Staten Island residents, community leaders and even members of the City Planning Commission raised concerns about affordable housing, traffic, transportation, infrastructure and the local economy during the City Planning Commission’s public meeting Wednesday on the city’s Bay Street Corridor rezoning proposal.
Opposition to the current Bay Street rezoning plan has come from neighborhood leaders, the Community Board representing the Bay Street Corridor and Borough President James Oddo who has said he would not recommend approval of the plan until it met conditions such as improved infrastructure and transportation. Critics of the rezoning plan said they feared displacement of unregulated tenants and small businesses.
The Staten Island rezoning proposal includes parts of the St George, Tompkinsville and Stapleton neighborhoods–an estimated 14-block area along Bay Street bounded by Victory Boulevard to the north and Sands Street to the south, including the two-block area along Canal Street south of Bay Street. It is projected to create an estimated 1,800 mixed-income apartments and bring in over 6,500 new residents to the area, according to the city’s draft environmental impact statement (the full analysis of the Staten Island environmental impact statement can be read here).
City Planning Commission (CPC) members Allen Capelli and Alfred Cerullo tag-teamed the questioning of city agencies and members of the public who testified on the rezoning proposal. Capelli, a practicing attorney in Staten Island, began the hearing by saying that the rezoning plan for Bay Street has been “40 years in the making.”
Questions about affordability
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development was the first to testify, and CPC members focused on the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) options mapped out in the rezoning plan.
MIH requires developers who take advantage of the additional density created by a rezoning to set aside a portion of the new apartments for specified income groups. The MIH law created four different affordability options–differing in the share of apartments to be set aside and their income ranges. Each rezoning plan adopts a tailored set of options–either one choice that applies to all developments, or multiple options from which developers can choose.
Option 1 requires that 25 percent of units are affordable to families making an average of 60 percent Area Median Income (AMI), or $48,960 for a family of three. Option 2 allows developers to set aside 30 percent of units for families making an average of 80 percent AMI (or $65,250 for a family of three)
Option 3, known as the Deep Affordability Option, requires that 20 percent of the rent-restricted units be affordable to families making 40 percent AMI (or $32,640 for a family of three) and Option 4, known as the Workforce Option, requires that 30 percent of the rent-restricted units are affordable to families making 115 percent AMI (or $93,840 for a family of three) with required percentages at several different income bands. More significantly, Options 3 and 4 cannot be selected by themselves—they must be paired with one or both of the first two options (for more details on MIH read here)
The sheer number of options on the table in Bay Street troubled some CPC members. “Right now, the community board has outlined all four options and thus far in any city sponsored rezoning we haven’t mapped out all four MIH options and I am wondering what the needs are and what the data showed?,” asked Commissioner Michelle De La Uz.
“During the public process we heard a wide range of what people wanted, we mapped all four choices as the most prudent choice to allow this public process to inform the public decision,” answered Michael Sandler DCP Director of Neighborhood Planning. “I will say zoning has a very long time frame and the housing market that exists today may not be the case in 10, 20 years.”
Cerullo asked how HPD engaged with tenants and homeowners. Sandler said the housing agency has already connected with 12,000 tenants through door knocking, community based organizations, robo calling and mailings which are typical forms of outreach used by the housing agency, but connecting with homeowners has been difficult.
Although affordable housing policies for the Bay Street rezoning are in the early planning stages, the NYC Economic Development Corporation said the plan could not have come at better time for the new development in the area.
NYCEDC Senior Vice President of Development Cecilia Kushner said the first phase of the New Stapleton Waterfront plan(a Bloomberg-era plan to revitalize the decommissioned U.S. Naval Base waterfront) had been completed, additional ferry service to the city had started and additional development of public space, retail and affordable housing opportunities would happen in the near future, “We are very excited by the Bay Street Corridor rezoning plan because we think it’s going to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Concerns about traffic, parks and sewage
Traffic and transportation have been important issues for Staten Island residents, and CPC Commissioners Capelli and Cerullo wasted no time bringing up the issue, “Traffic is on of the more critical issues. What is the DOT going to do for the increased density and traffic?”
“Traffic signal timing is key here,” Tom Cocola, Department of Transportation Staten Island Commissioner, said. He added there were plans to use state-of-the-art technology for the traffic signal system that could improve traffic on Bay Street Corridor but added that his team would have to keep a eye on pedestrian traffic from the ferry service because the Vision Zero program is also important for the borough.
