly he purchased the Washington Baths site, the Coney Island Development Corporation announced their plans to rezone that property for condos. Sitt flipped it to Taconic Investments for $90 Million. He had recouped most of his war chest and was now only $10 million in the hole. This gave him the ability to buy up more property along Surf Avenue, including $30 million purchasing the remaining shares of Coney Island Enterprises. While he ended up lowering his offer to the shareholders for the Feltman property, it was another story with Jack Ward who's family owned a narrow strip of land no more than 20 feet wide, an alleyway called Jones Walk. The property also included the remains of the bath house the walk once lead up to. Since the 1950s the remaining first floor of the bath house had been used for the famous Spookarama dark ride. But it was not exactly the Spookarama Sitt was after. Ward's property ran from Surf Avenue to the boardwalk, and much like Astroland would have prevented Sitt's resort from connecting to the Aquarium. Sitt eventually agreed to pay $11 million for the walk.
The resort Sitt said he wanted to build was huge. It was to span from 8th Street to West 21st Street, and would have included part, if not all, of the beach abutting it's border. Not only would the city need to cede park land to Sitt to pull this off, but demap city streets. Landmarked rides would need to be demolished or moved elsewhere. And there would need to be eminent domain for those pesky properties neither Sitt nor the city owned. This is why owning Jones Walk and Feltman's was so vital. The Wards and the Alberts were rich enough to fend off eminent domain for decades. The last thing the city wants is to get into an eminent domain fight with the rich and connected. Not the case with another property owner, Jeff Persily, who practically begged Thor Equities to buy his property. Persily owned a single building on Bowery that Sitt showed little interest in buying. Eminent domain would have taken care of this, forcing Persily to sell to Thor Equities at what the city determined was it's fair market value, somewhere shy of a quarter million dollars. For the same reason Sitt did not bother to buy Bullard's property on the East side of the stadium. He thought the city would take care of that.
Sitt's proposal was just what Bloomberg wanted, aside from the condos being on the wrong side of the street. But the condo thing could easily have been overlooked. Any other mayor would have jumped at Sitt's offer. But Bloomberg did not get rich by making mistakes. A developer coming out of the blue and offering to build exactly what Bloomberg wanted must have seemed too good to be true. Instead of endorsing Sitts plan, the mayor told him to wait while his people reviewed his plans. This was when Sitt switched to plan B, begin shutting down the attractions one by one.
Sitt wanted to own the entire amusement district. About 40 acres of beachfront property that would be zoned to allow condos and retail. If he flipped it to other developers, he could have made $1.2 billion. Developing the property himself, and assuming he sold most of the condos, he could have made over $4 billion. By owning the land under every major attraction he hoped to force the city to adopt his plan. By owning the land he could block the city from using another developer. And by shutting down the attractions, he could permanently destroy the amusement district. Sitt was not just relying on Bloomberg falling for his proposal, he was giving Bloomberg no choice but to accept his proposal. Closing Kaufman's park was just a warning.
Sitt thought he had an airtight plan. The perfect crime. Obviously someone was feeding Sitt inside information, such as zoning proposals long before they were made public. The most likely suspect was his friend Recchia, but Sitt had other politicians in his pocket. One of them was state senator Carl Kruger who in 2012 was sentenced to 7 years in a federal prison for accepting bribes. Not only did Sitt know what would be in the Coney Island Development Corporation's initial strategic plan weeks before it was released, but knew in 2002 that the plan would be completed in 2005. This would be why he asked for the closing of the properties he bought to take place in 2005, so there would not be enough time for the press to snoop around. But his plan began to unravel long before 2005. The Handwerkers refused to sell him the original Nathan's stand. The Vourderis family refused to sell him the Wonder Wheel. He was not able to buy out Coney Island Enterprises until 2006, and Jack Ward did not sell him Jones Walk until a year after that. And the Fitlins did not sell him the El Dorado property until after Scott's untimely death in 2010. Sitt had hoped to own all the major attractions by 2005, so if need be he could shut them all down at once. Instead there was enough holdouts to keep Coney Island wounded but alive.
PART VII: THE CONEY ISLAND DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION
So did Bloomberg bring Sitt to Coney Island? In my opinion, no. While it seemed as if Sitt purchased his property suspiciously close to the release of the Coney Island Development Corporation's strategic plan, my research shows he had been scouting property at Coney Island a good month before Bloomberg was sworn in as Mayor. One myth that has been reported as fact was that Sitt purchased Bullard's Washington Baths property, flipped it to Taconic, and used the profit to buy land in the core of the amusement district. But once again my research shows that was not the case. It seems that Sitt had a $100 million war chest for purchasing property at Coney Island, and had bought the majority of his property long before purchasing Washington Baths. Sitt may not have been brought in by Bloomberg, but that does not mean that the mayor didn't allow him to demolish most of the amusement district to further his own agenda. Critics of the mayor, which include Axe To Grind, have claimed that agenda was ultimately turn the boardwalk and shoreline properties into an upscale playground for the rich. When I hear these accusations I am often reminded of Time Warner Center, the first major building project completed under Bloomberg. If you ever visit it, you notice shop after shop that caters to the very rich. It is not a place for the poor, or even middle class, but for the wealthy tourists. In contrast, Giuliani's last completed project was Times Square, most of which were tourist traps like Madame Tussauds, and the Toys R Us with the ferris wheel and animatronic dinosaur.
