Staten Island needed the downzoning to protect its overtaxed infrastructure. And Molinaro says it wasn’t popular with all Staten Islanders: Some landowners were furious that they could no longer develop at the same density levels.
Molinaro also continues to defend the downzoning against those, like Lander, who argued Staten Island could have done more of its fair share of absorbing population density. Although the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past couple decades to upgrade the borough’s sewer infrastructure, Molinaro says that prepping the borough for a larger population would require a fortune more—to upgrade sewer and gas infrastructure, widen streets to comply with fire fighting codes, put power lines under ground, and create a more robust transportation system.
“When you don’t know the total problems, then there’s merit to it,” he says of Lander’s argument.
But he says he’s always recognized that the North Shore, which is well served by the ferry and has always been more pedestrian-friendly, provided opportunities for growth. Knowing that the New York Wheel and Empire Outlets were in the cards, he worked with Burden to explore opportunities for development in the area. One of the outcomes of their work was the 2008 Special St. George District Rezoning, affecting a small part of the North Shore. It allowed modest density increases designed not to block the views of the harbor from residencies on the hills, with new regulations to encourage commercial storefronts on ground floors and a friendlier pedestrian environment.
Saving the birds and the trees
In the years that followed the 2004 downzoning, Staten Island’s growth did slow down, though it’s hard to tell exactly how much was caused by the rezoning.
Staten Island’s population grew only 5.6 percent over the following decade, but the city’s overall growth rate slowed down greatly as well, and Staten Island’s growth rate slowed down only slightly more than the others, and was still the highest among the five boroughs.
The data on housing units is a little more notable. While in 2000 there were over 3,000 certificates of occupancy issued for Staten Island, the second highest among the boroughs, in 2015 there were less than 500 issued, leaving Staten Island by far the most quiet.
City Limits spoke with six Staten Island residents, among them three real estate industry professionals, two neighborhood association presidents, and a former community-board chair, who spoke of the 2004 rezoning as a necessity and as a success, though some noted that there were still some areas with outsized development that, in their opinion, needed better controls. (And some neighborhoods, like Westerleigh, did get a somewhat more reluctant Amanda Burden to grant them an even stronger downzoning.) Many saw the rezoning as having a good effect on the property values of Staten Island homes.
In actuality, median sales prices for single-family homes did rise, but pretty much on pace or even less than they did citywide. According to data from the NYU Furman Center, in 2000, the average Staten Island home sold for about $302,000, while the average New York City home sold for $314,000. By 2015, that average Staten Island home sold for $403,000, while the average New York City home sold for $460,000. This is fairly consistent with historical trends, too: Staten Island’s housing prices grew at a slower pace than the rest of the city during the 1980s housing boom too. And there’s a variety of factors beyond zoning that could have made an impact here: Staten Island had to survive the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. A national trend toward urban living may also have increased the demand for more centrally located homes in other boroughs.
David Gerts, a Staten Island resident and real-estate broker who sells homes in several boroughs, says he believes downzoning does have the effect of keeping a lid on housing prices, with land values falling as multifamily developers lose interest. It’s the sacrifice, he says of getting to “see trees and hear birds and even once and a while have a deer pass by.”
The costs of a slow down
There are costs to downzonings, however, that not everyone talks about.
The Reverend Janet Jones of Rossville AME Zion Church on the South Shore recalls her church’s efforts to develop affordable senior rental apartments on a parcel of vacant land owned by the church.
This was in 2008, after the 2004 borough-wide downzoning, but existing zoning for the plot still allowed the African Methodist Episcopal church to build a four-story residential building. The church still needed some approvals for construction, however, and were faced with virulent animosity from other South Shore residents that sometimes took on racial overtones, with one man calling the proposed senior housing “projects” and some people asking, Jones recalls, “what kind of people are going to be living in these buildings?” The South Shore is 93 percent white, according to the 2010-2012 census.
In 2010, State Senator Andrew Lanza, accusing the church of harboring greed for profit, sponsored another downzoning for the neighborhood that prohibited townhouses, putting the kibosh on the church’s project. Jones still mourns the loss of an opportunity to meet the neighborhood’s need for affordable senior housing. While she sees that downzonings, like the 2004 Low Density Growth Management Zone, can be a useful tool to limit overcrowding and traffic, she says the church’s project would have included off-street parking and would not have burdened the neighborhood.
In the broad picture, it’s hard to say how much Staten Island’s multiple downzonings might have contributed to the city’s affordability crisis. Not every townhouse that never got built would have been affordable, but some argue that reducing the overall supply of housing in the city creates competition for existing units, raising prices in the city overall. On the flip side, it’s possible, though not proven, that the downzoning actually helped to slow rent growth in Staten Island. According to data from the Furman Center, from 1996 to 1999, median monthly rents for Staten Island’s three community districts grew between $20 and $50. Again from 1999 to 2002, Staten Island’s median rent increased by $13, roughly on pace with city averages. Yet from 2006 to 2014, Staten Island’s median rent decreased by $19, while increasing $162 in the city as a whole.