Joe Sitt of Thor Equities is the largest property owner in Coney Island, a controversial developer, and the man who had to sign off before a new Coney Island could come into being. And although he likes to do business behind the scenes, he agreed to speak exclusively with NY1’s Jeanine Ramirez about his vision for Coney Island.
The signs say “Stores for Lease from Thor Equities,” but they might as well say Joe Sitt. Sitt owns almost all the buildings along Surf Avenue and many of the vacant lots.
Last year, he made headlines when he finally sold the city the land that's become a new Luna Park.
"This is just a taste of what's coming down the road for Coney Island,” he said.
Sitt is from Brooklyn and still lives just blocks away from Coney Island. He spent much of his time here, including when he cut school.
"My nickname for playing hooky was Joey Coney Island so to speak, so I guess it was all predetermined my involvement in Coney Island,” said Sitt.
Now Sitt wants to build hotels in the neighborhood – including on the site of the former Henderson Music Hall where Harpo Marx made his stage debut. Critics argue many of his buildings should be saved because of their historical value. But Sitt disagrees.
"Every one of these buildings is just horrible, rundown relics with nothing exciting about them,” he said. “I hate to say it, but the great buildings of Coney Island disappeared 80 years ago."
Sitt says he'll re-use the vintage signs in a more modern setting. He wants to bring in two big hotels, one with a kids theme, the other with an indoor water park, to make Coney Island a year-round destination.
"I know the term ‘large scale’ scares people, but it shouldn't,” Sitt said. “Large-scale hotel just means we're going to bring people, action and vitality."
But those are long-term plans. For the 2011-2012 seasons, Sitt says he'll tear down the Surf Avenue properties and put up a temporary one-story entertainment complex.
About 10 years ago Sitt started buying up property until her controlled a large chunk of the area. When the city wanted to step in to create an amusement district, it had to go through Sitt. Negotiations were contentious. He says the breakthrough came when he sat down last year with the mayor.
"I think the start was that breakfast meeting that Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited me to. He was very cordial and friendly and we really bonded,” he said.
Sitt sold nearly seven acres to the city for about $96 million – including the old Astroland site, which he labeled outdated. He wants fresh and new. And says the transformation is already underway.
"It's somewhat of a work in progress, but it's cooking,” said Sitt.