If Bloomberg was looking to convert Coney Island into something upscale, it would have gone against the area's history of being a playground for the poor. While the rich did visit Coney Island way back in the 1800s, that all came to an end by the early 1900s. Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Oriental Beach ( Currently the grounds of Kingsborough Community College ) were all once private resorts that only accepted rich white patrons as guests. They usually stayed at their resorts and rarely ventured West of Eastern Parkway where the amusement district was located. By the turn of the 20th century that clientele had moved on to Martha's Vineyard and the Hampton's. With the polluted waters of the Hudson and East Rivers emptying out on the beach, and tankers passing right by the shoreline, Coney Island was just not the place to go when you could afford to travel to a cleaner, pristine and far more exclusive beach. The resorts were demolished and replaced with middle class neighborhoods. This all happened 50 years before the housing projects were built. While the rich were never clamoring to reclaim the beaches of Coney Island, it is not impossible to think that a billionaire like Bloomberg who was not that familiar with Coney Island's history would see things differently.
Lets start with the rumors that Rudolph Giuliani had plans for a major urban renewal project for the amusement district that were postponed by the events of September 11th. This plan would have developed at least the four blocks adjacent to the baseball stadium. It would have been part of a promise to the Wilpons that the baseball stadium would soon be surrounded by new buildings instead of vacant lots. There is some circumstantial evidence this plan existed, the demolition of the Thunderbolt roller coaster. It had to be more than just Giuliani's hubris and the Wilpon's wanting the removal of an eyesore next to the stadium. I have seen proof that money had been raised to restore the coaster and the Kensington Hotel. It would not have been an eyesore once restoration was completed. It would have even looked preferable to a vacant fenced off lot with weeds. The timing of the demolition shows there seemed to have been an urgency to demolish the coaster before restoration commenced. That suggests that Giuliani had other plans for that site, and a restored operating historic roller coaster would have been a major snag. More telling was the demolition order which claimed that the city already owned Bullard's property. This suggests that the original plan was to declare Bullards property a blight on the neighborhood as a precursor to eminent domain, then tear the coaster down at the city's leisure.
A pre-existing plan to redevelop Coney Island would also explain why Bloomberg showed interest in the area so soon after he took office. I imagine his first weeks in office would have been going over the former mayors incomplete projects, such as the early plans to rebuild downtown Manhattan after 9-11. Plans to demolish both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium and replace both with new stadiums were both carried over from Giuliani's administration. One can only imagine that Bloomberg decided to overhaul the plans so that it included the entire area surrounding the amusement district and not juts the couple of blocks abutting the stadium. He officially formed the Coney Island Development Corporation in 2003, a think tank of politicians and businessmen who were to commence a two year study and come up with a strategic plan for redevelopment by 2005. That just happened to be the date of the closing on the properties Thor Equities were purchasing. This does suggest that it had been determined in 2002 that a strategic plan would be completed in 2005, and that information was relayed to Sitt.
So, assuming the original plan was to just develop the blocks next to the stadium, then at what point did Bloomberg come up with the more ambitious plan of redeveloping the entire amusement district, and was his plan finalized even before the Coney Island Development Corporation was formed? Funny thing about the Coney Island Development Corporation. For a think tank looking to redevelop an amusement district, none of it's members were in the amusement industry. In fact, no one from any of the districts businesses, or any of the property owners, or even anyone from the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce were invited to be part of this think tank. Coney Island USA founder Dick Zigun was eventually asked to be a member, but after the initial strategic plan was released. And his tenure did not last long. He resigned shortly after the corporation's master plan was altered to allow more of the amusement district for hotels and retail, calling it a "Compromise of a compromise". Zigun was being ignored. But it also meant that the rest of the Development Corporation was being ignored as well, seeing as their carefully crafted final plan that took five years to complete, was altered overnight by the mayor.
But the devil is always in the details. Reading documents released by the Development Corporation, it becomes obvious that a plan already existed. A year before the strategic plan was released, they released another curious document called the "Development Corporation Presentation", that outlined their strategy. On a list of Coney Islands weaknesses was the boardwalk, which was described as under attractive and a barrier between Surf Ave and the beach. Was this a prelude to replacing the boardwalk with a ground level asphalt walkway? But more curious was a section where they looked to other tourist destinations for lessons on how to improve Coney Island. These included Times Square, California's Venice Beach, Greenwich Village, and the French Quarter in New Orleans. What was missing from this list were successful beachfront amusement districts. Jersey Shore's Seaside Heights would have been a great example. Despite being only 20 miles from Six Flags Great Adventure, Seaside Heights remained successful up until it was slammed by Hurricane Sandy. It even attracted visitors from Philadelphia who drove right past Great Adventure to get there. But was Seaside Heights, Wildwood, or any other successful beachfront amusement district studied to see how they got it right? No. This document showed that the planning process was not "How do we fix Coney Island so it is once again a world class amusement destination?" but rather "How can we reinvent Coney Island so it generates more money?"
