Coney Island’s $2B Developer Walks, Talks the Boardwalk

Fri June 29, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Larry McShane - ASSOCIATED PRESS



NEW YORK (AP) The view from the Coney Island boardwalk depends on the perspective: The long shadows of the Cyclone roller coaster evoke the past. The lounging sun worshippers dotting the beach belong to the present.

And the makeshift plywood fences, the empty lots and ancient arcades — well, Joe Sitt surveys them and sees the future: a $2 billion facelift for the shabby seaside resort, a return to the halcyon days when this stretch along the Atlantic Ocean was indisputably the nation’s playground.

“Yeah, OK, it’s a little bit grimy, etcetera,’’ said Sitt, his voice rising with an enthusiasm belying his surroundings. “But it’s got so much potential, calling out for someone to do something. I want to bring it back.’’

The Brooklyn-born Sitt, envisions an entertainment Mecca reminiscent of Coney Island in the early 20th century, when Sigmund Freud toured the Dreamland amusement park and Charles Lindbergh raved that a ride on the Cyclone out-thrilled flying the Atlantic.

Sitt conjures something even more breathtaking, more bombastic, more Brooklyn: a year-round resort unlike anything previously seen in his native borough.

He does this while roaming the neighborhood’s well-worn boardwalk, where the breeze off the ocean mingles with the lingering scent of slow ruin. Sitt views the revitalization project as part investment, part enjoyment.

“Everybody has a labor of love, something that they do in life,’’ Sitt explained in a voice still bearing a trace of Brooklynese. “Playing with cars, sports, whatever. Other guys like going to the beach and creating a castle, even knowing there’s a chance the water’s going to come and wash it away.

“They do it for the passion. For me, that’s what Coney Island is.’’

Sitt, the son of a textile merchant, founded Thor Equities in 1986. The real estate acquisition and development company now boasts a portfolio of more than 15 million sq. ft. valued at more than $2 billion, with properties in Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago and other cities.

“Big picture, who we are, what we’re about, is guys trying to pioneer retail development in communities and neighborhoods coming back [from hard times] around the United States,’’ said Sitt, whose first huge financial success came with the 1990 launch of Ashley Stewart, a chain of stores aimed at plus-size African-American women.

Thor Equities has spent more than $100 million to acquire approximately 10 acres of Coney Island real estate over the last several years.

Construction equipment is already on-site, where a variety of projects — including a high-end hotel (perhaps shaped like a roller coaster), a water park, retail outlets and residential property — are under consideration.

Sitt’s company still needs a city zoning change for its residential and hotel components; if all goes according to plan, the project would open in 2011.

On a weekday morning, Sitt appears incongruous with the local environment, strolling up Stillwell Avenue toward the beach. But it soon becomes clear that he’s equally at home on the boardwalk as in the boardroom.

A worker from the Grill House restaurant rushed to shake Sitt’s hand, followed shortly by the man whose business best epitomizes the “old’’ Coney Island. Anthony Berlingieri runs the popular (if politically incorrect) “Shoot The Freak’’ game, where patrons fire paintballs at a live target.

“Joe has a dream,’’ said Berlingieri, a fellow Brooklynite. “And Joe has stepped up. He’s from the neighborhood.’’

Back on the boardwalk, Sitt discusses Coney Island’s worldwide cachet. His office has recently fielded calls from Italy, England, Singapore and Israel about the project. Sitt pauses as he spots four people meandering along the boardwalk, one snapping pictures of everything in sight.

“C’mon,’’ he said confidently. “They’ve got to be from out of the country.’’

They are — Stuttgart, Germany, to be precise. “In the movies, we saw it,’’ one woman replied when Sitt asked how they knew about Coney Island. They chatted amiably before Sitt said goodbye in their native tongue: “Auf wiedersehen.’’

Each stroll through Coney Island fills Sitt’s head with new ideas — today, he’s riffing on the need to replace the rows of decrepit metal garbage cans lining the boardwalk.

“Every single time I come out here, I get another vision,’’ he said. “Restaurants, theaters. Everything comes off another visit.’’

Sitt heads heading back toward Stillwell Avenue, where a white trailer houses Thor’s local operation. A nondescript wire fence surrounds the property, where rows of yellow school buses sit idly within a seashell toss of the beach.

“The Future of Coney Island Project’’ reads the lettering on the trailer’s side. From Sitt’s perspective, that means tapping into its past, too.

“Everybody else is trying to create a Coney Island,’’ Sitt said. “We are the real thing. You know? We’re the real thing! Anything else is a knockoff of this.”