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A Sea Change at Coney Island?

"Look, I think Coney Island needs to be more ritzy; you know, do something that's gonna bring in the people with the money," said Anthony Berlingieri, operator of Shoot the Freak, a boardwalk game where paying customers shoot paintball guns at a live human target. He is an outspoken supporter of the redevelopment proposal presented by New York-based Thor Equities.

"You got some people out here, they're just opposed to change, ya see," he continued in his heavy Brooklyn accent. "But I say, look at the rest of New York. Look at the progress and all these affluent people everywhere. Hey, why shouldn't Coney Island get a piece of that?"

In fact, they argue, Coney Island would merely be going back to its roots as a place to amaze the masses with the latest entertainment technology.

That is the way it started. When the 19th-century rich of New York were retreating to the grand hotels of nearby Manhattan Beach, the working class found refuge from lives of hard labor at Coney Island's beaches, vaudeville houses, music halls and revolutionary amusement parks. Decades into the 20th century, they gaped at Luna Park, a fantasy city of brilliantly lighted minarets, domes, globes and spires. They rode the mechanical horses at Steeplechase Park and delighted in esplanades filled with exotic Middle Eastern dancers, snake charmers and fire eaters.

That Coney Island later went downhill is not in dispute. Luna Park burned down in 1944. The cult classic film "The Warriors" captured the gang violence that engulfed Coney Island and much of New York during the 1970s. A small collection of rides built next to the Wonder Wheel in the 1980s was the major upgrade to the area.

"Everyone's fear is that I'm going to turn this thing into Fairyland Parkland or something, with lots of trees and grass with some la-la idealistic vision," said Joseph J. Sitt, the Brooklyn-born chief executive of Thor Equities. "But that's not what I'm going to do. I'm not going to take away that urban feel of Coney Island. I want to bring it back."

Sitt's initial plan also called for high-rise condominiums. It sparked immediate fears that his real aim was to reduce the attraction component of Coney Island, given that residential real estate is unlikely to coexist well with a loud amusement zone.

He has since turned those condos into plans for high-rise timeshares and hotels instead. But many critics -- including city officials who must pass judgment on the project -- remain skeptical. His sharpest critics have said he may simply be seeking zoning changes to flip the land at a higher price. Others insist he will make Coney Island too upscale, rendering it unaffordable for the working-class citizens who now frequent the boardwalk. Sitt, however, insists neither will happen.

Some attractions -- including the Cyclone roller coaster and the old Parachute Jump -- are historic landmarks protected by the city and cannot be torn down. But preservationists have criticized Sitt for what appear to be plans to tear down two other, unprotected spots -- including the Grasshorn Building, the oldest standing structure on Coney Island.

The biggest controversy, however, remains Sitt's contention that he needs hotels and timeshares as high as 40 stories to make his redeveloped Coney Island financially viable. They would, he says, help him turn Coney Island -- now open only during the summer months -- into a year-round destination.

But critics say such structures would dwarf the island's landmarks, ruining its quaint appeal. Meanwhile, his plans to spruce up the joint -- "you know, like bring in a bookstore with a Starbucks in it," he said -- have many crying foul.

"He wants to bling it up; he wants to bring in all this retail and create a kind of enclosed mall with high-rise towers," said Robert Lieber, president of the New York City Economic Development Corp. "That isn't consistent with the historic nature of Coney Island."

If he fails to win approval for his vision, many still fear for Coney Island's fate. Will the land just sit vacant and unused? Will another developer come in? If so, with what designs?

"We all want a revitalized Coney Island, but what they're proposing would change the nature of a place that touched the hearts of millions of people," said Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project. "We all want to see improvements, but all those high-rises? That's not Coney Island."

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