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Old Posted Nov 13, 2006, 3:08 PM
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NY Sun

A $1.5 Billion Vision For Coney Island

November 13, 2006

A developer, Thor Equities, says it wants to spend $1.5 billion to rebuild Coney Island and reinvigorate its amusement zone. New plans include building a roller coaster that the developer says would be the first built since the Cyclone opened in 1927.

Even on a bright fall day, the streets that make up Coney Island's amusement district seem worn and tired, more tumbleweeds than tourists. While the area boasts an original circus-like charm, born of colorful characters who congregate there, even old-timers agree it needs a major facelift.

The founder of the nonprofit Coney Island USA, Richard Zigun, blames the area's decay on a handful of property owners who "were wealthy enough to sit on their property for 20 or 30 years and wait."

"They did not give a damn about the amusement industry," Mr. Zigun said.

But the city's prolonged real estate boom is reaching Brooklyn's southern edge, and over the past two or three years, dozens of parcels in the amusement district have changed hands, opening up the possibility for new development.

"This is the best shot Coney Island has had in 50 years," he said. "Hopefully, we will get something fantastic, something world-class."

The biggest buyer is developer Joseph Sitt of Thor Equities. He has spent more than $100 million to assemble more than a dozen balkanized parcels along the boardwalk, close to the subway station.

Thor wants to spend $1.5 billion to restore the amusement district to its former glory, transforming it from a place to spend a summer afternoon into a year-round destination, and giving it the feel of Las Vegas, Orlando, or Atlantic City.

New designs drawn up by the architectural firm Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn depict Thor's futuristic vision. A new roller coaster would dart in and out of new buildings along Stillwell Avenue, the first roller coaster in New York City since the Cyclone opened in 1927, according to the developer. Opposite the subway station, Thor is planning a vertical ride to the top of a 150-foot-high water tower that would be decorated with flickering holograms of whales and mermaids.

Where Stillwell Avenue meets the boardwalk, the developer wants to build a giant indoor water park and a three-story, glass-enclosed carousel. All the rides would be winterized. They would also be integrated with a movie theater, arcades, retail stores, and with existing attractions, like the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, and the Parachute Drop. Thor Equities would lease out the rides or find an operating partner to run the amusements.

The plan has a catch. Thor says it needs the city to enact a zoning change to allow residential and hotel development in the amusement district.

Thor wants to build as many as four towers on its site, comprising two hotels, a time-share, and an apartment building that could rise up to 40 stories.

In the early 1970s, in an attempt to save the amusements, the city rezoned the area to forbid residential development, which it said threatened to chase the rides, games, and shows out of town. Now the developer is arguing that the profit from the residential development is the way to fund the area's regeneration.

A spokesman for Thor Equities, Lee Silberstein, said, "The problem with amusements is that they don't make money. There is a reason why people stopped building them. They are too expensive and too seasonal. That is part of the reason why we want to do residential."

Currently, Coney Island attracts visitors for about five months a year, from April to mid-September. To be profitable, the amusements would need to operate year-round. The developer hopes the apartments and hotels will enliven the area and make it safer with a permanent human presence.

The city is working on rezoning and design recommendations. Following additional public outreach, it hopes to put a plan through the land use review process next year. The developer is planning to prepare the 10-acre site for construction and they hope to open in 2010 or 2011. Some of the amusement operators in the Thor development footprint were forced to close up shop this year, and others will stay open for one more summer season.

Mr. Zigun, who also sits on the board of the city's Coney Island Development Corporation, said hotels would be a welcome addition, but said he is dead set against condominiums in the heart of the amusement district. He said he's not looking for a fight, but "a polite, intelligent discussion."

Mr. Zigun, who has tattoos poking out from under his jacket sleeves, said Coney Island is best preserved for "those with money who want to get drunk, stay out late," tendencies, he said, that only a non-resident would have.

"Put the loud places here, the things that don't belong in other neighborhoods," Mr. Zigun said.

While some critics have said Thor's designs are too glitzy, Mr. Zigun envisions something like Las Vegas, Miami Beach, Orlando, Fla., and Atlantic City, N.J., jazzy, modern, and fantastical, as opposed to a "suburban glass façade," or an area dominated by mall-like retail stores. Thor changed earlier plans for a mall after residents and city officials complained.

The project architect, Stanton Eckstut, said the design would not be a replica of old-fashioned Coney Island style.

"We don't want to do something based on a frozen moment in time," he said. "We want to make it feel like part of the evolution of Coney's past, but we are not doing a historic reproduction."

Mr. Eckstut helped create plans for Battery Park City and Brooklyn's Metrotech.

Mr. Zigun said any specific plans for Thor's site are likely to change over the next year, as the rezoning evolves and the developer negotiates with the community about preserving certain landmarks, and the height and makeup of the new buildings.

"I'm not one of the people who says no-go on Vegas. You can build Brooklyn's Times Square at the beach," he said. "Before you know it, you will be able to have a Starbucks latte at the beach, and hopefully a giant roller coaster you can throw up on."
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