Thor’s Sitt says he was “blindsided” at Coney Island, others say challenges to be expected

By Candace Taylor | June 16, 2010 11:35PM

From left: Joe Sitt, MaryAnne Gilmartin and Andrew Kimball

The developers of three significant — and often controversial — Brooklyn projects commiserated about the challenges of building in the borough at a panel today, while sharing how they embrace those challenges.

The panel, part of GreenPearl Events’ Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, was held at St. Francis College in Downtown Brooklyn. Panelists included Joseph Sitt, the chairman and CEO of Thor Equities, which owns much of the commercial real estate in Coney Island even after selling 6.9 acres to the city for $96 million last year. Also present were MaryAnne Gilmartin, an executive vice president at Forest City Ratner, the developer of the massive Atlantic Yards project in Downtown Brooklyn, and Andrew Kimball, the CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp.

The moderator of the panel, Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation President Joan Bartolomeo, asked the three if they ever get sick of the politics and hassles that accompany large development projects in New York City.

“At some point, do you ever say ‘why am I doing this’?” Bartolomeo asked.

Sitt said he was surprised by the emotional public response to his plans to redevelop Coney Island, including removing aging buildings to make way for newer attractions.

“I admit, in the case of Coney Island, I got kind of blindsided,” he said.

Ten years ago, the Brooklyn-native said, “nobody had any interest in Coney Island,” adding that he got involved in the seaside amusement district “not so much for the investment,” but more “as a personal hobby, to try to give back” to the community.

“My goal was to [try to] wake up everybody’s passion,” he said. “I guess we did too good a job of promoting Coney Island.”

Still, he said, the controversy has had its benefits in terms of drawing attention to the area. He cited that as one reason Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus made its debut in Coney Island in 2009.

“A lot of the controversy… to some degree, for the sake of the project, I actually enjoy it,” Sitt said.

Gilmartin said her company Forest City Ratner is prepared for the “great challenges” that come with their projects. “If you want to be an urban developer, this is what comes with the territory,” she added.

Forest City Ratner’s projects are often more challenging because they build all of their properties from the ground up; they don’t purchase those built by others. Also, the company often engages in complicated public-private partnerships.

“If it’s not complex and difficult, we’re probably not interested,” she laughed. “But it means the end result is that much greater.”

She cited the company’s Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan, a massive rental tower designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, which has a public school in the base.

The Atlantic Yards project, with an arena for the New Jersey Nets expected to open in 2012, is now “going full throttle,” after years of controversy and legal challenges, she said. The project has 6,430 housing units, 2,250 of which will be classified as affordable. Some 30 percent of those affordable units will be built in the first phase of the project.

The area in front of the arena will house 12,000 square feet of open space, she said, and a rebuilt subway entrance (previously in disuse) covered with flowering plants. There will be benches and seating in The Plaza, along with retail shops, and the space will house greenmarkets and other outdoor events, she said.

Forest City Ratner is planning to build a commercial office building at the tip of The Plaza, she said, but not for several years, when the office market improves.

Kimball, whose company manages the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to Admiral’s Row, a crumbling section of the yard where state and local politicians and activists have fought for years over its fate.

“You have to take some heat sometimes to meet an end goal,” he said, adding: “We’ve been willing to take a lot of heat.”

The Brooklyn Navy Yard, established in 1801, had fallen into disrepair after the Navy stopped using it following World War II. The development corporation took over in 1981, renovating some buildings and constructing new ones. The area now has around 4 million square feet of industrial space and 13 LEED-certified buildings, Kimball said, adding that it is “essentially full,” with a list of tenants waiting for space there.

The corporation in July will begin construction of a $30 million green manufacturing center at the yard, an adaptive reuse of four machine shops built around the early 1900s. Kimball said he expects to announce a tenant for the space in a few months. Also later this year, tenant B&H Photo will break ground on a new 600,000-square-foot facility at the yard.
Plans for Admiral’s Row now include a ShopRite supermarket, slated to open in 2013, the restoration of some historic buildings on the site and approximately 125,000 square feet of industrial space, Kimball said.