After four years or 40, depending on whom you ask, the City Planning Commission voted 8-3 on Monday in favor of the city-initiated rezoning plan for the Bay Street Corridor in Staten Island. The proposal will now move on to the City Council for possible approval.
The eight votes included CPC Chair Marisa Lago and Vice Chair Kenneth Knuckles. The three no votes came from Commissioners Alfred Cerullo, Orlando Marin and Raj Rampershad. The two absent Commissioners were David Burney and Michelle de la Uz.
Before her vote, Commissioner Lago praised the hard work of Councilmember Debbie Rose and Borough President James Oddo, despite Oddo’s rejection of the proposal. “I’m pleased that the Bay Street Corridor neighborhood plan is more than just a rezoning. It’s a vision for a future community that provides new affordable housing options and allows residents to live, work, play, shop, dine, and enjoy the arts all within walking, biking, or public transit distance of their homes,” said Lago.
Although her vote was in favor of the rezoning, Lago said she understood there were community concerns on affordability and infrastructure needs. However, she felt those issues would be addressed before the City Council vote.
“I’m confident that many of these issues, some of which extend beyond the rezoning actions before the commission, will be addressed,” Lago said. “These conversations continue long after rezoning has been adopted.”
Capelli, a Staten Island resident and a former community board member, said he agreed with some parts of the plan but felt disappointed that the borough president’s suggestions regarding infrastructure investment were not taken seriously.
“This is the culmination of probably 40 years worth of effort on the part of people, because I got involved in this particular issue as the land use chairman of community board 1 back in the late seventies. We finally got there and I support the vision that is being laid out here,” said Capelli. “And I think that borough presidents, virtually all of the borough presidents we have today, can and should be playing a greater role in the in a formalized sense in the uniform land use review procedure. This is, as the Chair pointed out, a vision. There’s a lot that still needs to take place in this.”
Capelli also referenced a hope that the City Council process would allow for further negotiations on the infrastructure improvements and affordability needs of the Staten Island community.
But Cerullo, a former City Council member, was less confident that the next phase of ULURP would create a better plan. He said this rezoning was “just one part of a changing geography” alongside the Stapleton Waterfront District and Special St. George District, whose impacts were still unknown. He criticized the lack of commitments for new schools, firehouses, or police precincts despite the thousands of new residents projected to come into the neighborhood, “Our finest, our bravest and our residents deserve better,” he said.
Cerullo questioned the City Planning Commission’s dependency on the City Council to improve the city’s plan. “Where do we fit in? Aren’t we the planners? Shouldn’t we be analyzing these plans to ensure that these decisions that shape neighborhoods make sense?” He added the borough president’s “simple” conditions for the rezoning plan such as sewer projects, roadway realignments, surveys, plans and studies were easy commitments for the city to make, yet were not made.
The Future of Bay Street
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. The two nearby special districts, the Special Stapleton Waterfront District and Special St. George District, will be expanded and remain for commercial, residential and retail use.
During the City Planning Commission public hearing in February, NYCEDC Senior Vice President of Development Cecilia Kushner said in her testimony 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.
The draft environmental impact statement, released in November, had projected the rezoning will lead to an increase in housing by 2,557 dwelling units and would likely increase the population by 6,571 new residents. The study says a little over a dozen residents are expected to be directly displaced. However, the study also revealed that an estimated 1,753 residents in unregulated housing units are at risk of being indirectly displaced by the proposed actions (a full analysis can be read here).
In January, Staten Island Community Board 1 rejected the proposal “with conditions” and in February, Oddo followed suit by also rejecting the proposal “with conditions” (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).
On Monday morning, Oddo, in his borough newsletter, warned the De Blasio administration that in order for more density to be absorbed, infrastructure had to be in place, and called anything less from the city to be “irresponsible.” He said the administration had not given him a response to his list of conditions. Oddo acknowledged the mayor-controlled commission would pass the rezoning plan in spite of those shortcomings, but added: “The process then goes to the City Council. There, then, is the chance for Staten islanders and their elected officials to draw their line in the sand. There, then, should be our thin red line of defense: Make these commitments or take your rezoning back to City Hall.”
Next, 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. Rose’s 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.
Rose says her her focus has been on affordability, transit and infrastructure measures. Last month, Rose and the city came to an agreement to invest an estimated $31 million in traffic and pedestrian safety improvements as well as new public spaces within the Bay Street Corridor plan, according to an exclusive Staten Island Advance report.
In a emailed statement to City Limits, Rose said, “The Bay Street Corridor rezoning gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity for forward-thinking planning and substantial investments in our infrastructure. Last month’s announcement of traffic and public space improvements in Tompkinsville were a down-payment on what I expect to be a series of investments in the North Shore. I have been negotiating for investments and will continue to do so until we have a plan that meets the real needs of our current residents and future generations.”
The latest NYU Furman Center data shows that in 2016, in the St. George and Stapleton neighborhoods of North Shore in Staten Island, the average income was estimated at $66,859, 14 percent higher than the rest of the city. The poverty rate in the same neighborhoods was one percent higher than the entire city, an estimated 21 percent. The area has seen modest increases in rent: In 2006 average rents were $1,156 and rent increased to $1,243 by 2016 while rents for units being advertised for lease was $1,868 in the latter year. The data shows that in 2016 an estimated 34.5 percent of renter households were severely rent burdened (when 50 percent of the household income is spent on rent).
Is Staten Island Making Lemonade?
