Denizens of the People’s Playground complain that Thor Equities — the real estate giant owned by controversial land baron Joe Sitt is giving Coney Island a bad image, and dread another summer of vacant, trash-filled lots at the heart of the amusement district.
A symbol of the blight, they say, is the firm’s neglected “Welcome to Coney Island” sign at the corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues, with most of the bulbs dead.
“There are so many bulbs missing from the sign, it’s shameful at this point. It’s the first thing visitors see when they get off the train,” said Coney’s self-declared mayor Dick Zigun, founder of Sideshows by the Seashore.
Zigun also railed against the lack of upkeep of Thor’s properties along Bowery Street.
“The problem with the lots is that they’re dirty, they have garbage. I really wish they would clean them up, cover them, bring in rides, bring in anything that contributes to the neighborhood,” he said.
Thor bought the plots during its early 2000s spending spree, when it acquired 13 acres of the amusement district, including the now-defunct park Astroland — where Luna Park stands today.
The parcels were home to McCullough’s Kiddie Park for more than three decades, but Sitt whittled McCullough’s footprint to a fraction of its former size by refusing to renew leases on the various lots as they expired. When the final contract came up in 2012, the last remnant of the funzone got the boot — leaving the space totally deserted.
Sitt briefly rented the space between Stillwell Avenue and W. 15th Street to Cha Cha’s Steeplechase Fun Park, but the theme park was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy and has since sat vacant, steadily accumulating rubbish.
Business leaders said they have begged Thor to remove the gathering garbage, and were successful in getting the firm to do a cursory clean-up two months ago. But more trash soon accumulated, again making the heart of the famous amusement area look blighted as the summer season approaches.
With Thor seeming to take little responsibility for the property, neighbors think the only remedy would be a new tenant.
“We are hoping some development will come to those lots sooner rather than later, and they’ll be cleaned up, and spruced up like the rest of Coney Island,” said Dennis Vourderis, co-owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and president of the Alliance for Coney Island business group.
But given Sitt’s track record, few expect the lots to see any development while he owns them.
Sitt kicked out Astroland and nearly all of his other tenants in 2008, turning Coney Island — which the Bloomberg Administration had hoped to revitalize — into a ghost town. After former Councilman Domenic Recchia helped block the use of eminent domain to seize the fallow land, the city agreed in 2009 to cough up more than $95.6 million to buy less than seven acres of Sitt’s property so that development could go forward. That left Sitt with a tidy $50 million taxpayer-funded profit, while retaining sizable holdings in the center of the renewed amusement area.
Real estate experts suggest that Sitt may be holding his remaining properties hostage from development in the hope of another payday from a frustrated city.
“I would guess he’s holding onto them waiting for the city to buy him out again,” said leading People’s Playground real estate broker Joe Vitacco. “He’s a flipper. He holds onto it a little longer than the average flipper.”
Vitacco pointed that the lots lie between the larger part of Luna Park and the funzone’s newest and biggest attractions — the new Thunderbolt roller coaster due to open this summer, and the recently-restored B&B Carousell. Luna Park also operates the lighting system of the Parachute Jump, and hopes to build a water park next door to the new Thunderbolt. The broker said it would make sense for Luna Park to expand into Sitt’s parcels in between.
Curiously, a document on Thor Equities’ website from about 2012 — which appears to be promoting its storefront spaces on Surf Avenue — labels the vacant lots as “Luna Park Extension.”
But the bigs at Luna Park said they have never even been able to get Thor on the phone to talk about possible real estate deals.
“Four years we’ve been in Coney Island, and we have not been able to talk to Joe Sitt,” said Valerio Ferrari, president of Central Amusements International, which runs Luna Park.
Thor did not respond to repeated calls for comment.