The Strategic Plan released in 2005 had it's own curiosities. Some blogs, as well as members on Coney Island USA's bulletin board, questioned one of the strategic plans recommendations. The Inn at The Beach. It was to be a 224 room hotel with casitas and a seaside banquet/catering hall. This was not just a suggestion that the boardwalk needed a hotel, but a specific description of that hotel down to the exact number of rooms it would have. That meant there was already a hotel that a developer had pitched to the city, and prior to any RFP process the Development Corporation was advocating for it as part of their strategic plan. Also of interest was another of the Corporation's recommendations. It was a Seaside Market to span from the stadium to Stillwell, and described as such: "an expressionistic and exuberant market hall with retail fresh fish/vegetables/ethnic specialty foods stands with cooking school and special events hall.". Once again, here was a specific description far before any RFP process to see what other developers offered to build on the same site. Is this proof of a pre-existing plan dating back to Giuliani? Perhaps something he promised the Wilpons that would go up next to their stadium? Well, maybe not proof. But it is unlikely that Bloomberg was making back door deals at that time and more likely the hotel and market were backdoor deals from the previous administration.
It is also interesting how quickly the hotel and market were dropped from the Corporation's master plan, along with the other seemingly back door projects that turned up in the strategic plan. Those included something called "The Boardwalk Follies" which would have been "a series of four individualistic themed pavilions", and a multiplex theater for art house films called "The Island Cinema". Something else dropped was plans to strip Surf Ave of all amusements. The property lining the street would be rezoned to allow retail with residential lofts above. The Corporation suggested this mundane use of Surf Ave could be disguised with "super graphic billboards above" the stores. They even made mention that the loft apartments above the stores would only have "partial views due to billboards requiring funky & edgy architectural layouts". Joe Sitt would later adopt the same idea for flashy billboards as a facade for Stillwell Ave. This was the last time the Corporation would advocate rezoning the Eastern half of the amusement district for residential buildings.
The 2005 Strategic Plan was mostly a dead end with just about every suggestion either immediately abandoned, or put so far on the back burner that they still have not been implemented. Within weeks the mayors office was announcing plans that seemed counter to the initial strategic plan. There had been no mention of amusements in the strategic plan, but instead a lot of talk of using the amusement district for other purposes. Upscale eateries on the boardwalk, art theaters, outdoor food markets, the 224 room hotel and the combo retail and residential buildings would all have been built on land currently zoned for amusements, even potentially displacing some of the operating amusements. But suddenly city hall was talking about bringing amusements and other entertainment as far West as 21st Street. There was artwork that showed amusements and arcades on the North side of Surf Ave where just weeks earlier the Corporation wanted retail. There was even talk of building a canopy over Stillwell Ave that would be similar to Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Instead of the sedate Greenwich Village like neighborhood the Corporation had suggested, Bloomberg wanted to bring the excitement and glitz of Las Vegas to Coney Island. And there was Joe Sitt, claiming the resort he wanted to build would be just like Las Vegas' Bellagio, despite releasing renderings of a hotel that looked like the Bahama's Atlantis.
It was also the first time there was talk of extending Stillwell Ave into the sea. Bloomberg wanted to build an ocean pier. And Sitt just happened to have a pier in his proposed resort. But while both Sitt and Bloomberg were promoting images of a grand pier with amusements and entertainment, this was not the pier that would have been built. There was already talk of bringing ferry service back to Coney Island. Somewhere it was discovered that there had been money allocated to building a pier at Coney Island, a project that had been forgotten about for years. The catch was that the pier could only be used for transportation, and not for amusements or dining. As long as there was money for a pier sitting around, the city may as well build it. But no sooner was there talk of a pier than everyone assumed something like the Santa Monica Pier.
The old strategic plan scrapped, the Corporation began work on a new two year plan. This time the strategic plan was to be final. Sitt's request to build a single resort was turned down, as were his requests to at least rezone the property he owned to residential. The Corporation spent the next two years ignoring Sitt, while officials from city hall made statements like "Thor's proposal is dead in the water" and calling Joe Sitt a "con artist". But while Sitt was to be ignored, Taconic Investments wasn't. This was the same company Sitt had sold the Washington Baths site to, and had further made an investment by buying the landmarked but abandoned Child's restaurant on the boardwalk. Taconic quickly bought up property on Surf Ave, across from Steeplechase. They then began negotiations to buy Steeplechase itself. Everything West of the stadium and Parachute Jump, which was currently used as a parking lot for the stadium. Both Bloomberg and the Corporation gave in to every demand Taconic made. Even in the matter of zoning. Bloomberg was only going to agree to residential zoning on condition the ground floors of the buildings be used for amusements, arcades and other entertainment. Taconic renegotiated that to residential only. With Sitt causing so much trouble East of the stadium, the city ceding to Taconic's demands went unnoticed. Some have even suggested that Taconic paid sitt to cause trouble on the East side so that what they were doing on the West side would go under the radar.
