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Old Posted Jan 3, 2007, 8:08 AM
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Courier-Life Publications

Q & A with Coney Island mega-developer

By Stephen Witt

With much of the Coney Island amusement park area now in control of Joseph J. Sitt, the principal of Thor Equities, his company has become a major player in the redevelopment of the entire borough.

Among the firm’s other holdings are the former Revere Sugar factory site in Red Hook, the Albee Square Mall on Fulton Street, and the garage building on Bond and Livingston streets.

Sitt is originally from South Brooklyn and continues to have many ties in the borough.

Recently, Courier-Life Publications sat down with Sitt in his Manhattan office to talk about his plans for Brooklyn, and Coney Island and Red Hook in particular.

Also present was Lee Silberstein of the public relations firm the Marino Organization.

During the course of the interview, Silberstein made several points as a clarification.


People in the borough are on pins and needles regarding your submission of a project plan for Coney Island. When is that coming and can you offer any more details regarding height, density and the amount of residential housing you will incorporate in the plan? What type of zoning changes are you looking for?

Sitt: We’re in the process right now of a mixed-use plan. Our goals will be a combination of retail/ amusement/entertainment. It will include a hotel component and a residential component.

The mix is driven by several factors. One of the largest problems Coney Island has right now is it’s dead most of the year and it’s a scary neighborhood late at night almost all year long because of the lack of people present there.

In our plan, one of our goals is to include a residential and hotel component that will create that 24/7 activity 365 days a year so that there’ll be constant activity which is what creates the vitality for areas and developments like this cause you have people there, and in the case of the hotel, transient activity — people coming and going.

So the goal is to have a mixed-use project of all three of those components and we think by having all three of these components we’ll make this into a really important destination location where people want to be, people want to sleep, people want to vacation, people want to visit, people want to own a second location.

So when are we going to see an actual plan and not art renderings?

Silberstein: We’ve been doing that the last few years. We’ve been meeting with the city officials and the CIDC [Coney Island Development Corporation]. And in fact there is a plan that we’ve been sharing with the city officials and we’ve been getting feedback on and we continue to wait for them to take it to the next level.

Sitt: We have to wait for the government. It’s not in our hands [to rezone].

Silberstein: To be clear, we have a plan. We have a book with all the specifics and the city is doing a larger rezoning and so our plan is now becoming a component of their overall plan.

So when are we going to see your plan?

Sitt: As soon as the city decides on what they’re willing to live with.

So you’re saying you have a plan and the city has it, but it’s not in public review yet until the city rezones the area?

Silberstein: The time the public gets to review a plan like that is in the ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process. We want it to be in the ULURP process already. We were hoping that we would have been certified with the ULURP already. We were hoping they would have finished a year ago already.

So it’s not a question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In other words, the plan or the zoning change?

Sitt: I don’t know who you’re hearing what from. The city has a plan. We submitted a plan. The city knows exactly what we’re looking for and we’re waiting for them.

Taconic [Developers] owns nearly as much as we have in Coney Island and they haven’t even begun thinking about putting a pencil to paper, because they are saying they don’t want to spend that energy until they see the city go ahead and do the rezoning.

So it’s not the chicken or the egg. It’s the city or the city. The city’s in control. We then fill in the blanks. We’ve done our master plan work, but we’ll have to modify to fit in with what the city does.

Many preservationists in Coney Island are wondering about the amusement part. Among the question on their lips is will the amusement area be modeled after a Disneyland or Six Flags where people pay one price to get in or will it remain a free-flowing amusement park as it always has been?

Sitt: So far the plan is the free-flowing [amusement area] and we really don’t have a choice. I don’t know how to enclose all that to have a Disney-type theme park with one control point or access point. We’re more urban and Coney Island, so we’re more free-flowing.

Others in Coney Island question whether the residential component will include some affordable housing?

In terms of residential, our goal is not necessarily just year-round residents.

A lot of our residential we hope are going to be folks on time share, folks that come and buy like two weeks out of the year and/or some second homeowners like they do at a lot of resort and vacation spots, but the biggest part that make up where people sleep is going to be the transient folks — people who sleep in the hotels and/or the time shares, as an example.

There’s no rule that says sorry, you are too wealthy to come visit Coney Island and sleep in a hotel. Part of democracy is you want anybody at any income level to welcome them to be able to sleep in Coney Island.

Moving to Red Hook, what are your plans for the former Revere Sugar Factory, which you are in the process of having demolished?

Sitt: Unlike Coney Island where for two years we’ve been submitting to the city plans, we’ve not submitted any plans so we’re still on the ground floor but we’re working on getting there.

Silberstein: When we went through the process of removing it from the business zone, we made a promise to the community that we were going to come back and work with them in developing a plan. We’re in the process of doing that.

The former Sugar factory site is in the mouth of the Erie Basin where several businesses for maritime use are located. How do you expect residents to live with that and will it force business out?

Sitt: Nothing has been there [on the Revere Sugar site] to move out for 30 years. It’s been vacant. It was owned by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.

Silberstein: The opportunity for the waterfront, as the mayor said the other day, is to reopen it. Recreate public access to it and introduce new uses. The other side to that coin is to make sure it’s done in a way that allows the mix of uses — some of the maritime stuff that’s there now and some of the new uses.

Sitt: Particularly there in Red Hook. In fact, people keep forgetting in that in the Fairway development, he [developer Greg O’Connell] included lots and lots of residential that have already taken up occupancy and from what I hear none of the residents have been complaining…so it’s a really good test for the future.

So do you anticipate some retail there?

Sitt: Absolutely. Jobs in that community are as important as jobs in Coney Island.

You were among the first of the entrepreneurs to reinvest in inner city America through strip malls and your Ashley Stewart clothing chain. Along with being a developer comes the responsibility of reshaping the borough of Brooklyn. What moral and ethical responsibilities do you feel you have toward the borough and its people in a broader sense?

Sitt: The reason why I’m doing developments in Brooklyn is because I care about my own neighborhood. This is the place I grew up. This is the place I moved back to live.

And though probably 90 percent of the work we do is outside New York, for us Brooklyn is very, very close to our heart and close to our passion.

I feel that Brooklyn is dramatically underserved and I want to see my town get the nice quality stuff that the rest of the United States has.

You go to small communities all over the United States and they’ve got good retail and good office buildings. They’ve got good residential buildings, rental buildings, condominiums, good places for families to go and be entertained and our servings in all these categories are pretty slim.

Silberstein: As of January 1, Joe will have a person who will focus on job development and job programs for the Coney Island project. That is earlier than any developer that I know of. We don’t even have a defined project yet. We certainly don’t have zoning yet and Joe is willing to invest and start creating and developing a jobs program so that the jobs created by the Coney Island project stay in the community.

That is an enormous commitment to the community early on.

©Courier-Life Publications 2007
NEW YORK heals.

“Office buildings are our factories – whether for tech, creative or traditional industries we must continue to grow our modern factories to create new jobs,” said United States Senator Chuck Schumer.
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