City’s Staten Island Rezoning Targets Contested Territory

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New York City Economic Development Corporation Vice President of Development Munro Johnson briefs local stakeholders at a meeting last week about the pending rezoning.

Adi Talwar

New York City Economic Development Corporation Vice President of Development Munro Johnson briefs local stakeholders at a meeting last week about the pending rezoning.

“I left Staten Island…I couldn’t stay there anymore,” said Esaw Snipes-Garner, in a December 2014 interview on NBC, five months after the death of her husband Eric Garner. “Everything on Staten Island is centered on Bay Street. So one way or the other, you had to go to Bay Street. And that’s where the [police] all are.”

Esaw Snipes-Garner was referring to the long street that borders Staten Island’s North Shore and connects the ferry terminal to the Verrazano Bridge. The news of Eric Garner’s death, on Bay Street by Tompkinsville park, brought national attention to the racial and economic divide between Staten Island’s majority black and Latino North Shore and its white and affluent South Shore—as well as the frequent complaints from local businesses about troubled individuals near Bay Street. In the six months prior to Garner’s death, the NYPD reported 646 calls to 911, 98 arrests for a variety of offenses and 100 “quality of life” summons, mostly for violations like loitering or public urination, just in the vicinity of Tompkinsville Park.

A fourteen-block stretch of Bay Street, from Tompkinsville Park to Tappen Park, is now slated for a rezoning under the mayor’s affordable housing plan. The rezoning area starts a few hundred feet from the spot where Garner was killed. Like some avenues in other boroughs targeted by the mayor, Bay Street is currently zoned for manufacturing and home to a mix of low-rise industrial buildings, institutional offices, auto-shops, parking lots and vacant lots. Chinese take-out restaurants, hair salons, and other stores line the avenue as well, but 22 percent of retail spaces are vacant.

The city wants to upzone Bay Street to encourage the construction of mid-rise residential buildings, including a percentage of affordable units, along with a new thriving commercial district. They’re also promising the North Shore a suite of other benefits, including better access to the waterfront and improved pedestrian crosswalks.

Participants in the planning process, however, have a wide range of visions for Bay Street. Staten Island-based realtors, developers, and business leaders are taking part in the process alongside public-housing residents and social-justice activists. Some participants are more focused on boosting tourism, some are focused on increasing resources to address unemployment and incarceration in the North Shore—and for others, the goal is both. Varying interpretations of the phrase “quality of life,” including the versions that framed Eric Garner’s conflict with the NYPD, simmer under the surface of community planning meetings.

The challenge facing the city in the North Shore will be different than in other rezoning neighborhoods like East New York, where nearly unanimous fears of displacement dominated the discussion. Rather, the city will need to reconcile a diversity of opinions regarding the best path for the North Shore’s improvement.

Riding a wave of development

In the last five years, while the populations of Queens and Brooklyn were each growing at a rate of 5 percent—an addition of over 100,000 residents in each borough—Staten Island’s population grew by just over 1 percent, or less than 6,000 people. Residential construction was similarly negligible: in 2014, less than 1 percent of the city’s multifamily housing permits were issued to Staten Island projects.

The past year, however, downtown Staten Island has seen something of a renaissance. Over $1 billion in public and private investment is flowing to projects including the Empire Outlets mall, the New York Wheel and Urban Real Life (URL) Stapleton, a project to revive the deserted waterfront with an esplanade, new amenities and 900 apartments.

A 20-minute walk from the ferry and the new mall and bordered by the URL Stapleton project, Bay Street seems perfectly placed to leverage these investments. Indeed, de Blasio’s planned rezoning didn’t materialize out of thing air: The Department of City Planning is building on the recommendations of the North Shore 2030 report, a study on neighborhood revitalization completed in 2011.

On March 31, the North Shore Business Alliance in conjunction with the Department of City Planning and sister agencies hosted a community meeting to discuss the economic portions of the plan. According to SBS, downtown Staten Island currently loses $129.4 million of resident spending to stores outside the area each year. SBS sees a revamped Bay Street Corridor as an opportunity to recapture the millions of dollars flowing from Staten Island commuters’ pockets to Manhattan restaurants, clothing, and food stores.