This was the compromise that Zigun complained about. The property in question had not seen amusements since the mid 1960s, so Zigun had agreed to cede that part of the amusement district for the better good of the core amusement zone. But then came what he called the compromise of a compromise. The "final" strategic plan was to be released in the fall of 2007. This was supposed to be what the city wanted. What was suppose to be the best possible plan for Coney Island. Even Joe Sitt had promised that he would abide by this final plan. But he didn't. After the final plan was released, Sitt went on the attack, as did every politician in his pocket. The final plan had the city combining the remaining amusement district into a 15 acre city owned amusement park, and called for the building of very large and very expensive rides. Politicians on Sitt's side argued that the city did not have the money to build such a park, and why should the taxpayer be burdened with the cost? A few months after the "final" strategic plan was released, Bloomberg seemed to cave. He agreed to reduce the amusements to only 9 acres. Some of Sitt's property would be rezoned to allow high rise hotels and retail malls. So much for five years of careful planning.
The first step in implementing the final strategic plan was to hold a legally obligated community meeting where the Coney Island Development Corporation would formerly introduce their plan in full, and allow members from the community to comment. The meeting was to be held at Coney Island Hospital on November 19, 2007 in an auditorium that had limited space. Only about 200 people would be allowed by the fire department. In the days before the meeting 150 local residents and business owners RSVP'ed tickets, and another 30-45 residents were expected to show up. Shortly before the meeting began 10 school buses showed up which were filled with over 400 protesters in green caps that read "The Bloomberg Plan: How Much $? How Long? Who Pays?", all who demanded to be allowed in the meeting. Most were not from the local community. Some had been bussed in from as far away as Red Hook. The leader of this group was state senator Carl Kruger, who up to that time had never mentioned any position on Coney Island's development. The fire department shut the meeting down before it ever got started, and the police quietly dispersed the mob. But not before many of them were interviewed by members of the press, who discovered that most of the protesters had no idea exactly what they were protesting. It would later be revealed that Kruger had financed this stunt with his own campaign funds, which in turn had been donated to him via Thor Equities.
Kruger was not the first politician to come out of the woodwork and try to block Bloomberg's plan. They all made the same argument. How much would Bloomberg's amusement park cost? How long would it take to build it? And how much would the tax payer be expected to pay? And they all wanted to know why the city was not backing Joe Sitt's plan which would have Thor Equities and other private investors financing the project rather than the tax payer. And according to Sitt, he was ready to begin building his resort immediately. None of these politicians seemed concerned of Thor Equities track record of proposing large scale construction projects, getting the rezoning they needed for those projects, then immediately putting the property on the market instead of building what they promised. By 2007 just about everyone was convinced that if Joe Sitt got the zoning and property he had been asking for, that he would then sell that property for a profit to the highest bidder. And odds were that the highest bidder would only use the residential zoning to build condos and nothing else. No resort, no amusements.
Sitt had enough politicians in pocket to stop Bloomberg's plans in their tracks. Steeplechase Park had been designated a city park. By law that designation could not be removed unless it was replaced with local land of equal acreage. The Coney Island Development Corporation had proposed moving the park designation to property east of the stadium which would become the 15 acre amusement park he proposed to build. This would open Steeplechase Park for development. But Bloomberg framed the idea of moving park designation as a way to add an extra layer of protection to the amusement district. If in the future anyone tried to build condos on that land, they would not only need to have it rezoned, but have the impossible task of finding land nearby of equal size as a replacement. And the city could move this park designation onto private property, even against the property owners wishes. But he would need the approval of the city council. And most of them were now refusing to go up against Sitt.
The Coney Island Development Corporation's plan called for a 15 acre amusement park which would eventually be operated by a single company. The remaining amusement district East of the stadium would be zoned for restaurants and indoor entertainment including "entertainment retail". Two lots would be zoned to allow tower sized hotels. One parcel belonging to Horace Bullard, the other belonging to Nathan's and would involve the demolition of their original hot dog stand. These sites were picked as a bluff. Bullard was still refusing to build anything on his property, and if he did build a hotel then it would only replace the abandoned Playland arcade building the city had wanted torn down for decades. And Nathan's would never demolish their most famous attraction just for a hotel. Picking those sites for hotels was a deliberate f#ck you to Sitt who had asked for hotel zoning on his own property. A message from Bloomberg.
With Sitt's pals causing a stalemate, Bloomberg offered a compromise that cut the size of his amusement park and gave Sitt more property and the right to build a single hotel and the rest for entertainment themed retail. Sitt countered with his own "compromise", only 6.5 acres would be designated open amusement park land, which would be property leased exclusively to Thor Equities. Some of the park land would be used for parking. The rest of the amusement district, which presumably the city would acquire through eminent domain, would be turned over to Thor Equities for development, presumably residential with ground floor retail. The final compromise agreed to by Sitt and Bloomberg, the park would only be 9 acres, most of which Sitt would sell to the city at a profit, and Sitt's property would be rezoned for two tower sized hotels and normal strip mall and box store retail. The Corporation's plan was completely ignored.
