It’s happy time in Coney Island! Sure, Astroland is still a vacant lot, as are the former batting cages and go-cart rides, and even the few remaining attractions are shuttered for the long winter.
But Joe Sitt, the developer who bought up most of the beachfront — and turned it into those vacant lots — has finally sold out to the city, and there is much rejoicing.
To be sure, the city paid a high price to get rid of Sitt. For starters, he isn’t really going away. Under the deal announced Thursday by Mayor Bloomberg, the city will spend nearly $100 million to buy seven acres of Coney land, including the former Astroland. But the man who dubbed himself “Joey Coney Island” gets to keep his property along the Surf Avenue commercial strip — and the city threw in a rezoning that will let him replace that street’s low-rise arcades with 30-story hotels.
It may sound like the mayor got himself conned, but in fact he set himself up as an easy mark. The city’s initial “revitalization” blueprint was a compromise to begin with, coupling condo towers with a patch of amusement rides larger than in recent years, but far smaller than in Coney’s heyday. Then, to entice Sitt into playing along, the city moved the goalposts even more: Skyscrapers in front of the Wonder Wheel? Sure! Shrink the amusement district again? Why not! It’s a lesson that anyone negotiating sweeping changes — cough health reform cough — should remember: If you’re worried about the camel’s nose, best not to set up camp with the camel already in the tent.
In any case, even with the mayor now Coney’s main landlord, the future remains hazy: The city has promised to maintain the strip’s “character” even as it seeks one big operator to run it, flying to Vegas next week to seek bidders. The “Shoot the Freak” guy — who pretty much defines “character” — has already begun griping that this will squeeze out small operators like him who’ve kept Coney from turning into New York Disney. We’ll just have to see how freaky the mayor can be.
– Neil deMause can be contacted at demause.net and on Twitter@neildemause.
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