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Urban Devastation: The Bulldozing of Coney Island

Updated on December 17, 2009
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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