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Staten Island Life
A torrent of new projects on Staten Island are reshaping the once-forgotten borough
Staten Islanders have a name for the impatient dance that visitors do when they get off the ferry at St. George to wait for the next boat back to Manhattan: The “Staten Island Shuffle.” The name reflects the perennial difficulty of getting newcomers to venture beyond the island’s welcome gate.
Local stakeholders hope that a spate of new development on the shoreline—and inland—will smooth the shuffle into a full sidewalk ballet that draws residents and visitors alike through the pizza-slice-shaped island, population 472,000. Here are some new projects that are changing the landscape of the forgotten borough:
“I think the opportunity is all in the outer boroughs right now,” enthused Jay Valgora, founding principal of New York–based Studio V. “Don’t get me wrong, Manhattan’s great, but for creative architecture, Staten Island is the next frontier. I think it’s possible to do incredibly creative things on Staten Island that would be difficult to do in Manhattan.”
In the shadow of the Outerbridge Crossing on the island’s West Shore, Studio V is building a verdant mall on the banks of the Arthur Kill. The Riverside Galleria connects 490,000 square feet of retail, including a cinema and grocery store, to High Line–like catwalks and bridges that channel visitors in front of stores and toward a waterfront public park and beach.
Staten Island’s industrial and natural heritage converges at the waterfront, and Riverside’s program unifies these two landscapes with green roofs and soft edges that work vigilantly to protect the development from rising seas. The mall’s sloped roofs “fold into the landscape” to capture and treat stormwater, while a rain garden extends into the parking garage to soften the edge between the natural and built environments. New York–based landscape architect Ken Smith is collaborating with the studio on the project, which is gearing up for the final phase of its ULURP.
For some, building on storm-vulnerable Staten Island would prove daunting, but Studio V literally wrote the book on coastal construction: The firm collaborated with nonprofit advocacy group the Waterfront Alliance to create Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG)—“LEED for the waterfront,” Valgora quipped—in 2015. At Riverside, a 10-acre restored wetland provides the first line of defense, although the entire site is lifted above the floodplain. Commercial spaces are elevated above parking for additional protection.
With “automobile access that works beautifully,” the project’s green inclinations defer to Staten Island’s entrenched car culture, although demand for mass transit in this neighborhood is growing. Riverside Galleria is a 10-minute walk from a train station that the MTA is currently rebuilding. More exciting still, Studio V, in a separate project, is in talks to build a stop for high-speed ferry service at an adjacent site. Borough president James Oddo is very supportive of the project, as are locals who have been pushing for broader access to mass transit on the West Shore.
On the North Shore
On the trip from Manhattan, commuters can almost feel the island’s famous ferry keel starboard as tourists cozy up for Lady Liberty selfies. Despite connections to the Staten Island Railroad, bus links, and the attractive hillside neighborhood of St. George just beyond the ferry landing on the Staten Island side, it has been a perennial hurdle to lure visitors out of the terminal.
“What so many of those passengers do is the ‘Staten Island Shuffle’: They get off the ferry and mill around in the ferry terminal until the next ferry arrives, and they never actually set foot on Staten Island. Right now, there’s not a lot that’s immediately visible there, so you can understand why people do that,” explained Munro Johnson, vice president of development at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
In response, Staten Island is changing its salutation. An array of flashy new developments set to open in the next few years will radically expand entertainment, dining, and shopping opportunities immediately adjacent to the St. George Terminal. The New York Wheel, a 630-foot-tall observation wheel, will give 1,440 riders at a time a dramatic view of the New York Harbor. Designed by New York–based S9 Architecture and Perkins Eastman, (and manufactured by Starneth, creators of the London Eye) the New York Wheel will be the largest of its kind when it opens next year.
Soon, New Yorkers won’t need to travel to the Catskills or Jersey for classic suburban-style outlet mall shopping. Empire Outlets, a 1.1-million-square-foot mall, is under construction next to the ferry terminal. The SHoP–designed storefronts reference an Italian hill town, playing on St. George’s elevation to allow visitors progressively better views of the harbor as they ascend upland on wide stairways and glass elevators. Parking is hidden below ground, while a waterside public plaza draws visitors toward the waterfront.
Mixed-used Lighthouse Point combines 65,000 square feet of retail with a 175-room hotel, including a restaurant and entertainment area, plus a 12-story, 94,000-square-foot residential space, a workspace for local start-ups, and outdoor offerings, such as a beach that offers views of the New York Wheel.
From the 1860s to the 1960s, Lighthouse Point was the site of the U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot, the epicenter of lighthouse service operations in the United States. The development strives to preserve the site’s 19th-century character by integrating historic buildings, which are listed on both the State and National Register of Historic Places, into new retail, hotel, and residential development.
Ten years ago, NYCEDC selected Triangle Equities to develop the site, and construction on the $200 million project is expected to be complete in 2017. Brooklyn-based Garrison Architects is executing the design.
