At a packed town hall in the North Shore of Staten Island on Thursday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio took questions from constituents on everything from broken windows policing to the opioid epidemic and from potholes to struggling schools. He also spent a considerable part of the evening addressing concerns about the development boom in the North Shore, where he sought to strike a balance between assuring Staten Islanders’ of his respect for neighborhood needs while also defending his plans for housing growth and job creation.
The North Shore is in the midst of a new wave of growth, with the Empire Outlets mall on its way to completion, the New York Wheel slated to open in 2018, a former waterfront Naval base in the midst of redevelopment and the mayor’s proposed rezoning of the Bay Street corridor progressing toward public review. Some stakeholders have expressed optimism about the revitalization of Staten Island’s downtown, while others have expressed concerns about gentrification or about the impact of development on neighborhood infrastructure.
Addressing the latter concern, de Blasio spelled out, in terms similar to those he has used before, his main argument for promoting development in rezoning neighborhoods throughout the city.
“I think we have a conundrum in New York City, the whole city. There is a deep concern in neighborhoods about congestion, gentrification, the rising costs of housing, etcetera. And we’re at a fork in the road. And there’s a strong impulse to sort of say…to leave things essentially the way they are. And then there’s another impulse to develop. What I think was a mistake in the past was to develop without maximizing guarantees for the local community… I think if the city government comes in and says here are some rules we can believe in, for example, maximizing job creation and opportunities for local residents, creating affordable housing, etcetera, we end up with better development than if the market just took its course,” he said, adding that he believed that the North Shore would continue to build up even without the city’s involvement.
Speaking more specifically to the North Shore and the Bay Street rezoning, de Blasio noted that the city was also focused on stimulating the Staten Island economy and attracting higher-paying firms in the tech, TV and film industries—as perhaps is demonstrated by the city’s (not uncontested) idea to develop public land with new office spaces.
“I think here there was another consideration that was not true in every neighborhood; I think there was a feeling that Staten Island was missing out on a huge potential for job creation directly coming into the borough and that something like this really could spark something bigger that could be very beneficial,” he said.
Job creation in higher-paying industries was a theme he returned to throughout the night as part of an answer to many questions, from how to solve the homeless crisis, to what to do to keep Staten Island youth out of the criminal justice system.
The mayor also took questions on the potential reconstruction of the Cromwell Recreation Center on the Lyon’s Pool parking lot near the potential Bay Street rezoning. The original Cromwell collapsed in 2010 and community residents have long called for its replacement. De Blasio reiterated his position that the Cromwell center would not be funded in this year’s city budget but would be a potential investment attached to the rezoning of the Bay Street corridor. Separately, the city is still looking to site and fund the borough’s first indoor public pool.
In answer to a question from Reverend Pastor Faith Togba with Make the Road about how the city would seek to protect tenants in Staten Island’s large percentage of unregulated housing, the mayor had Steven Banks, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, explain that the administration’s recent commitment to a right to counsel in housing court can benefit unregulated tenants too: If a landlords tries to evict someone for reporting bad conditions, for instance, a lawyer can help protect that tenant in court.
Throughout the evening, De Blasio tied to demonstrate his respect for Staten Island’s prized suburban neighborhood character but also his hesitation to back the kind of widespread downzonings—rezonings designed to preserve a neighborhood’s suburban feel—that are popular in Staten Island and were approved in great numbers by the Bloomberg administration.
“We have some areas that can be developed and can create a lot of jobs and we need those too…but many parts of the Island are going to stay exactly the way they are. I think that’s the balance we need to strike,” he told one constituent.
Yet addressing members of the Committee to Save Mount Manresa, who for three years have been pushing for a contextual rezoning of Rosebank, Clifton, and Fort Wadsworth, he said frankly that their rezoning proposal wasn’t his administration’s priority.
“We’re not there yet. We believe the community is a fantastic community and right now I think its long-term prospects are very good to stay that way, honestly,” he said. “The number one focus right now is where we can create more housing…where in some cases we can create jobs…but your community, that’s not where we’re thinking of and we don’t see a threat to it.” He promised that his commissioners would continue to state in touch with the community to monitor future threats.
North Shore Councilmember Debi Rose also spoke about the development in the North Shore, emphasizing her desire the capture the business of tourists coming off the Staten Island ferry, and her dedication to the process of negotiating with developers for neighborhood needs. Rose has already approved the New York Wheel and the Empire Outlets, but her success at addressing concerns over the proposed Bay Street rezoning will be tested in the coming year.
“When I spoke about the development and ULURP and the process, I really looked at how those developments could benefit the upland communities, and I have to say that the developers were very, very instrumental in having conversations with the community, making sure that what we presented to them, that they made agreements to meet us [on] those things. There were some things that were difficult to mitigate and traffic was one of them,” she admitted, also acknowledging the city’s ongoing efforts to ensure the developer of the New York Wheel holds up his promise to allow pedestrian waterfront access. “But out of those deals, I was able to get over $500 million dollars worth of amenities and services for the upland communities.”
In other news, the mayor announced that he would name one of the new Staten Island ferries after Sandy Ground, one of the nation’s first settlements founded by free African Americans and located on the borough’s South Shore.
The Bay Street Rezoning
* * * *