October 4, 2003
ABOUT NEW YORK
Giuliani Razed Roller Coaster, and the Law
By DAN BARRY
ONE morning in the fall of 2000, Horace Bullard answered the telephone at his home in the Bronx. It was an employee of his, Andy out in Coney Island, imparting information that few of us could ever imagine uttering or receiving.
Hey, Boss, the caller said. The city is tearing down your roller coaster.
This was not some kind of figurative code. The city was tearing down Mr. Bullard's roller coaster: the historic, rusted and long-silent Thunderbolt, prominently featured in "Annie Hall" and in the memories of many.
"It's impossible," Mr. Bullard, a developer, recalled thinking. "How could they do it?" With a heavy hand, it turns out. And without any legal right.
A couple of weeks ago, a federal jury in Manhattan ruled that the city had no justification for tearing down the Thunderbolt, and in doing so had trespassed on Mr. Bullard's property. It also determined that one city official, who was integral in the decision to demolish, had acted with "deliberate indifference."
To understand what happened to the Thunderbolt, one must recall another time: the time of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose vision for the city included a call for civility, a restoration of pride — and the construction of two minor-league stadiums at taxpayer expense, including one directly beside a 1920's structure called the Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt last rumbled in the early 1980's. Mr. Bullard bought the dormant amusement in 1985, and for the next 15 years tried to get simultaneous city approval and bank financing to develop the property. Maybe the development would include the roller coaster; maybe it would not.
Over the years the roller coaster became a discolored Calder-like remnant of the past, looping over a plot of weeds and wildflowers. Depending on whom you asked, it was an eyesore or a thing of beauty, and for the first several years of the Giuliani administration, its grand decay caused no particular concern. The Thunderbolt was just part of the Coney Island panorama.
But in 2000, when plans for a Brooklyn ballpark were being finalized, Jeff Wilpon — a top New York Mets executive and the man whose minor-league team would play in the new park — mentioned to Mr. Giuliani that the Thunderbolt was an eyesore that looked dangerous.
Say no more. Whether by coincidence or design, the Thunderbolt was now squarely in City Hall's sights. Many of the whens and wheres have been lost in the blur of time, but at some point a deputy mayor called the city's Economic Development Corporation, which was overseeing the ballpark project, to express concern about the Thunderbolt's condition. That call rippled through several city agencies, whose minions were all too familiar with the unpleasantness that could arise when City Hall's desires — whether directly expressed or just merely hinted — were not heeded.
THE message was passed on to the Department of Buildings, which dispatched a couple of inspectors to Coney Island. They examined the coaster from a distance of 50 feet because a security fence prevented them from getting closer. They took photographs that were soon misplaced, never to be found.
Based on this cursory examination, Tarek Zeid, the Building Department's Brooklyn commissioner at the time, issued an emergency declaration to demolish without the benefit of a personal visit or any engineer's report on the structure's integrity.
The order languished for a couple of months — perhaps, as Mr. Bullard's lawyer, Barry Gedan, suggested, "because no one really wanted to demolish the Thunderbolt." Then someone from the Economic Development Corporation goosed the process by asking why the coaster hadn't been razed yet, and the demolition date of Nov. 17, 2000, was set.
Before the demolition, some police officers took their friend Andy to a diner so that he wouldn't do something rash, like throw himself in front of the bulldozers. City officials watched as the rusted girders began to come down, along with an old building that was not included in the demolition order.
The Thunderbolt case is not over. Motions and countermotions continue to be filed, and a new trial to determine monetary damages is in the offing. Whether the roller coaster deserved to be torn down may be an open question, but how it was torn down continues to rattle Mr. Bullard, who remembers arriving on the scene — too late.
"It was just craziness," he said later. "They were tearing down the coaster, and they were telling me: `The city owns this property. You can't come in.' "
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company