Q&A: How Can the Staten Island Waterfront Be Reborn?

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After a decade in which its population grew faster than any other county in the state, Staten Island now faces both a number of opportunities for new development and a mounting list of problems that need to be addressed. With so many hot button issues pressing–from proposals to develop parts of the vastly underused North Shore waterfront to unresolved questions about the borough’s nightmarish traffic congestion–the Center for an Urban Future went to find out what Susan Meeker, executive director of the West Brighton Community Local Development Corporation, sees ahead for Staten Island.

CUF: What do you think of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to develop the Homeport?

SM: I think they dusted off an old proposal that we all heard about 10 years ago. It basically says the same thing. The money that’s been allocated [by the mayor–$66 million] should have been allocated back when the Navy was here. That’s all infrastructure money–to take care of the bulkhead and to take care of Front Street and Bay Street, widening them and doing whatever they’re going to do. This is stuff that has to be done and had to be done no matter what went there.

CUF: Why has it been so difficult to come up with a good plan for the Homeport over the years?

SM: The city says it’s because they have not had many proposals that are financially sound. That’s definitely quite possible. But part of the reason they have not been able to attract someone that would come in and develop is because of the constraints on that property. And part of that is the infrastructure. [Developers] wanted to know what the government was going to do about the infrastructure before they put their money down.

CUF: Many call the North Shore waterfront an untapped opportunity for Staten Island. What’s been the problem?

SM: It could be a busy, wonderful waterfront. I think it’s untapped because of transportation. It’s very difficult to access that waterfront. It’s difficult to get from one spot to the other on Staten Island, and transportation is the key issue. It’s the thing that is keeping us from any major economic development, and that is not only for the North Shore; it’s also the South Shore and mid-island. It’s a problem for

the island.

CUF: Is it just that the transportation infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with population growth?

SM: Staten Island now has over 500,000 people. I moved to Staten Island 25 years ago, and I don’t think we had 250,000 then. That’s a big jump. We’ve had a lot of building on Staten Island, but it’s all been residential. Some of this development has really taxed our infrastructure.

CUF: What else is keeping the waterfront from being developed?

SM: Another reason why the waterfront is underutilized is that many of the sites are potential brownfields, and there aren’t any traditional bankers interested in taking on the risk of financing projects. On the other hand, a lot of the property owners think they are sitting on a goldmine, and they’re asking extraordinary prices [to sell their land]. Recently, one piece was sold at a very good price to the Port Authority [for future recreational use]. Everybody now thinks that their land is worth the same as that piece.

CUF: What is your vision for the North Shore waterfront?

SM: I’d like to see an esplanade that goes from the ferry terminal out at least to the Bayonne Bridge that allows public access for all of the residents, light rail and then environmentally friendly industrial businesses–businesses that bring jobs at all levels.

CUF: Some people say you can’t really have recreational uses and industrial businesses.

SM: Well, let’s just take a short drive to New Jersey. In Jersey you see industrial parks that don’t look anything like our industrial parks in New York, because of the way the infrastructure is done. And they’re well maintained and they become good neighbors.

CUF: Would it be a mistake to only have residential and recreational uses on the waterfront, with no commercial uses?

SM: You have to have industry. You have to have jobs. If you don’t have jobs, then you’re just a bedroom community. Bedroom communities do not generate a lot of taxes. And if we’ve added over 200,000 people in the last 20 years, where are they working? Those people have to have jobs. Otherwise they’re going to be going to Brooklyn, to Jersey and to Manhattan to work. And that’s all making the transportation issue more difficult because they have to get there.

CUF: There’s talk about building a NASCAR racetrack on Staten Island. What do you think of this?

SM: I personally don’t think it’s right for Staten Island. Again, the major reason is infrastructure. How do you get there? Thousands of people come to it. Will it be a boon for some of the restaurants and possibly the hotels? Maybe. But 90 percent of the people that go will never set foot in one of the stores on Staten Island or in a hotel. They’ll be in their RV that they filled with food. I don’t think it’s going to bring any economic development to the island, and I’d rather see something that will benefit Staten Island. But it’s hard for me to say that I’m against it, because I don’t have an alternative that I think would be better.

CUF: Has the Yankees’ minor league baseball stadium paid dividends for the borough?

SM: It hasn’t paid dividends, but it’s the most beautiful stadium. You sit in those bleachers and you’re looking at the most beautiful skyline in the world. Has it been used to its capacity? Not at all. They should have been having events there other than baseball, but there’s been some hassles between the Yankees and the city as to when it can be used. It was also supposed to bring in more taxes than it has.

CUF: With so much focus on large-scale projects, are some of the smaller things needed to achieve economic growth being neglected?

SM: No, I think those things are happening. Take a drive out South Avenue. See Superior Chocolate, Adco Electric and the Hilton. There’s a lot of good stuff going on there. There’s good stuff planned down in Charleston. It just takes so much longer, and I think that’s part of the culture–not necessarily of Staten Island, but of New York City in general. It takes a long time to get anything through.

CUF: Do you give high marks to the Bloomberg administration on economic development?

SM: Yes. And I think it has to do with Bloomberg himself, because he recognizes what it takes to be an entrepreneur. He’s willing to talk about–and back–projects that are going to help people to help themselves.