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At Coney Island, an Undercurrent of Tension Surrounds Rebuilding Plan

Fri July 18, 2008 - Northeast Edition

NEW YORK (AP) The Fourth of July weekend has always been one of the most exciting times of the year for Coney Island: Crowds line the boardwalk to watch the hot-dog eating contest, visitors take terrifying roller coaster rides, and beachgoers frolic in the sand and surf.

But this year, there is an undercurrent of tension surrounding the Brooklyn beachfront that has been an escape valve for generations of New Yorkers. The fight is over how to redevelop the nostalgic New York landmark.

“If you like things a little bit seedy with your authenticity, this would be the year to come to Coney Island, because ... change is coming,’’ said Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of the historic amusement Mecca.

Developer Joseph Sitt, who owns 11 acres of Coney Island, wants to break ground next year on a $1.5 billion complex that includes high-rise hotels, retail stores, movie theaters, an indoor water park and New York’s first new roller coaster since the landmarked, wooden Cyclone was built 75 years ago.

Last year, the city announced a sweeping redevelopment plan for 47 acres of the shabby neighborhood, eventually leading to talks with Sitt’s Thor Equities. Part of the plan detailed a 15-acre amusement park, with Thor deciding whether the Astroland rides can stay on his property beyond Labor Day 2008.

A few months ago, officials suddenly shrank the amusement zone to nine acres because property owners — mainly Sitt — would not give up the extra tracts of waterfront for the city-proposed park.

That angered community activists, who accused the developer and the city of trying to over-gentrify the so-called workingman’s Riviera, where visitors can still find freak show attractions like the Human Blockhead, who drives a drill into his face.

In late June, Zigun resigned from the city’s Coney Island Development Corp. protesting the shrinking acreage.

“I was the No. 1 cheerleader for the city’s plans for three years,’’ said Zigun, who heads the nonprofit that operates the Coney Island Museum and sideshow a block off the boardwalk. “I don’t have problems with condos or retail — where they promised us it was going to be. But the city pulled the rug out from under the amusement industry.’’

Lynn Kelly, president of the Coney Island Development Corp., said the agency’s aim is to turn the former resort into a year-round destination while preserving its soul.

“I liken Coney Island to the diva that goes through hard times, but always comes back shining and ferocious,’’ she said.

Digna Rodriguez-Poulton, Thor’s director of community affairs, defended the developer’s plan, saying it would bring economic growth to the area.

“We’re really committed to the amusements, to this iconic American destination — but it can’t just benefit a few,’’ she said.

Coney Island has a storied history. It was here that fast food was born in 1867, when the first wiener was stuck into a roll and sold on the street.

Coney Island also gave America its first roller coaster in 1884, the Switchback Railway, followed in the next decades by amusements like the Steeplechase and Parachute Jump.

The author Joseph Heller, who grew up here in the 1920s and ’30s, penned tributes to Coney Island in his novel “Closing Time.’’

He once said that what inspired him as a boy was “the extravagant nature of everything you could see in Coney Island, the amusement area and the residential area, a mixture of the fantasy and reality — exaggeration, grotesques.’’

All sides agree that the faded neighborhood sorely needs a makeover to remain a tourist destination, while providing more jobs and affordable housing to Brooklyn residents. Dotted with empty lots and aging rides, Coney Island now basically closes down for the winter.

In late June, passions boiled over at a public hearing, which was legally required in order for the city to rezone the waterfront for commercial use from its original all-amusement designation.

Thor hopes to begin construction sometime in 2009 if the City Council approves the zoning change — the final action in a process that could take a year or more.

George Shea, chair of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, told several hundred people at the Brooklyn hearing that he supports the city plan as long as the amusements are run by private operators.

“The soul of Coney Island is represented by businesses here who allow people to do things that are odd and border on the offensive,’’ he said, referring to attractions like Shoot the Freak, in which players “shoot’’ a live human being with paint balls.

Signs of change are evident along the strip of surf and sand.

A short walk from the beach is an old building bearing huge letters spelling out Thor Equities.

Zigun has received a $3.6 million city grant to renovate his museum, expanding its collection of memorabilia.

On a recent visit, the smell of fresh paint wafted through the ground floor as workers prepared for what’s billed as the “Americano Bizarro’’ sideshow featuring fire-breathing and sword-swallowing performers.

While parts of Coney Island have been cleaned up, Zigun said, it’s still “got that New York attitude.’’

“It’s half-naked New Yorkers,’’ he said. “We are white people, black people, Puerto Ricans. We’re Jamaicans, Pakistanis, West Africans ... And we’re all here dancing in the streets.’’

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