Collectively, these North Shore projects total over $1 billion in investment, Johnson explained, making them the largest group of projects on Staten Island. Key to their success is a network of waterfront esplanades, parkland, and planning initiatives that connect the neighborhoods of Tompkinsville, Stapleton, and St. George to each other and to their waterfronts.
After decades of decline, the industrial waterfront in nearby Stapleton is being developed as public space and opened up to new investment. The New Stapleton Waterfront Park is a six-acre green space with a central esplanade that draws pedestrians south from St. George and toward the water from Bay Street, the neighborhood’s main drag. The park is finished, while a tidal wetlands cove will be complete this summer. Phase two is set to begin later this year or early 2017.
The low-slung buildings along the waterfront belie Stapleton’s vibrant commercial past, although the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964 channeled development into the island’s interior, hastening the area’s decline. The U.S. Navy maintained a small base in the neighborhood; when it was decommissioned in 1995, no large-scale plans were enacted to stitch the neighborhood back to its shore.
Johnson calls Stapleton’s new open space one of “the most exciting” examples of projects that reconnect neighborhoods to their waterfronts. The park, in concert with NYC Planning’s Bay Street corridor revitalization, is central to spurring the neighborhood’s regeneration: The city is investing $130 million in public infrastructure connections, parks, road reconstruction, and other improvements. Connector streets that bring traffic from Bay Street are being refurbished to improve the flow of people from downtown to the water, two blocks away. The hope is that improvements to Stapleton and Tompkinsville’s main thoroughfare will promote mixed-use development.
One of those developments is URBY, a 900-unit apartment complex by Ironstate Development marketed to young people. The rental-only waterfront complex, designed by Amsterdam-based Concrete, boasts over 35,000 square feet of commercial space, including a cafe and a fancy bodega. The first phase—571 units—debuted February 2016.
To plan ongoing development, NYCEDC meets regularly with the Bay Street Local Advisory Committee, “the eyes and ears on the street,” said Emma Pfohman, senior project manager at NYCEDC. “People are still nervous about the influx of tourists, but most see investment on Staten Island as a good thing.” There are lingering concerns about how the projected increase in visitors will affect transit, although NYCEDC is working out logistics with agency partners like the NYC DOT.
To Johnson, it’s not clear if escalating development on the North Shore will set a precedent for urbanization elsewhere on the island, although he reflected on the intrinsic marketability of the location itself. “You’ve got this amazing free ferry that carries 22 million passengers per year, including two million tourists annually. That’s a lot of market exposure already.”
To the south though, one under-the-radar project is emphatically geared towards vigorous locals. Ocean Breeze Indoor Athletic Facility is located within a 110-acre South Beach park developed under former Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, an open-space initiative whose objective was to bring massive parks to every borough. Designed by New York–based Sage and Coombe for the NYC Parks Department, the 135,000-square-foot complex is in its final phase of construction, although the track has been open for events since last November. Like most major public works, the project was managed by the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) from design to build.
The facility is one of the most high-tech in the region: The six-lane, 200-meter, hydraulically banked track can convert to an eight-lane flat track for practices. The 2,500-seat arena boasts photo-sensor lighting control and a “cool” roof, which can be upgraded to accommodate photovoltaic technology, while fritted glass windows, superimposed with images of runners, flora, and fauna, double as sunscreens. The structure sits above one of the last patches of native coastal grassland on Staten Island to provide a natural buffer against storm surges.
At one historic site, stakeholders are working quickly to draw ferrygoing tourists inland.
In addition to their collaboration on Riverside Galleria, Studio V and Smith are creating a master plan for New York City’s only restored historic town, in the core of Staten Island. The plan will preserve and reuse Richmond Town’s existing structures, as well as add density to the site with new buildings. The hope is to create a destination within the city: “We describe the project as a little bit Williamsburg, Virginia, and a little bit Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” said Valgora. The nonprofit that administers the site would like to see food vendors, shops, and possibly a brewery, to draw out-of-towners and New Yorkers to a verdant living-history museum.
Two miles away, developers are giving seniors, or “active adults,” in developer parlance, an opportunity to age in place.
By 2020, Staten Island’s senior population will reach 78,000, a 31-percent increase over today’s numbers, and by far the largest percentage increase of any borough, according to NYC Planning’s Staten Island division. In response to growing demand for senior living facilities, the Landmark Colony is a full-scale residential redevelopment of the 45-acre New York City Farm Colony, once a publicly owned home for the city’s indigent population where residents had to harvest vegetables to earn their keep. Today, the site is landmarked but in ruins, a magnet for graffiti artists and wildlife that roam over from the adjacent Staten Island Greenbelt. Local firm vengoechea + boyland architects (v + b) is transforming six of the site’s 11 buildings into residences with 350 units. A clubhouse with an outdoor swimming pool, retail, and a restaurant at the development’s periphery will round out the program. One structure will be preserved as a ruin.
On a recent site visit, the air was chlorophyll-saturated, deer roamed the property, and vines crept up inside Dutch farmhouse–style structures with gambrel roofs that were last occupied in the 1970s. v+b principal Pablo Vengoechea served as vice chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, so v + b’s plans incorporate the contextual, adaptive reuse that the commission views favorably for landmarked, but deteriorated, structures: v + b intends to reuse fieldstone from some structures for new buildings, including residences styled after carriage houses, lofts, and cottages that will be integrated into existing historic structures.