Capelli and Cerullo also repeatedly asked different agencies to explore the idea for a ferry service from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Capelli told NYCEDC erry service between the two boroughs would bring potential jobs and consumers to the local economy.
With empty storefronts near the entrance to the ferry terminal and across Bay Street Corridor, CPC Commissioner Lariza Ortiz questioned Michael Blaise Backer, Deputy Commissioner at Small Business Services and head of its Neighborhood Development Division, about how much vacancy existed and if the city had “over supplied” the area with retail. Blaise Backer said the SBS did not collect data on vacant storefronts themselves but worked with the Staten Island Chambers of Commerce. The agency has been working with small businesses and plans on continuing their work in the area. He promised to get data for the CPC to review before their vote.
A sore topic for many Staten Island residents has been the long-delayed renovation of Cromwell Recreation Center, which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was the only recreation center that served the North Shore community and became a focal point for critics of the Bay Street Corridor rezoning plan.
Cerullo and Capelli, once again, jumped at the chance to question the city’s Parks and Recreation Department about the Cromwell Recreation Center, “Let me ask the most obvious question: Where is Cromwell? What is happening?” asked Cerullo.
Fiona Akins, the Deputy Director, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation spoke about a feasibility study that acknowledged the Lyons public pool center had the capacity to replace some of the services Cromwell once provided. But those plans were in early stages. Cerullo looked disappointed with the answer, “Ok,” he responded. “It is now five years which predates even this application.”
Critics such as the Let’s Rebuild Cromwell Coalition and Bay Street Corridor Local Advisory Committee have said in past interviews with City Limits that the renovation of the Cromwell Recreation Center should be separate from the rezoning package because it was a promise made to the community long before the rezoning plan existed.
Although not required to testify during this particular public meeting, Terrell Estesen, Director of Wastewater Review and Special Projects from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, dropped by to answer questions about infrastructure. Capelli and Celluro asked Estesen questions about sewage and drainage in the area.
Esetesan said the area’s infrastructure has a combined sewer system. He explained that the drainage plan would essentially “separate the sewers” which is when collected stormwater is directed into the ocean and collected sewage is directed to the treatment plant. He said the plan was in its early stages. “There are pros and cons here,” he said. “We are still developing a drainage plan for immediate needs and monitoring flow.”
The public meeting is part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that started after the City Planning Commission certified the Bay Street Corridor rezoning proposal and the Department of City Planning (DCP) released a draft environmental impact statement in November. The rezoning is part the de Blasio administration housing plan to create and preserve 300,000 affordable housing units, partly through rezoning up to 15 neighborhoods across the city.
The proposal calls for rezoning along the Bay Street and Canal Street corridors, which have not seen any zoning changes since 1961. The Bay Street Corridor is currently a light manufacturing district and the R3X district west of Bay Street is a lower-density residential district for one and two-family detached homes. The city wants to amend the zoning there to R6B, which applies to traditional row-house districts, and will fall under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program requiring the creation of income-targeted units.
Along the Canal Street Corridor, blocks surrounding Beach Street and Canal Street are currently zoned as R3-2 and R4 districts, allowing for low-rise, multifamily apartment houses and detached and semi-detached one- and two-family residences. The city proposes to change the zoning to R6B for medium-density residential use*.
The proposal also includes the development of two city-owned properties; 55 Stuyvesant Place and 539 Jersey Street for job creation and mixed-use (commercial and residential) development with affordable housing. Two special districts, the Special Stapleton Waterfront District and Special St. George District, will be expanded and remain for commercial, residential and retail use.
Staten Island Community Board 1 rejected the proposal “with conditions” in January and Borough President James Oddo followed suit by also rejecting the proposal “with conditions” last Friday, with the exception of the city-owned property at 539 Jersey Street, which was approved “with conditions” as long as the attached mandatory inclusionary housing options were more inclusive.
The community board did vote in favor of two related applications for the both city-owned properties; 55 Stuyvesant Place and the Jersey Street sanitation lot. The board placed conditions on those approvals such as the requirement that the Jersey Street site include a library or have an educational space for children.
When it comes to the full rezoning plan, Oddo listed several conditions and commitments that needed to be met by city before the plan moves forward to the City Council for a vote. Oddo’s office saw deficiencies in infrastructure and transportation, street drainage and storm storage capacity. He also wants current bus service should be modified to address existing overcrowded conditions on the S78 and S74 bus service within the Bay Street Corridor.
