For the first time, the war over the future of Coney Island is offering some positive collateral damage.
For more than two years, the Bloomberg administration has blocked the neighborhood’s principal landowner, Joe Sitt of Thor Equities, from moving ahead with his $1.5-billion plan to create an all-year, Vegas-style complex of rides, hotels, shopping and nightlife.
Sitt hasn’t exactly been a carnival barker, either. He did not renew Astroland’s lease, and closed popular independent rides and attractions like the batting cages. Also, he held out for months before giving his Boardwalk shop tenants new — and more expensive — leases. And his efforts to bring some life to his other properties have been weak and scatter-shot.
The result has been a Coney Island that enters the summer season under a cloud of uncertainty. Millions of people will still visit, if only for the beach, a Nathan’s hot dog or a Brooklyn Cyclones baseball game, but without a vibrant amusement area, Coney loses its essential identity.
Amid this ongoing battle between the mayor and Sitt, the combatants have opened up a new front: the public-relations war. Both sides are under great pressure to demonstrate that a vibrant, lively Coney Island could be achieved easily were it not for the obstinacy of the other side.
As a result, the city has trumpeted its few achievements this spring as earth-shaking events. Yes, a one-ring version of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to Coney Island this summer, but when the tent stakes are pulled up in September, the same long-term problem will remain: the city will still be backing a rezoning plan that does not have broad community support and requires huge land-acquisition costs borne by taxpayers.
Meanwhile, Sitt has also been churning out press releases this spring. First, he boasted of a grand “Festival By the Sea,” which will feature rides, sideshows, a “marketplace” and the Red Hook vendors.
There will even be, apparently, a two-headed cow.
But, like the city’s big announcement, Sitt’s summertime “Festival” is ultimately one big tease, a reminder that both he and the mayor have punted on the real challenge: finding a long-term solution to Coney’s decades-long decline.
Instead of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on land, the city merely needs to allow year-round attractions, such as bowling alleys, movie theaters and indoor rides in the area currently zoned for outdoor rides.
It would then be up to Sitt to conform to that zoning or sell to someone who would.
So, yes, Coney Island will be a lively place this summer. But Mayor Bloomberg and Joe Sitt have failed to find a permanent solution.