While it would seem that Bloomberg was capitulating to Thor Equities, what he was capitulating to was Taconic. In the summer of 2007 deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff had tried to settle the impasse between Sitt and Bloomberg with the proposition of a land swap. The city would trade land with Thor Equities. Sitt would give the city his two lots lining Stillwell Ave in trade of the entire baseball stadium parking lot and Abe Stark Rink building. The parking lot would then be given whatever zoning Sitt wanted. Despite being offered what amounted to twice as much land zoned for condo towers, the trade never happened, with no one on record as to which side turned the deal down. Since Doctoroff resigned from office soon after, it is assumed that he proposed the deal without Bloomberg's consent, and the city never actually offered Sitt the trade. But soon after it was announced that the city would be selling that same parking lot property to Taconic. It is still not clear if Taconic had been negotiating for the property prior to the land swap offer, but it explained Bloomberg's desperation to move park designation off of the property.
This is where there is credence to claims that all Bloomberg wanted all along was condos. The impasse between Sitt and Bloomberg was holding up developing condos West of the stadium. Taconic now owned all the property that had been proposed for residential zoning, but would not begin building until they also acquired the parking lot property. There was a reason for this. Boardwalk property is premium. Not so much property away from the boardwalk. Your tower with a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean could have it's view blocked by another tower. Buildings on the boardwalk would not be facing that possibility. And buyers liked the idea of being able to walk out their front door and right onto the beach, rather than trek down the block to get to the beach. Build condos on Surf Ave and someone else builds another condo building on the boardwalk, then buyers would purchase units in the boardwalk building first. Taconic owned 200 feet of boardwalk facing property. Purchasing the parking lot and Abe Stark Rink would have given them 700 feet, and a monopoly on any boardwalk condos.
It appears that Bloomberg went to great lengths to appease Taconic. Not only did he cave on the edict that residential buildings to the West have entertainment and other attractions on the ground floor, but even gave in on the height of Taconic's buildings. It even appears that the alteration of Steeplechase Plaza was to appease Taconic, who preferred no amusements be built near their buildings. Steeplechase Plaza was one of the later suggestions by the Coney Island Development Corporation, and to date the only item in their strategic plan to be built. Originally Steeplechase Plaza was designed to reactivate amusements beyond West 16th Street. Initially just a pavilion to be built at the base of the Parachute Jump, there were later plans to include other amusements, one of which was to be the classic B&B carousel which the city had bought at auction. The plaza was amended from amusements to a skateboard park, and then from a skateboard park to an open public space with the B&B's pavilion built as far away from the parking lot as possible. Even the early version of the strategic plan seemed to be designed to make the neighborhood more desirable to the building of condos. Would anyone travel all the way to Coney Island for an open air food market and an art house multiplex? Not likely, but there are people who would not mind having those sort of things withing walking distance of their residence. Even the suggestion to bring retail to Surf Ave and upscale restaurants to the boardwalk seemed like attempts to make Coney Island more residential friendly.
But this is all just speculation. It could just be a coincident that amendments were made to the strategic plan which benefited Taconic. Is there any proof that the city was deliberately altering the amusement district so that it would be more condo friendly? Yes there is. Like I said, the devil is in the details. And one detail which has remained a constant in the city's redevelopment plan can only be explained as being built to the benefit of new residential buildings.
PART IX: BOWERY
Coney Island's legendary Steeplechase Park was conceived and built by George Tilyou. After his death ownership of the park passed among Tilyou family members. It shut it's doors in the 1960s when George's daughter Marie decided that she did not want control of the park passing to the other family members who she had not been getting along with. She still had enough controlling interest in the property to force a sale. Her intention was end Steeplechase completely, which is why she specifically sold the park to Fred Trump, a real estate developer and father of Donald Trump. The Steeplechase property predated the zoning laws. Up until the 50s the Tilyous had residential buildings on the property, eventually torn down when none of the surviving family members wanted to live in the midst of a noisy crowded amusement park. This grandfathered residential zoning onto the property despite it being withing Coney Island's C7 zoning.
Something else grandfathered onto the property was the right to build tall structures. This dated back to the Globe Tower, a scam from the early 1900s where a con artists convinced hundreds of investors that he would build the worlds tallest building at Coney Island. The con artist leased a corner of Steeplechase park for the building, laid a concrete base, and then disappeared with millions of dollars of the investors money. It took a few years for the investors to figure out they had been swindled, but in the meantime had prevented George Tilyou, who knew a con job when he saw one, from using the footprint the tower was to be built on. He neither received the rent he was due for the land, nor was able to use the property for nearly a decade. While this was a great inconvenience to him, it did grandfather in the right to build tall structures on the property, something that would come in handy 40 years later when his son erected The Parachute Jump.
Trump had wanted to use the Steeplechase property for a new upscale housing project. He had the blessing of Marie Tilyou who wanted the amusement park gone and no possibility of it ever being rebuilt by someone else. But more important, he actually had every legal right to use the property the way he wanted. But there was opposition from the local businesses. They insisted that the property could only be used for amusements, and brought Trump to court. His lawyers advised him that while they would eventually win their case, that the opposition could find other legal means to block his projects from being built. One of them was the new landmark laws. If Steeplechase Park was designated a landmark, Trump would not be allowed to tear it down. While the Tilyou family had auctioned off every ride and attraction prior to Trump taking control of the property, the structures including the historic Pavilion of Fun were still standing. Trump was advised to tear everything down, which he did, with exception to the Parachute Jump which was too massive for bulldozers to knock over.