Community-based organizations such as the Staten Island Housing Dignity Coalition have been vocal on affordable housing, displacement and economic equity issues for the North Shore community in Staten Island. One of the founding members of Staten Island Housing Dignity Coalition, Pastor Janet Jones from Rossville AME Zion Church in the North Shore, says the impact of the rezoning on low-income households in her community will be considerable. She does not need the data to prove her community is rent burdened or that rent prices have increased because she meets with community members and her own congregation facing the financial stress in one of the more affordable communities in the five boroughs.
“I have families where all three generations under one roof, with all the adults employed, are still having a tough time making ends meet. The need for affordable housing runs across the gamut of our community and it hits the people who are earning $40,000 or less,” said Jones. “The proposal as is written is not going to help these people. Our fight has been and is looking at the true economic demographic of the community. There is a fear of displacement for renters and those who are low-income because the [landlords] will charge what the market can bear.”
In the North Shore, the homeownership rate was 56.8 percent and the homeownership rate across Staten Island was an estimated 70 percent in 2016, according to Furman Center data. PJones says the homeowners in her community have been at risk of buy-outs from speculative investors when recently one of her parishioners was approached to sell her property and a few weeks later approached again by the same group. Jones says the city can come up with a better and equitable plan if they chose do it.
Other community groups such as the Staten Island Urban Center and North Shore Civic Association say the city missed the boat on the rezoning plan by not addressing economic equity and infrastructure improvements.
The SIUC gave its testimony in February at a City Planning Commision public hearing in which the center demanded the deepest affordability to match neighborhood demographics; no private development on city-owned properties; a plan for new industry; building a state-of-the-art public aquatic center, investments in existing and new schools and transportation. The center has also proposed the city invest in maritime career pipeline for the youth and next generation of the North Shore community.
“There needs to be a larger and more thoughtful plan. Unfortunately the current plan will not achieve its goals completely without long term goals,” says Kelly Vilar, CEO and founder of the Staten Island Urban Center. “There is a generational impact in terms of jobs. The outlet mall in the special districts will not build lifelong careers with dignified salaries for the next generation.”
The Van Duzer Street Civic Association says the rezoning plan does not comprehensively address infrastructure improvements, school crowding, transportation and traffic issues, affordability levels and economic integration in the Bay Street Corridor.
“Can this area handle this right now? We all would like this area to look better. We would like to a range of economic backgrounds because it gels as a community and makes sense as a community where investment and job growth is encouraged for Staten Islanders,” said Priscilla Marco, president of the Van Duzer Street Civic Association.
The distrust of the Staten Island community is not new but reflects concern and frustration from failed promises such as the long awaited renovations to 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. Advocacy groups such as Make The Road New York have been working with Staten Island community, meeting with elected officials including those in the de Blasio administration.
“I think we’ve done a ton of work and research, meeting with the mayor’s team, meeting with the Councilwoman, meeting with all appropriate agencies to try and get to a place where there could be a palatable rezoning. And I don’t know that we have had as much success as we would have wanted in terms of how much this rezoning can and should be molded,” said Jose Lopez, Co-Director of Organizing for Make The Road New York.
Lopez said the focus has shifted to getting more from the rezoning plan; for example, the North Shore community wants to see city-owned properties such as those on the waterfront districts to become 100 percent affordable developments. They want manufacturing to residential development to include Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). The community also wants to further tenant protection programs for those tenants living in unregulated housing units including a relocation services voucher for the impacted residents.
Housing debate looms
But the biggest fight for advocacy groups has just started and it is over MIH options.
In the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, there are four sets of affordability requirements. During a neighborhood rezoning, the City Council and City Planning Commission decide which options will be available within the district. However, if more than one option is presented in a particular neighborhood, it is left up to the developer to decide which option to use when building within that rezoning area. If it is single property where MIH applies then the applicant, whether it’s a developer or a city agency, gets to pick the option they’ll use.
Option #1 requires developers to set aside 25 percent of units for families making an average of 60 percent AMI, or $56,340 for a family of three. It also requires that at least 10 percent of the total units must be set aside for families making an average of 40 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) or $37,560 for a family of three. Option #2 requires developers to set aside 30 percent of units for families making an average of 80 percent AMI, or $75,120 for a family of three. For both Options #1 and Options #2, developers are allowed to use public funding to finance the projects.
The Deep Affordability Option or Option #3 requires that 20 percent of the rent-restricted units be affordable to families making 40 percent AMI, or $37,560 for a family of three . Option #4, also known as Workforce Option, requires that 30 percent of the rent-restricted units are affordable to families making 115 percent AMI or $93,900 for a family of three, with required percentages at several different income bands. Developers using the Workforce Option cannot use public funding. And Options #3 and #4 cannot be applied by themselves—they must be selected alongside one or both of the first two options.
Both Staten Island Housing Dignity Coalition and Make The Road New York support MIH Option 3, the deepest affordability option. However Oddo supports MIH Options 1 and 2 and the Workforce option for the rezoning plan. Oddo’s support for a higher income bracket in the MIH program has become a sore subject for community and advocacy groups.
Lopez says the biggest obstacle for advocacy and community groups has been coming to an agreement with the city and the borough president on the MIH options for the rezoning plan. Over the next 50 days, Lopez says it is important to tell elevate tenant stories and to convince Rose that a badly planned rezoning is in fact worse than no rezoning at all.
After the City Planning Commission vote, Staten Island Housing Dignity Coalition said in a tweet that they were “deeply disappointed” and said they were not against investment in the area but against “irresponsible rezonings.”
*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.