Coney Island developer Joe Sitt is being accused of backing out of a deal to save a historic Coney Island building, and has enraged a key supporter of his planned $1.5-billion, 10-acre beachfront makeover in the process.
Dick Zigun, a board member of the city’s Coney Island Development Corporation and the founder of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, is known as the unofficial mayor of Brooklyn’s freak capital. Throughout the past year of tense public discussion of Sitt’s Las Vegas-style proposal, he has provided an important voice of local support.
But now, his cheers have turned to boos.
“I am totally outraged,” Zigun said. “[Sitt] told me and the city for a year and a half that he would work to preserve the character of Coney Island and save this building and now, he is not.”
Zigun claimed that he and the developer reached a preliminary agreement last year for the sale of the 1880s-built Grasshorn building. His organization agreed to pay the developer $2 million in city-awarded grant money for the decrepit wooden building, allowing the developer to walk away with a cool $1 million profit on it. But now Zigun says Sitt will raze the Surf Avenue building to make way for a new structure.
“[This] destroys the dream of the [Coney Island Museam],” he said.
The Grasshorn sits on the corner of Surf Avenue and Jones Walk on the edge of the historic amusement district that Sitt plans to reinvent as a year-round vacation destination complete with new rides, towering hotels, time-shares, and a “Bizarre Bazaar” freak-themed shopping mall.
Now clad in “For Rent” signs and rundown shingles, the building is best known for housing Henry Grasshorn’s hardware store, which sold ride operators the parts they needed to keep their attractions running. An 1881 photo of the building at ConeyIslandHistory.org shows it in much grander condition, with a wooden balcony on the second floor and tidy shutters framing its windows.
Sitt declined to comment on Zigun’s charges.
At a recent Town Hall meeting, the charismatic developer thanked Zigun for his support and recognized historian Charles Denson for his work in preserving the country’s oldest amusement mecca.
Denson, the author of “Coney Island: Lost and Found,” also had harsh words for the developer this week.
“It’s a shame that he wants to destroy the oldest surviving building in a place where so little has survived,” said Denson.
Denson said that the split with Zigun doesn’t bode well for the developer, who will likely need the support of the same city-sponsored Coney Island Development Corporation to which Zigun is a member in order to obtain the rezoning he needs to push his plan through.