(Page 3)

Still, that doesn’t mean that the borough couldn’t have used more subsidized, affordable rental housing. In fact, in part due to an increase in low-income residents, even though Staten Island rents remained relatively stagnant, the number of families paying more than 50 percent of their income toward rent rapidly increased. On a ranking of neighborhoods by the number of severely rent-burdened households, Staten Island’s North Shore went from 34th in 2000 to 12th in 2015.

Goldberg says the increase of non-white, low-income residents in downzoning areas may be in part due to the displacement of such residents from upzoned areas of the city. Gerts, the real estate broker, also thinks that the increase of low-income people in Staten Island might be attributable to people getting priced out of other, gentrifying boroughs. Yet while Staten Island’s rents might have been more affordable than other parts of the city, they were still high for the incoming low-income population.

For some, the downzoning meant more than just a loss of opportunity for the creation of rent-restricted housing. According to North Shore entrepreneur Bobby Digi, the downzoning also meant that the immigrant community in the North Shore was not receiving the investment or the attention it needed.

Abigail Savitch-Lew

Bobby Digi and his father Emmanuel Olisa. Digi is holding the plans for his new pub on Minthorne Street.

Digi, the son of a Nigerian car-dealership owner, grew up in the North Shore. After getting his education and travelling abroad, he returned only to find “so much that hadn’t changed in the ghetto” and became strongly invested in improving his neighborhood. As an entrepreneur, he invested in two properties on Water Street, which intersects with Bay Street, with the intent to redevelop them. Then came the 2004 downzoning, which forced him to downsize his project.

“It did slow down development along the corridor, and it was part of why, in my opinion, things slowed down to the pace that they slowed down,” he says. “There was a bit of revitalization going on, but at that point, people then stopped. They were looking elsewhere. They were looking to Jersey.”

For Digi, Staten Islander’s preoccupation with downzoning—with preserving their perfect views from the hill—was one among many things that has stymied revitalization in the low-income North Shore area. Even now, he says, investors are still second-guessing what’s to come. Yet he believes that with URBY and the proposed Bay Street rezoning, something really is finally about to change in the North Shore.

The next Williamsburg?

The declining rents on the island seen from 2006 to 2014 appear about to reverse themselves. According to data from StreetEasy, the median asking rent in Staten Island increased from $1,250 in 2013 to $1,817 in 2015. That’s asking rent for apartments on the market, not median rent for all units, which tends to have a slower growth rate, and other measures show different trends. But there are other signs of change: Real-estate professionals are reporting a rise of bidding wars for investment properties in the North Shore and an increase in demand for rentals.

“Without question, developers have caught on to what we always knew was a dynamic market with some really incredible upsides,” says James Prendamano, of the Staten Island real-estate firm Casandra Properties, which is engaged in leasing URBY.

“There was limited swaths of land in which we had progressive zoning in place,” Prendamano says, explaining that by “progressive” he means zoning that allows for mixed-use, mid-rise buildings. “City Planning has worked very hard to remedy that.”

City Limits spoke to a few neighborhood associations who were concerned about the number of new apartments slated for Bay Street—over 2,500 apartments—and how it could impact Staten Island’s infrastructure. Yet interestingly, we heard a lot of enthusiasm for the Bay Street corridor from people who supported the 2004 downzoning—so long as most of the rest of the borough remains a low-density safe haven.

“This high density area of Staten Island gives you the ability to have your own downtown, so if you want to have Manhattan-style fun on the weekend, you don’t have to go to Manhattan,” says Gerts, the real-estate broker. “You’re going to have the best of both worlds.”

Not only that, but Gerts believes the proposed rezoning and waterfront revitalization may already be causing a small uptick in the values of nearby single-family homes.

A resident of the South Side, Gary Angiuli, is repurposing a warehouse on Minthorne Street, adjacent to Bay Street, with a space for local retailers, and he hopes to one day redevelop a vacant property on Bay Street with multifamily housing. He thinks the 2004 downzoning was important to curb out-of-context development, but is excited about the proposed changes for Bay Street and the waterfront.

“It’s really not because I own real estate here. It’s because it’s a magnificent waterfront with beautiful views of the skyline of Manhattan,” he says. “I think it’s going to become the next, I hate to use the word ‘Williamsburg’ because maybe it sounds a bit cliché…but you are going to see tremendous growth over the next decade and the rents will catch up to the other boroughs.”

Digi has decided to rent out one of Angiuli’s spaces on Minthorne Street and start a pub. He’s been engaged in the Bay Street rezoning planning, is excited to see the city’s streetscaping improvements already taking place, and thrilled the city will be investing in the creation of a new recreation center nearby. He’s also hoping the population influx will help the existing medley of African, Sri Lankan and Latin American businesses on neighboring Victory Boulevard. Yet he also has some serious fears.

“My concern is what will happen to the people who have been here?” he wonders. “What will happen to the fiber of the community, and how quickly will it change?”

He knows the city is investing $500,000 in commercial improvements for existing businesses in the area as part of the Department of Small Business Services’s Neighborhood 360º program, but he wishes the city would provide more support to ensure local businesses stand to benefit, not to get displaced.

“They’re going to [need to] get really creative, develop niche marketing,” he says of local storeowners. “Will they have the inspiration even? You can get overwhelmed.”

What happens to the neediest?

The Reverend Jones is more blunt.

“The powers that be downzone to prevent what they don’t want, and they rezone to get what they do want,” she says. “I think that’s what’s happening here on the North Shore.”