Jim Henderson

Staten Island, more so than any other borough, has been permitted to retain a low-density, suburban feel. Local leaders say that is all the local streets and infrastructure can take.

The North Shore of Staten Island appears poised for a massive transformation. Five years in the making, the New York Wheel is slated to open next year. The Empire Outlets mall, right outside the Staten Island ferry terminal, is nearing completion. URBY, the high-end rental development on the nearby Stapleton waterfront, is at least 50 percent leased. And on top of all that, the de Blasio administration’s proposed neighborhood rezoning of adjacent Bay Street is very soon to enter the seven-month public review process required for approval by City Council.

The “forgotten borough” is receiving a new level of attention from developers after years of disinterest. Staten Island’s prior reputation as a sleepy town is not just a function of the ferry commute. Its low-density zoning has also kept developers away. In 2004, the borough status as the city’s suburban status was further safeguarded with a massive, borough-wide rezoning that established the island as the city’s first “Low Density Growth Management Zone,” with strict regulations to curb development. That rezoning was meant to help preserve Staten Island’s suburban character, prevent a Brooklyn-style overcrowding, and ease stress on Staten Island’s infrastructure.

The “downzoning uprising” as the New York Times called it in 2005, referring not only to Staten Island but to similar initiatives in neighborhoods throughout the city that sought to curb development, had its critics. Brad Lander, then director of the Pratt Center, suggested that given the city’s growing population, Staten Island ought to do its fair-share of absorbing the growth. Some critics saw downzonings—which took place frequently, but not exclusively, in white, upper-income neighborhoods—as efforts to exclude immigrant newcomers.

How the downzonings would affect property values was not well understood then, or now. The Times reported that property tax revenues might fall in the short term as land prices fell. As the thinking went, density limits would prevent developers from receiving a desired return, and they would no longer be interested in new construction. Yet, the Times reported, property values might also rise in the long term because the regulations would protect the character of desirable neighborhoods.

Research by MIT master’s student Leo Goldberg on the impact of the Bloomberg-era rezonings like Staten Island’s indicates that the impact of a zoning change on a neighborhood depended very much on what kind of new regime was put in place. Upzonings—which created higher density—were followed by an increase of wealthier people paying higher rents. Mixed zonings, which allowed higher density on some blocks while imposing lower limits on others, were followed by the same trend, with even greater decreases in low-income, non-white residents. Downzonings, however, were followed by slower rent growth, a declining median income and an increase in the number of non-white residents.

Staten Island’s 2004 Low Density Growth Management Zone wasn’t a downzoning in the typical sense; it changed a number of design regulations, not the allowable Floor Area Ratio (the proportion of permitted floor area to the size of a lot). But City Limits found that many of the typical post-downzoning trends—a declining median income, and relatively stagnant rents—occurred in Staten Island in the years following the zoning change there, though the island’s real estate market has been affected by many other factors beyond zoning.

All that could be changing with the revitalization of the waterfront and the de Blasio administration’s proposed rezoning of Bay Street. While that rezoning might seem to accomplish what critics wanted—ensuring Staten Island does its fair share of adding to the housing supply—it’s concerning that the North Shore, the community targeted for a rezoning, is Staten Island’s poorest, where the median income is $42,893 and only 20 percent of the population is white. By comparison, Staten Island’s median income is $72,569 and 78 percent of the population is white. The gentrification risks that come with rezonings will be born by Staten Island’s much poorer North Shore.

And the rest of Staten Island isn’t going to get upzoned any time soon. In fact, the 2004 rezoning is heralded by many as a great success—and with the impending development on the waterfront, constituents are still pushing for more downzonings.

No room for the baby carriage

The 2004 downzoning has its origins in the development boom of the 1990s. It was real, and not just by Staten Island standards: of all New York City neighborhoods, the suburban South Shore had the fourth largest numerical increase in housing stock from 1996 to 1999, with the creation of 4,618 units. From 1990 to 2000, the borough’s population increased by 17 percent, the largest proportional increase of the five boroughs (though, in raw numbers, other boroughs added more). There were concerns about overcrowded schools, subway traffic, and stresses on Staten Island’s sewer and storm water infrastructure, which was not built to handle larger populations.

“I had just been elected borough president,” says James Molinaro, who was Staten Island’s chief from 2003 to 2013. “I said: it’s enough.”

He says townhouse developers were exploiting outdated land-use regulations, cramming up to 52 apartments on three acres of land.

“If this policy was kept, what we were building, these would be the slums of tomorrow, because the kids have no place to play,” he recalls arguing. “There are these hundreds of town houses, and they were actually playing in the street, because there was no backyard—the backyard, without exaggeration, was four feet. You couldn’t put a baby carriage back there.”

Molinaro, who grew up in a tenement on a street bustling with factories in the Lower East Side, had moved to Staten Island in the 1960s “just to have a piece of land.” He remembers when the borough was called the “farm to the city” and was eager to protect its suburban character. He invited then-Mayor Bloomberg to take a tour, and Bloomberg followed up by sending his planning chief Amanda Burden to co-chair a task force with Molinaro to consider a rezoning. Current Borough President James Oddo also played a key role.

The task force’s work lead to the creation of a new zoning category called the Lower Density Growth Management Area. Staten Island was then designated the first such area, with Bronx Community District 10 (Throgs Neck) designated soon after. The regulations applied mostly to low-density residential areas and instituted regulations pertaining to parking, trees, roof design, yards, open space, roadways, and suburban design. Molinaro says it required 30-foot backyards, and reduced the number of homes you could effectively build on three acres from 52 houses to 19. He says it also updated Staten Island’s land-use regulations for the modern Staten Island family, where the mother works and each family needs more than one car: the new regulations required two off-street parking spaces for every one-family home.

While it is generally believed that Bloomberg granted the 2004 rezoning to Staten Island in order to win the borough’s reelection vote, Molinaro says Burden and Bloomberg both understood just how badly