You can’t put a price on revenge.
The city will use eminent domain to scoop up blighted Coney Island lots so it can expand the amusement district per a 2009 rezoning plan. Officials tried for years to buy the land, but said property owners were asking way too much. But one property-owning family’s obstinacy may have been sour grapes rather than an attempt to sweeten the pot.
Horace Bullard dreamed of rebuilding Coney’s iconic Steeplechase Park and reviving the crumbling Shore Theater, but the city threw sand on his fire, and the dead landlord’s family was likely holding off the sale over a grudge, according to a longtime community leader.
“I think they’re still bitter, especially since his death,” said Chuck Reichenthal, who served as Community Board 13’s district manager for two decades. “I think there’s probably a lot of resentment to the city.”
The fried-chicken mogul was born in Harlem, but his heart was bound to Coney Island, and he dreamed of restoring the once world-class amusement destination to its former glory.
In the late ’70s, Bullard purchased the historic Shore Theater, a once-renowned Broadway-style theater that had been reduced to screening distinctly undignified triple-X flicks. Bullard hoped to convert the theater into a casino, but the city refused his request to allow gambling in the neighborhood.
His ultimate dream, however, lay in his 1985 designs to reinvent the legendary Steeplechase Park as a 75-ride, 17-acre mega park. Bullard leased the site from the city, but then-mayor Rudy Giuliani never supported the $55-million dream and eventually yanked the lease — something Bullard remained bitter over, an area historian said.
“Unfortunately, he could not let go of his anger over the loss of his Coney Island lease and his belief that Mayor Giuliani’s decision to cancel the lease was racially motivated,” Charles Denson wrote on his blog coneyislandhistory.org in 2013.
The final nail in the coffin came in 2000, when Giuliani illegally demolished the original Thunderbolt roller coaster in the dead of night — the coaster sat on the very plot the city is now seizing.
Reichenthal bets Bullard’s bitterness over the defeats rubbed of on his daughter, Jasmine, who now owns the property.
“They must have watched and felt for him as we’d feel for a member of our family who had an exciting plan that everybody kept laughing at,” said Reichenthal. “Every decade is different, and I don’t think the city or even the borough was ready to look at it seriously enough.”
Bullard’s motivation aside, it is good that the city is doing something with the fallow land, one local businessman said.
“I run tours, and they’re very popular, but for the most part, they’re a ghost tour,” said Michael Quinn, who owns Coney Island Tours. “I mostly show them empty lots — what was there and what could be there. I think its important for those lots to be developed. I hate walking around and seeing empty, unused lots, and I think most people would agree with me.”
Jasmine Bullard, who indicated after her father’s 2013 death that she might take up his development mantel, did not return a request for comment.