With the threat of landmarking now gone, there was one last hurdle. The Enviormental Impact Study. Any large scale construction required an EIS first. And if the EIS proved the housing projects would be detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood, then opponents to Trump's buildings could use the EIS findings to block construction. When the EIS was completed it made the following observation. There were already too many housing projects. In addition, the city had cleared entire blocks of middle class houses with plans to build many more housing projects. The EIS worried that with so many new residents living on the peninsula, how they all would be evacuated during an emergency. Hundreds of thousands of residents would converge on the Cropsey Ave and Stillwell Ave bridges, causing traffic on both to slow to a crawl. Thousands of more residents at Steeplechase would only compound the situation. The only way to elevate the problem was to create new roads. Specifically a new road that would parallel the Boardwalk, taking Steeplechase residents to 8th Street where they could bypass the bridges by driving out via McDonald Ave.
Once again Trump turned to the Tilyou family. George Tilyou's parents moved to Coney Island in the 1860s, opening a snack bar approximately where the parachute jump stands today. In 1882, when George was 20, the family built a vaudeville theater north of their snack bar. This was during a building boom when hundreds of shacks were being built haphazardly across the island. George worried that his parent's theater would soon be hidden behind a maze of saloons, clam bars and other shacks. Some of the bath houses took the precaution of building private walkways that ran inland up to the railroad property, thus insuring that their establishments would not be cut off. At that time the biggest tourist attraction was Feltman's Beer Garden & Pavilion. It was so massive that it stretched from the shore to Surf Ave. George came up with a novel idea. Instead of building a north-south walkway as the bath houses had, he decided to build one that ran East from the theater to Feltman's.
At first the Tilyou's were mocked for building their road. Since it was still assumed visitors desired nothing more than to go to the beach, an east-west walkway was seen as useless. Local property owners jokingly called Tilyou Walk "The Bowery" after Manhattan's famed Bowery, which at that time was the city's theater district. The nickname stuck, and soon the road's official name became Bowery. But George had the foresight to realize that Coney Island was evolving into something new. Soon more people would visit for the attractions than the beach. By the turn of the century that became the case, most in part thanks to George Tilyou building Steeplechase Park. As the amusements at Coney Island became more popular than the beach, Bowery soon became the area's most important thoroughfare, the only road that allowed access between all the attractions, cutting through the maze of buildings. In the years that followed, fires destroyed most of the random shacks. New York City built roads throughout the island, bringing a strict grid work of streets and avenues. The Boardwalk was built along the edge of the beach. Even Bowery was widened to allow fire trucks, but still remained a pedestrian only walkway.
Trump saw Bowery as the solution to his EIS problems. If Bowery could be opened to auto traffic, and extended two blocks East to 8th Street, then it could serve as an evacuation rout for the residents of Steeplechase that would not interfere with those evacuating along Surf Avenue. While Trump's fight over the zoning took the headlines, quietly behind the scenes he was taking steps to convince the city to change Bowery from a walkway to an avenue. In 1968 Trump announced he was abandoning plans to build a housing project at Steeplechase, and began negotiations to sell the property to the city.
According to most Coney Island historians, including Charles Denson who wrote the definitive history book of it's amusement parks, Trump failed because the city refused his request to formally rezone the property. Most likely there were other factors. As pointed out, the right to build residential buildings was grandfathered onto the property. A formal rezoning would have stopped the opposition, but he could have easily pursued the zoning issue in court and won. The real problem was that Trump had touched of a huge political mess. Both Trump and his opponents called in every political chit and favor owed to them, until the real battle over Steeplechase's future was quietly going on at City Hall between the politicians. And then a huge miscalculation from Trump. Prior to tearing down the remains of Steeplechase Park, Trump threw an expensive party inviting nearly everyone from the local business district, a who's who of politicians, and members of the press. Four bikini clad models handed out hot dogs to the guests, then proceeded to yank down pre cut sections of the park's wall that was attached to ropes. The models then handed out the resulting debris and invited guests to hurl them through the plate glass windows of the park's pavilion. The bulldozers were brought in and the models posed in their buckets for the press.
The idea of the party was to demoralize the opponents who had blocked Trump's initial rezoning request. But it backfired, angering most of the city. The politicians that backed Trump quietly crawled back under their respective rocks, frightened that they would end up associated with the now unpopular housing project once it was built. Attempting to repair the damage his party had done, Trump offered to build a single mammoth structure above the remaining amusements allowing them to operate year round as a single indoor park. The local property owners declined his offer. Behind the scenes Trumps political friends tried to talk him out of his project. The city offering to buy Steeplechase Park giving Trump a huge profit may have been part of those talks. Shutting down Trump's request for Bowery may well have been the deciding factor.
