This summer was a quiet one for Coney Island. With no Astroland, Sodom by the Sea was a shadow of its former self, even with the Cyclone, Wonder Wheel, and Ringling Brothers Circus in full swing. It has been months since the circus left town and the few rides have gone quiet, but the Bloomberg administration promises Coney Island is due for a comeback next summer, now that it has finally reached a deal with local developer Joe Sitt to buy 6.9 acres of his boardwalk-bordering property.
“Coney Island will remain a destination for people who want to have a good time and it will continue to be an icon for New York,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a City Hall press conference today announcing the $95.6 million deal.
The city acquired three properties, including the 3-acre former Astroland site that stretches from Surf Avenue to the Boardwalk, as well as a 2-acre lot and a 1.6-acre lot from the boardwalk to Wonder Wheel Way, a new street running through the middle of the amusement district created by the rezoning of the area earlier this year.
While today’s deal ensures the boardwalk will continue to be lined with rides and amusements instead of condos and hotel towers, it will still be years, if not decades, before Coney Island is once again the world-class theme park the Bloomberg administration envisions. The first major issue is finally connecting much of the area to the grid, which involves a $150 million infrastructure investment by the city across the 47-acre area, providing stable electrical, plumbing, and other amenities to support large-scale development.
The city also wants to keep the area vibrant while it is in transition, so a request for proposals is being issued tomorrow to find an operator for the three parcels just acquired. The city hopes to get amusements up and running by next year on the Astroland site with a phased approach for the other two. And while those amusements will be only semi-permanent as the build-out of the area continues, the mayor emphasized they will be twice as large as what was offered last summer. “We should have 10 acres of amusements open for business,” he said.
Over time, the three parcels will be incorporated with the two extant amusements, Deno’s Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, as well as a parcel adjacent to Keyspan Park for which the city is still negotiating, and Steeplechase Plaza, a new park at the base of the Parachute Jump that is currently in design. While these pieces will be run by a handful of operators in the interim, the expectation is that they will be combined at some point into a single, contiguous 12-acre park, though this process could take at least a decade given current contracts.
“It’s a mitzvah created today by the Bloomberg administration,” Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island U.S.A, said in an interview. He pointed out that, while some people wanted a larger park, there has been nothing on this scale since the 15-acre Steeplechase Park closed in 1964.
It remains unclear why a deal was reached now, except that both sides said they have been working on it diligently. The city’s final offer on Sitt’s 10.5 acres of Coney land was $105 million, made last February. Sitt countered with $165 million, saying that was what he required to make his $92 million acquisition profitable. Both sides appear to have met in the middle, as Sitt retains more land while the city spends slightly less money, though more per square foot.
Sitt, for his part, appeared excited at the possibility not only of building two hotels on Surf Avenue but also having land to operate for amusements. “Your dream is going to come true and I’m so pleased you allowed me to remain a part of it,” the developer said during the press conference. He noted that just as permanent amusements would be slow to arise, his projects would take time and be dependent not only on the recovery of the real estate market but also the infrastructure improvements. "Really, our timeline, to be blunt, will ride on the coattails of the city," he said.
Some amusement advocates are less enthusiastic, however. While Zigun said today’s deal was the best that could be hoped for, the group Save Coney Island is calling for further acquisitions because its members believe a larger amusement area is required to create a critical mass of visitors. “We think it’s a good step, but it’s not really enough,” spokesperson Juan Ramos said. “It doesn’t address the problems the city’s rezoning creates of enclosing a huge chunk of Coney Island in a wall of high rises.”