The City Council has approved a plan to remake Coney Island, which has become the unlikely battleground of two billionaires, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and major landowner Joseph Sitt, both with visions of condos and state-of-the art amusement parks.
Bloomberg's so-called revitalization plan passed with overwhelming support, clearing the path for a new rides and the area's first high-rises.
Coney Island's colorful denizens -- burlesque performers, ride operators locals and transplants -- fear the changes will strike at the heart of what makes Coney Island iconic. It’s a beach town of kitschy storefronts and freak shows; low-tech amusement rides and affordable entertainment. It’s the birthplace of Nathan’s hotdogs and home to the legendary Cyclone and the annual Mermaid Parade.
"They're going to destroy the magic," said Stephen Baker, 42, who lies on a bed of nails in a Coney Island freakshow. “It (the revitalization plan) is a plan for the rich.”
The group Save Coney Island said the vote maked "a sad day for New York."
“This rezoning plan will irreparably damage Coney Island. Now it’s up to the Bloomberg administration to mitigate that damage...It is our hope and expectation that it will do so," the group said in a statement.
But even those most opposed to the massive facelift agree that Coney Island needs some help. Over the past few decades, the Brooklyn neighborhood has weathered an uptick in crime, drugs and unemployment.
Enter Joe Sitt and his mega-development group, Thor Equities. Since the early part of the decade, Thor has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up a huge swath of beachside Coney Island property, with plans of a grand –albeit scary – overhaul – including big hotels, condos, retail and a new amusement park.
Sitt is also blamed by many for pushing out long-time tenants like Astroland, which folded shop last summer.
And at some point, Thor’s $1.5 billion redevelopment and rezoning proposal irked Mayor Bloomberg, whose administration stepped in with its own plan to rework Coney Island.
The end goal doesn’t seem much different at first blush. Under Bloomberg’s plan, the area would be transformed into a year-round entertainment complex complete with a new amusement park, high-rise hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and the city's first new rollercoaster since 1927.
The landmarked Cyclone will stay.
City officials must now convince Sitt to sell back a chunk of land in the amusement area.
Either way, Groups like Save Coney Island say the total area zoned for outdoor amusements will shrink while the rest will be inundated with mall and mega-store type shopping, high rise hotels, and other real estate atrocities that will destroy the neighborhood’s personality.
"There's not enough acres left after you stick in all these hotels and stuff that doesn't belong in the amusement area for rides," the self-appointed "mayor" of Coney Island, Dick Zigun said in a video posted on YouTube.
The city counters that its plan will be an "amusement and entertainment district that will reestablish Coney Island as a year-round, open and accessible amusement destination."
Already, the sense of change coming to Coney Island is evident. Charles Denson, who runs the Coney Island History Project, told the New York Times this month that he fears the city’s new zoning plans.
“Coney Island’s amusement area would have long ago been transformed into a sea of housing projects and oceanfront condos if not protected by C7 (zoning) for so many years, he said.”