“Bay Street really is the gateway for Staten Island, not only for visitors who are coming to the North Shore developments and taking the ferry but also for residents,” said Andrew Marcus, a project manager at the Department of Small Business Services (SBS). “It’s a real unique area and destination…an opportunity for larger commercial development projects.”

The agency is currently finishing a study of consumer and business needs, which identifies concerns of businesses and residents, including limited lighting, poor streetscaping, lack of safety and a prevalence of homeless individuals in the local parks, and, for a few business respondents, concerns about rising rents.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation proposed a strategy to address Staten Islanders’ infamously long commute times by providing more local, high-wage jobs. The agency says the rezoning should encourage the development of office space, potentially on publicly owned sites, to attract enterprises in the city’s burgeoning innovation sector, such as tech and media companies.

Eager for change

Meeting participants expressed excitement about the economic development potential and the prospective arrival of new consumer options.

“We’re finally seeing what we’ve never seen: development!” said Glen Mancuso, an agent with the Allstate Insurance Company, which has its offices on Bay Street. “How many years did we not see anything except a parking lot?”

George Christo, the CEO of Door to Door realty, called for tax incentives for young entrepreneurs. Longtime resident Marilyn Procope-Ogbu said the city should consider how to ensure tourists who ride the Staten Island Ferry take advantage of the area’s new destinations.

“Direct people out of the terminal,” said Procope-Ogbu. “They kind of swirl around inside and then get back on the boat!”

Participants disagreed over the need for additional parking. The Department of City Planning has identified the area as “transit-rich” and hopes to reduce parking requirements in the neighborhood of St. George, slightly north of the rezoning area. Developers and realtors like Christo want less parking, while several Community Board 1 members virulently disagree.

“If the parking is not there, you can forget everything,” said Diana Caughell, a community board member and salesperson at Robert Defalco Realty. She also called for improved sanitation, more restaurants and a reduced number of health and social-service offices.

“Staten Island has an oversaturation of these kinds of organizations compared to other boroughs,” said Caughell. “Which tourist is interested in healthcare organizations? (According to a 2013 assessment by the Comptroller’s Office, however, the boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan all have a higher number of homeless shelters per capita than Staten Island. In addition, a City Limits data analysis shows there are fewer mental health services per capita in Staten Island than in the Bronx.)

Marcus assured her that some of these changes would come naturally as the area begins to develop.

“Property owners on their own will probably begin to revaluate what the best possible value proposition is for potential commercial tenants in those spaces,” he said.

Voices not in the room

After the meeting, Jennifer Gray-Brumskine, a housing organizer at the social-justice organization Make the Road New York, expressed disappointment at what she perceived as a lack of diversity among participants.

“The people who are in that room, they are all people who own the North Shore businesses. You didn’t see people like myself in that room. You should come to one of our tenant meetings and then you’ll see the actual people who are being priced out of their homes,” she said.

Referring to an upcoming SBS initiative that will provide grants to Staten Island community organizations to aid with business enhancement, Gray-Brumskine expressed concern that African and African-American residents of the North Shore would have difficulty accessing the funds.

“Many times the people from our community, the lack of training in doing the paperwork will prevent them from getting those grants,” she had commented during the meeting, adding that SBS should hold a workshop to help people apply for the funds. “Have a certain percentage set aside for a minority.”

Make the Road organizer Nick Petri said he was concerned with Caughel’s call for less social service offices.

“We really need those social services. People need to have access to that healthcare. I don’t feel good about the prospect of being like, oh, ‘the landlord can find the best use for this,'” Petri said.

Make the Road wants to ensure the city preserves affordability in the largely unregulated housing stock and that developers are required to hire locally and provide apprenticeships for low-income residents. They also hope the city will use a combination of mandatory inclusionary housing and subsidies to achieve as much permanent affordable housing as possible for families making below 30 percent AMI.