PART X: THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
In the earliest document from the Coney Island Development Corporation, the Development Corporation Presentation, they mention as one of Coney Island's weaknesses an "incoherent streetscape" and "no through streets". It suggested they needed a new "street/block plan". In 2005 we learned what they meant when they said there was not enough East/West access. They said there was a need for a road that would allow people to travel between the West side of the amusement district, that's West of the Parachute Jump, and the East side where Astroland and the Cyclone was. They began talking about the need to build a new street, or reconfigure the streets already there, that would allow traffic to cut through the center of the amusement district.The Corporation even studied the idea of building a "transit loop" where an oval route for a bus or monorail would be built inside the amusement district.
Eventually the idea the Corporation settled on was to reroute Bowery. Bowery would be widened from 12th Street to Stillwell, where it would then change course and turn Southwest, around the stadium, and on to the West side. The explanation was that there would soon be amusements and entertainment on the West side, so a street was needed to connect the East and West ends of the amusement district. But the West side was owned by Tacoinc, who would be building condos with nothing on their ground floors. There would be no reason for crowds of people to go West. Even after the city altered the strategic plan so that the West was residential only, the city went forward with the road. By that time the idea of widening and rerouting Bowery hit a snag. Thor Equities owned property on both sides, which meant that technically they owned that section of Bowery. Predictably Sitt let city officials know that they would not be allowed to use his section of Bowery. The Corporation went back to plan B, a road in between Bowery and the Boardwalk. This new street was to be called Wonder Wheel Way, and would run along the border of Sitt's property.
Recently a section of that road was built between West 12th street and Stillwell. Despite the city's insistence that the amusement district lacked proper East-West access, my observations of this road was that it was barely being used. East-West access already existed with both Surf Ave and the Boardwalk, and with Bowery between both. And yet plans still exist to expand this route. Currently it no longer runs past the back of the stadium. Instead it terminates at Steeplechase Plaza, then picks up on the other side. A wide right of way exists at Steeplechse Plaza so that if needed, Wonder Wheel Way could continue West and connect with that other road.
Back in 2005 Sitt offered to build the city a road that ran around the back of the stadium. Since Sitt was being fed inside information, this showed that he believed the city was desperate to have that road built, which is why it was tacked onto his resort. Problem was his road would terminate at Stillwell, ending in a driveway for one of his buildings. It seems that the city wanted this road to at least terminate at West 12th Street, and some disturbing lines on some of the Coney Island Development Corporation maps show that there existed some plans for that same road to continue through Astroland, and then cut through the Cyclone, terminating at West 8th Street. The need for pedestrian access heading West comes off as a poor excuse to build a road. A simple requirement for a midway would have provided that East-West access. So why the need for a wide street with auto traffic?
What currently exists is truly a road to nowhere. It starts at West 12th Street, but goes no further East. It can't. In 2008 Domenic Recchia, who helped negotiate the compromise, got Bloomberg to agree not to ever use eminent domain in Coney Island. This was more to protect his friend Sitt from having his land taken away than protecting the few other property owners, but it did protect Ron Guerrero and the Vourderis family from having Wonder Wheel Way continue across their properties. Guerrero owned a strip of land that Thor neglected to buy on the East side of West 12th Street, one that leased to a collection of rides known to the locals as 12th Street Amusements. The most prominent of those amusements, a portable spook house called The Ghost Hole that features an animatronic drunk throwing up gallons of puke in a toilet bowl near the entrance. Guerrero's strip of land shares the block with the Vourderis strip of land which includes The Wonder Wheel along with a few other rides and attractions. Wonder Wheel Way should have been built right through this property and across the Feltman property to West 10th Street. It was called Wonder Wheel Way because it was suppose to go right past the Wonder Wheel. Heading West it goes three blocks and ends at West 16th, terminating at Steeplechase Plaza. Since West 16th Street has been closed off for over two decades now, Wonder Wheel Way terminates in an awkward dead end. Furthermore the city has taken steps to close off Stillwell Ave to auto traffic from Surf Ave to the boardwalk, making it a pedestrian mall. This makes Wonder Wheel Way all the more pointless.
And yet, it does have a devious purpose. For the longest time I found Wonder Wheel Way as a colossal waist of money. A pointless street. I could not understand the urgency to build it. Especially coming from Bloomberg who had spent most of his administration closing streets to auto traffic. You can't drive down Broadway through Times Square anymore, but he wanted cars to drive through the amusement district? This all did not make any sense until someone tipped me off about Fred Trump's EIS. Now it did make sense. Any EIS for Taconic's condos would be no different than the one Fred Trump had. Building a new road that cuts from the condos over to West 8th Street would keep Taconic from facing the same snag that Trump hit.
Currently Wonder Wheel Way is pedestrian only. But it is obviously too wide to have been built for pedestrians. When I last checked, the section between Stillwell and Steeplechase Plaza, the part that passes through still vacant lots, was fenced off. The right of way continues through Steeplechase Plaza, and beyond there the city plans to build another street called Ocean Way once the parking lot used for the stadium is dismantled. The parking lot preserves Ocean Way's right of way. While Wonder Wheel Way only exists as fragmented parts and a few preserved right of ways, it could easily be completed in a matter of days. Eminent domain? Bloomberg may have promised not to use it, but made no promises his successor would not rely on it. Wonder Wheel Way would cut across the Feltman property, currently being leased to Zamperla for their version of Luna Park. From there behind the Cyclone and on to 8th Street. If the current EIS for redeveloping Coney Island gives anti residential activists the same ammunition for holding the project up in court for decades, as Trump's EIS would have done in the '60s, then Wonder Wheel Way could almost immediately be extended from a useless nub to a major street.
