NEW YORK - It's springtime in Coney Island, with all the familiar signs of the coming tourist season: The beer flows at Ruby's on the boardwalk, a help-wanted sign rests outside Nathan's Famous, stuffed animals appear in the cramped arcades.
A soft ocean breeze rolls off the Atlantic — but by next summer, the winds of change will blow hard through the venerable Brooklyn beachfront where millions of Americans have frolicked and where both the hot dog and the roller coaster debuted.
After a half-century of neglect, Coney Island is targeted for a $1 billion renovation aimed at creating a year-round attraction to compete against the theme parks that nearly obliterated the neighborhood. The work is at least a year off, but it's already the buzz of the beach.
"Coney Island seemed like it was in a time warp, and would never change," said Dick Zigun, operator of the local Sideshows By the Seashore attraction. "Why not have a bigger, better, more exciting Coney Island?"
Other local merchants agree — although some wonder if the unique local flavor will disappear once Thor Equities starts developing its $100 million in recently purchased properties.
"People are worried about losing the certain character that Coney Island has always had," said Carol Albert, whose family runs the legendary Cyclone roller coaster and the Astroland Amusement Park. "It's a fine line. You don't want to lose the character, but ..."
The "but" rests with Thor, developer of a three-block-long, one-block-deep section off the boardwalk, along with some other properties. Its CEO and founder, Joe Sitt, has a personal interest in the Coney Island project: he's a Brooklyn native and still jogs along the boardwalk.
Sitt's local roots were a boon in avoiding the pitfalls that often plague major development, said Chuck Reichenthal, head of Community Board 13 in Coney Island.
"He really does understand what Coney Island was, what it is and what it can be," Reichenthal said.
The developer hopes for a final plan by July 1, with a variety of projects including a high-end hotel (perhaps shaped like a roller coaster), a water park, retail outlets and residential property.
Today, the area along the boardwalk is a mix of vacant lots and vintage storefronts.
Some things will remain untouched. The Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel and what's left of the Parachute Jump are all designated landmarks.
But other sections demand attention: The rotting home of the old Playland arcade, or the once-grand Child's Restaurant, now splashed with spray paint and sealed with metal grates.
Once finished, the plan will need city approval. Then, if everything goes right, construction could start by July 2007. Sitt has guaranteed all businesses on Thor property a location in his development, said Lee Silberstein, a spokesman for Thor.
"Those lots may be boarded up next summer," said Silberstein. "But at the end of the process, you're going to have something very special in Coney Island."
Coney Island once was something special, the most popular resort destination in the country. But "America's Playground" suffered though a long post-World War II decline.
When the Cyclone opened in 1927, Coney Island was already the apex of American entertainment. Charles Lindbergh came to ride the great roller coaster. Sigmund Freud stopped by the Dreamland amusement park.
However, a 1944 fire destroyed one of the great amusement areas, Luna Park. Developer Robert Moses, no fan of Coney Island, designed highways that made it easy to bypass the city beach — or just abandon it for the suburbs.
City housing sprang up in the '60s and '70s — towering "vertical slums," as the locals called them. Crack arrived in the '80s.
City officials also are betting on a revamped Coney Island. A new $240 million subway station was opened at Stillwell Avenue, once one of the dingiest stops in the entire transit system.
And $83 million — including $73 million from the city — has been pledged to create better parking, new streets and open space. A new cultural center is expected to open by 2009.
"It's a long process," said Reichenthal. "But people should come down this year and imagine what all those empty lots are going to look like in a couple of years. It's the start of a new era."