Coney Islanders hold rally to protest boardwalk rent increases

Photo by Rose Adams

Protesters took to the steps of City Hall on Thursday to protest massive rent hikes along the Coney Island boardwalk, which threaten to shut down local mom and pop shops across the People’s Playground, according to one business owner. 

“I would have to close,” said Dianna Carlin, the owner of Lola Star Boutique who says she faces a nearly 500-percent rent increase. “I have no choice. I don’t know any business that could pay that much.” 

Six Riegelmann Boardwalk businesses — including 85-year-old Ruby’s Bar and Grill and 57-year-old Paul’s Daughter — have until Dec. 31 to negotiate the proposed rent hikes, which will go into effect on Jan. 1. 

According to Carlin, none of the businesses have yet reached an agreement with Zamperla, the Italian company that operates the amusement park and the surrounding boardwalk on behalf of the city. 

The rally, organized by Carlin’s small business advocacy group, Save Coney Island, drew over a dozen colorful protesters — including famed sword swallower the Great Fredini, a pageant winner on stilts, and several local mavens — all of whom accused Zamperla of threatening the heart of the People’s Playground.

“Small businesses on the boardwalk are family,” said Coney Island native Seth Bogdanove. “I remember after [Superstorm] Sandy, Tom’s, the newcomer on the boardwalk, fed everyone who helped in the restoration efforts. A large business wouldn’t do that.”

Protesters also lambasted the company for allegedly pocketing 10-percent of each tenant’s profits every month — and for forcing tenants to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

“It’s one thing for private landlords to have non-disclosure agreements, but it’s another thing when the city and the City Council issues non-disclosure agreements,” said Norman Siegal, a civil rights lawyer. “What do you have to hide?”

Carlin — who said she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement or give over her profits when she signed her lease in 2010 — was the only affected business owner to attend the rally. 

According to Siegal, others refused to show out of fear of retaliation — although one business owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss ongoing negotiations, refuted that claim.

“I don’t fear retaliation. I just don’t think it’s in my best interest, and I want to get the best deal I can,” said the business owner, who claimed that the rent increases are between 25-percent and 75-percent — not the five-fold increase that Carlin cited.

The fight to “save” the Coney Island boardwalk dates back to 2009, when the city rezoned seven acres of People’s Playground as an amusement district, which prevented then-owner Joseph Sitt from turning the park into condos or hotels. Later that year, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration purchased the lot for nearly $100 million and awarded the maintenance rights to Zamperla. The company continued to spread its influence over Coney Island when the city gave Zamperla a 15-year lease for the Stillwell Avenue subway station earlier this year, which Zamperla plans to renovate and develop into a shopping hub.