There is no other logical explanation for Wonder Wheel Way. The original reasoning for it was that amusements and entertainment would be extended West beyond the Parachute Jump. And there would be need for a "connector" between the East and West ends of the amusement district. But Taconic negotiated away any requirement to build ground floor amusements and entertainment. Even Abe Stark Rink would be demolished. There is now no more West amusement district to connect to. There is Steeplechase Plaza with it's single carousel. But Steeplechase Plaza was built right next to the boardwalk which is, in fact, an East to West pedestrian walkway. But even though there was no longer a reason to build it, it was built. That means there was another reason, and that reason, if not for the benefit of the amusements district, has to be the condos. The only explanation left. It uses up space that could have gone to more rides, and when completed, there will be cars racing through the amusements. That makes Wonder Wheel Way a detriment to Coney Island's amusement district, simply to benefit a possible new condo district.
After being criticized for cutting the amusement district down to 9 acres, the city seemingly reconsidered and plans are now for a 27 acre park. This, however, is yet another ruse. Look closely and you will see the city would be building a 27 acre park zoned for "amusements and entertainment". So basically, the same 9 acres left for amusements with the baseball stadium, aquarium and nearby Asser Levy Park lumped in. That is where the additional 18 acres came from. Why Asser Levy Park? A few years back there had been plans to allow a private developer to lease that park to build a concert venue. Local activists were able to put a stop to it, citing the concert venue, which would be built right across the street from residential buildings and a house of worship, would violate existing nuisance laws. While Asser Levy will now go back to just being a park, it's 21 acres are still considered part of the bigger 27 acre amusement and entertainment park. But even the 9 acre park leaves something to be desired. Bloomberg does not want it to be amusements only. There has been talk of open air performance spaces, bowling alleys, restaurants, entertainment retail, a multiplex cinema and an acre wide outdoor ice skating rink, all to exist within the 9 acre park. This does not leave much room for the traditional rides, games and sideshows one expects from an amusement park.
Just the plans for building the acre wide wide ice skating rink shows a disregard for amusements. Obviously the rink can not be use during the summer. So, good place to put a few portable amusements, right? Over in Central Park, Wollman Rink is rented to Central Amusement International each summer for a temporary amusement park called Victorian Gardens. Central Amusement International is the same company that co-manages the Zamperla parks at Coney Island, and could easily place temporary amusements on any idle outdoor rink at Coney Island. But the parks department wants the rink to be used as a reflecting pool during the summer.
But the most troubling thing about Bloomberg's plan is that it will evaporate the second he leaves office. The next mayor will make the final decision on the fate of the amusement district. One must not forget the lesson learned from Horace Bullard's failed attempt to resurrect Steeplechase Park. Mayor David Dinkins backed Bullard's plans, and even leased him the Steeplechase property. Giuliani canceled that same lease within months of taking office, and very shortly after steamrolled plans to use the same site for his baseball stadium. Just as easily, the best laid plans of Bloomberg and the Coney Island Development Corporation could be overturned by the next mayor. What will he ( or she ) want the land used for? Will the next mayor be pro Sitt, naming the only person with money who wants to build there the sole developer? Perhaps the next mayor will envision casinos. Or decide Coney Island needs more low income housing projects. Perhaps a major league soccer stadium will go up, and the rest of the land used for it's parking lot. Or perhaps the next mayor will decide that the tax payers money should not be used for recreation. All monies going to Coney Island would be reallocated elsewhere, and Zamperla and the independent amusement operators would be left behind to sink or swim on their own.
What Bloomberg has done was to leave the door open for the next mayor to either complete what has been started, or abuse what has been started for his own purposes. The evidence that Bloomberg wanted to, at the least, alter the amusement district into a family friendly residential ready neighborhood is overwhelming. There is the early strategic plans which ignored amusements and wanted upscale trendy restaurants, open air markets and retail. There was overwhelming apathy when it came to stopping Sitt from evicting businesses and destroying historic buildings and other structures worthy of landmark status. There was even more apathy when Central Amusement International tried to evict popular attractions from the boardwalk, and when Zamperla was allowed to damage the Astro-Tower and eventually tear it down. And there is the fact that the city wants the independent amusement operators to be managed by the same Central Amusement International, potentially driving them out for good. Even the mayors unrealistic goal of wanting businesses and attractions to operate year round seems like a pretext to getting rid of seasonal attractions, like the rides. But the proof is in the road to nowhere, Wonder Wheel Way. So maybe Axe To Grind is not so paranoid after all. Maybe Bloomberg is the master puppeteer manipulating Thor and Zamperla and others to do his dirty work. But in six months that will not matter, because we will have a new bozo in office who will have his own redevelopment strategy