Coney Island is gearing up for a summer of new rides and circus attractions, but the neighborhood’s main private landowner is instead tearing down historic buildings — including the place where Harpo Marx made his comic debut — and replacing them with a temporary fast-food stand.
The turn-of-the-last-century buildings facing the wrecking ball include the Grashorn Building, the Henderson Music Hall and the Surf Hotel located between Stillwell Avenue and Henderson Walk.
Current occupants include a Popeye’s fried chicken outlet and Faber’s Fascination, an arcade. Shopkeepers said that they are aware of the looming demolition work, but aren’t concerned that they will be forced out before the summer seasons.
That confidence seems to be misguided. “This summer is going to be about the demolition,” said Thor Equities spokesperson Loren Riegelhaupt, claiming that the ramshackle structures are filled with asbestos.
Riegelhaupt said that Thor Equities must clear the land now in order to have new retail shops open for the 2011 summer season.
It is unclear what shops Thor is proposing. A rendering put out by the company last week shows a burger outlet and a taco stand.
The demolition work is what Thor Equities calls “phase one” of its longstanding Coney Island ambitions.
Though the rendering shows only a one-story structure, the land was rezoned last year for high-rise hotels — which Thor CEO Joe Sitt has promised to build once the city fixes the ancient infrastructure in the area, part of tens of millions of dollars in improvements that the city promised as part of a rezoning that envisions a new golden age for Coney Island.
“Once the infrastructure is in place, we will be doing different and bigger kind of things,” Riegelhaupt said.
But critics say that Coney Island is losing part of its historic heritage to the wrecking ball of a company that has a history of buying land, getting lucrative rezonings, clearing away older structures and then re-selling the land for a handsome profit.
Thor Equities did just that in 2007, selling the Albee Square Mall in Downtown for $125 million after paying just $25 million for it six years earlier.
And Sitt spent much of the decade — and about $100 million — assembling parcels all over the amusement area of Coney Island. He sold a little more than half of that land to the city last year for $95.6 million, retaining several key acres surrounding the city’s planned amusement park.
That land includes the Grashorn Building, as well as the Henderson Music Hall building and the Surf Hotel — both built around 1900.
In its heyday, the Henderson building was home to popular vaudeville shows and was the venue for comedian Harpo Marx’s debut.
That alone makes it worthy of saving, perhaps as a night club, said Dick Zigun, executive director of Coney Island USA, which producers the annual Mermaid Parade.
“You could call it ‘Harpo’s Place,’ ” the unofficial mayor of Coney Island said. “It would be a shame to lose the building, it has incredible history.”
Preservationists had hoped to include the sites in a newly created “historic corridor” along Surf Avenue, but the city denied any historical significance to the buildings.
“These buildings were thoroughly reviewed by the city [before] last year’s rezoning and determined to have no significant historic value whatsoever,” said Stefan Friedman, another Thor spokesman. “Some of these buildings are asbestos-infested ramshackle buildings that pose a very real risk to the local community.”
But some say Sitt is the greater risk, given his history.
“Joe Sitt’s record has been one of demolition and leaving a hole in the ground, and not building what he says he’s going to build,” said Juan Rivero, spokesman for Save Coney Island, which favors a larger amusement area than the city proposes to build.
Indeed, in its several years as a Coney landlord, Thor has done little except boot Astroland. Thor’s previous attempts to maintain foot traffic in Coney Island include last year’s “Festival by the Sea,” a failed flea market on Stillwell Avenue, shuttering Boardwalk businesses, a five-day circus, and a collection of rides that didn’t even last the full summer.