Oddo’s conditions also called for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing optionsfrom Options 1 and 2 while making options to provide availability from 40 percent to 115 percent of the Area Median Income (which ranges $37,560 to $93,840 for a family of three), including the Workforce option for the rezoning plan. It also called for MIH Options 1 and 2 for all city-owned properties within the New Stapleton Waterfront project area, a Bloomberg-era project, and to any other city-owned parcel within the Bay Street Corridor.
For the 55 Stuyvesant application for a total commercial property, he rejected the proposal “with conditions” that it be dedicated to “21st century tech hub and job incubator” with no type of housing. Additionally, he also requested city-owned properties on the waterfront should also include affordable housing options.
The borough president’s office also called on city for a full analysis of services such as police, fire, emergency response, local hospitals and sanitation to quantify how service levels will be affected and if additional funding for those services would be needed to meet the demand of the future 6,500 residents.
Additionally, Oddo wants assistance for residents and small businesses who may be displaced due to the rezoning through city programs; the creation of new schools and publicly-funded child care centers, improvements to public open space and the long-awaited renovation of the Cromwell Recreation Center. “This new facility should build upon the seventy four years of community dependability synonymous with ‘Cromwell Center”‘ This is a debt the city owes to the residents of the North Shore and all Staten Islanders, and it should remain an essential part [Bay Street rezoning plan],” Oddo stated in his recommendation letter for the city.
“In order to reimagine the Bay Street Corridor consistent with the desired goals of the proposed rezoning, the aforementioned issues must be sufficiently addressed to deliver on previous commitments to the borough and serve the future demands of more people, businesses, vehicles and the constant demand for more services,” Oddo wrote.
Neither the community board recommendation nor Oddo’s opinion are binding under ULURP. The upcoming Planning Commission vote is binding, as are the eventual City Council decision and the mayor’s signature or veto.
Residents, community leaders want more commitments from the city
The distrust from the Staten Island community has built up over the years after failed projects such as the long awaited renovations of the Cromwell recreation center, the scrapped plan for a Nascar speedway in 2006 and the New York Wheel, which was halted due to funding issues and a court case.
At the CPC public hearing, Kelly Vilar from Let’s Rebuild Cromwell Coalition listed several complaints about the plan, including the lack of deep affordable housing options and “no creative plan for the [local] economy]….Cromwell is not a benefit, it is a responsibility [this city has]. The city has not delivered.”
One of the founders of the Staten Island’s Housing Dignity Coalition spoke about how the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing options for the Bay Street rezoning did not help alleviate the affordability issues that exist in the community already, “There are many folks that are only one paycheck away from homelessness,” said Reverend Janet Jones of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church. “This puts millions of dollars in the pockets of developers and does little benefit for the North Shore community. We are here for equity in housing and reject MIH option 2 and 4. We ask that the CPC not endorse a plan that does not do justice for the Staten Island residents.”
Jose Lopez from Make the Road NY, a member of Staten Island’s Housing Dignity Coalition, said, “This feels like another City Planning hostage situation. For years, advocates on the North Shore called for real investments in the community and were largely ignored. This plan takes precious city-owned land, hangs it over the head of Staten Island residents, and says you can get some good here if you accept the Bay Street rezoning proposal.”
Lopez said the MIH was flawed and questioned the zoning, especially as it pertains to areas that would shift from manufacturing to residential. “A developer moving from R6 to R6A must set aside a minimum 20 percent of units. A developer moving from M1-1 to R6A must set aside the same minimum 20 percent. Why is this the case? And why have we mapped all four options in a community where 43 percent of the families earn below $50,000 and 75 percent of those families are rent burdened. This signals to us that the only plan here is to successfully displace the neediest families,” he told the CPC in his testimony.
Lopez said currently 80 percent of tenants in Staten Island do not have tenant protections and the only protections that can be guaranteed are if the state legislature passes universal rent control laws. He told the CPC the de Blasio administration should pause all rezonings until state legislation passes rent regulations and tenant protection laws.
The next step in the ULURP process is a vote by the City Planning Commission. After the CPC vote, the proposal will be voted on by the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises before advancing to the full Land-Use Committee and then the entire City Council. Although Councilmember Debi Rose did not testify at the hearing, her vote will carry the most weight when the proposal reaches the Council. She will have a chance to negotiate terms and conditions of the rezoning during the process.
*Correction: The initial version of this story erroneously reported that R6B zoning includes buildings up to 13 stories; in fact, R6B zoning has a 55-foot height limit, but R6 zoning—which is also part of the rezoning—could reach 13 stories.