City agencies have indicated awareness of many of these concerns. The Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) plans to host a meeting this spring on emergency assistance for tenants and homeowners, tenant harassment and other housing concerns. May Yu, Director of Neighborhood Planning at SBS, said the agency is eager to work with organizations that can help connect them to the African community. The city has not yet announced, however, which mandatory inclusionary housing option they will apply to the Bay Street Corridor, a decision over which North Shore’s council member Debi Rose and Borough President Jimmy Oddo hold significant sway.

A representative from Rose’s office said it was too early for the councilmember to select an MIH option, but Petri is optimistic about Rose’s support for deep affordability. Oddo did not respond to requests for comment, but the record shows that the BP, a Republican, may not be an Eric-Adams-style advocate for low-income housing. In December, he advised against mandatory inclusionary housing on the grounds that he did not support widespread multifamily residential development in Staten Island, and expressed preference for middle-income over low-income housing.

“I want to see an emphasis placed on choosing the option of 120 percent AMI. I don’t want to exacerbate long-standing, underlying problems and I want to see corridors selected that have a natural tie-in and synergy,” Oddo said .

Coalitions unite around schools, infrastructure

While some fear gentrification more than others, nearly everyone is concerned with the plan’s potential to further stress local infrastructure. Not including the potential development on Bay Street, there are already 1,200 new apartments and half a million square feet of retail already in the pipeline in downtown Staten Island, according to New York Yimby.

Last summer, a group including civic associations, historic and environmental preservation organizations, the Staten Island Ferry Riders Committee and the North Shore Waterfront Greenway presented a platform of demands including more schools, a study of the plan’s transportation impacts, greater attention to issues of storm resiliency, and historic preservation.

Another coalition, including public-housing residents, community gardeners, and civic associations echoed these demands at a press conference on January 18. They also called for improved sanitation and increased police patrolling—two demands that received the support of local businesses, as well—and the replacement of the Cromwell Center, a public recreation center that collapsed in 2011.

Some residents and business leaders see improvements to “quality of life” and addressing poverty as related goals. Katie McCarthy, co-owner of the ETG Book Café and Neighborhood Stage, wants the city to clean up Tompkinsville Park and install bathroom facilities to prevent public urination. Yet she thinks improving the area would best be done by addressing community needs through the creation of a community center on a vacant lot near where Eric Garner died. Her proposed center, as she details in a letter she plans to send to the city, would be called the “Eric Garner Memorial Community Center” and would offer job training programs, support groups, workshops for small businesses, a day care, and other services, especially for at-risk youth and the formerly incarcerated.

“With the deterioration visible in Tompkinsville Park, the fact that the block attracts troubled people and prescription-pill dealers, and the legacy of Garner’s death on the sidewalk, this block cries out for positive change,” wrote McCarthy.

  • cloudschange2

    For some reason, Victory Blvd. from Cebra Ave. down to Bay St. has fully occupied storefronts. If one did a comparison of occupancy rates in 2005-2015, it would show increasing growth. For some reason, Bay St. Corridor did not follow the growth trend. As a 60+ lifelong resident of Staten Island in this area of Tompkinsville/Stapleton, I believe the failure of Bay St. seems to lie in the higher rents asked. Speculators bought up properties when the Navy planned a Homeport. Rents skyrocketed with the promise of Naval money. That initiative failed, leaving specuators crying “we need critical mass” and the ridiculous term “Downtown Staten Island” was coined. I find it ironic that the North Shore, previously redlined in the’60’s and ’70’s and concerned citizens complaining of the oversaturation of city agencies (largely placed within a quarter of a mile of Bay and Victory) is now a hotspot for development.

  • native new yorker

    Bay Street is just such a dump. The new upscale developments my help but they have retail included, giving the new residents fewer reasons to visit Bay Street. The proposed ‘affordable’ housing may help but I suspect it will end up like the city housing projects in only a few years.

  • RIKKI

    racism racism racism come on the local people turned it into a dump and now new people want to make it better ….