The ride at Coney Island may really be over this time

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

NEW YORK -- This summer could mark the end of Coney Island's historic Astroland amusement park. But years of back-and-forth bickering among a developer, city officials and ride operators over the park's future leaves residents wondering -- is the closure threat real this time?

The owner of Astroland, near the Brooklyn boardwalk, says she'll shut down Sunday for good if the landowner doesn't offer a two-year lease. Carol Albert, who sold the land in 2006 to Joseph Sitt's Thor Equities, says park employees need more job security.

"They're emotional wrecks -- it's hard to live on a precipice like this," said Albert, adding that several workers resigned recently.

Coney Island, once billed as "America's Playground," was the most popular resort destination in the country in the early part of the 20th century. It evolved into an entertainment fixture, alongside two other local creations: the hot dog and the roller coaster.

Albert's father-in-law, Dewey Albert, unveiled the outer-space-themed Astroland park in 1962. Now looking ahead to its 47th summer season, Astroland has 75 year-round employees and 275 seasonal workers.

Last year, the city announced a sweeping redevelopment plan for 47 acres of the shabby old Brooklyn seafront. Part of the plan detailed a 15-acre amusement park, with Sitt deciding whether the Astroland rides could stay on its property.

Thor, which owns 11 acres of Coney Island, had planned to break ground next year on a $1.5 billion complex including high-rise hotels, retail stores, movie theaters, an indoor water park and New York's first new roller coaster since the landmark wooden Cyclone was built 75 years ago.

Officials this year suddenly shrank the amusement zone to 9 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.

Last fall, Thor and Astroland agreed to a one-year lease extension that expires Jan. 31. There have been no face-to-face talks this year, Albert said.

She now wants a lease for the summers of 2009 and 2010, since she believes the earliest Thor could break ground on new development would be in two years.

Construction could begin as soon as the city council approves a zoning change that would allow an amusement-only area to be used for other commercial purposes -- a process that could take more than a year and involve public hearings capped by a council vote.

Lynn Kelly, president of Coney Island Development Corp., reprimanded Thor for shrinking the amusement district. In a statement released Monday, Kelly blamed real estate speculators for accelerating Coney Island's downward spiral by furthering their own interests.

A spokesman for Thor Equities did not return a call for comment Monday.

No matter what happens, the storied Cyclone roller coaster and the Wonder Wheel are not leaving Coney Island anytime soon -- they're designated as city historic landmarks.

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