With seniors in mind, most entrances are at-grade, and few residences have true second stories, although many feature lofts that could double as guest bedrooms or as storage. (Residents with two-story homes will have the option to customize their homes with interior elevators.)
The landscape plan, executed in collaboration with New York–based Nancy Owens Studio, will keep the grounds lush and parklike, centered around an Olmstedian center green that references classic New York City park design. The landscape, a green core with a green periphery, complements a low-density development, principal Tim Boyland said. “We used half the allowable FAR for the site.”
Landmark Colony is now preparing for design development.
Although major projects nearing completion on the North Shore, and new developments taking shape inland and elsewhere, Staten Island is poised to maintain its status as New York City’s most bucolic borough for a long time to come. This, however, is no excuse for hardcore urbanites to do the Shuffle: Get on a bus, walk to the water, and take a look around.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Cost of Second Avenue Subway continues to rise as planned December open approaches
Streetcar Named BQX
New details emerge for the BQX, New York City's proposed waterfront streetcar route
At breakfast talk hosted by the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center earlier this month, Harris Schechtman, national director of transit at Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants, gave academics and members of the public a full run-down of plans for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), a proposed waterfront streetcar link that would connect neighborhoods between Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Astoria, Queens.
The nonprofit Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, a coalition of real estate investors, transportation planners, and development boosters, hired Sam Schwartz to develop the plan in December 2014. 14 months later, the mayor officially debuted the plan in his State of the City address. (Schechtman noted the "unprecedented" turnaround time from concept to debut.)
A New Yorker himself, Schechtman presented a case for the streetcar by confirming what most commuters observe every morning: Buses are feeders from the subway, while existing subway lines are overcrowded. Ferries, meanwhile, can only accommodate only 3,000 riders per day. The streetcar is a "Goldilocks solution," enthused Schechtman, who, prior to joining engineering firm Sam Schwartz in 2001, spent nearly 32 years at the MTA, including nine as the vice president of operations. The catenary-free, battery-powered streetcars can carry 175 passengers, compared to the Select Bus Service's (SBS) 100.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22XH4-nNjlA
The route map that's circulating in the media is a "very and deliberately vague description of the route," explained Schechtman. "The BQX project is a project in motion." Even so, Schechtman was able to lay out some specifics: When it begins operations in 2023, the streetcar will glide along a 15 mile north-south route from Astoria to Sunset Park, with 30 stops, each about a half-mile apart. Exclusive lanes, where streetcars can travel at 12 miles per hour, will comprise about three-quarters of the route, while 15 percent of the tracks will feature a contiguous-with-the-roadway, "SBS-style" design, that will slow travel to 10 miles per hour. Trains will arrive five minutes during rush hour, and every ten minutes off-peak; Sam Schwartz estimates that daily ridership will reach 52,000 by 2035.
Schechtman had strong words for those who view streetcars, like the one in car-dependent Dallas that has 200 riders per day, as dinky tourist boondoggles. "The [streeetcars] that are failing are the ones that were failing when they went to the drawing board. These efforts give streetcars a bad name. The BQX is not a cute tourist attraction, but real transit that carries a helluva lot of people." The annual operating costs are estimated to be between $26 and $30 million, with $17 million in projected fare revenue.
With the MTA struggling to finance even basic capital improvements, where is there money for a new infrastructure project? The BQX is a NYC DOT project, and thus operates outside the MTA's purview. Its design relies on existing zoning, doesn't compete with other development priorities, and assumes a 3.5 percent growth in taxes that go to the city, according to Schechtman. The biggest cost will be the relocation of below-grade utilities.
According to Schechtman, the city hired an independent consultant to review the work and the consultant validated Sam Schwartz's findings. A third consultant is now reviewing the streetcar plans. "We offered the plan to the city on a silver platter," Schechtman explained. "We took an idea on no one's radar—and [dealt] with all the key issues and fatal flaws. The plan so powerfully supports the goals of the city; we said to the city, 'We are going to take that burden off of you, we invite you to take a look at our plan.'"
AN reached out the DOT and the Mayor's press office, but as of this time AN has not been able to confirm Schechtman's description of the planning and review process.
A highly skeptical crowd grilled Schechtman on specifics. How will the streetcar pass smoothly through bustling downtown Brooklyn? (There are fears that a dip inland towards Atlantic and Flatbush avenues will be a bottleneck.) Why build a new transit system in a floodplain? (The embedded tracks are more flood- and stormproof than other forms of transit.) This seems like a gentrification plan. (It is, although the line should benefit residents of waterfront NYCHA projects, too. The streetcar is intended to entice developers to build housing, which could be required to respond to newly-enacted zoning that mandates affordable housing construction along with market-rate development.) Will fares be cross-honored with the MTA? (We're working on it.)
The public input process has just begun: on May 9, a public meeting was held in Astoria, and on May 19, another meeting will be held in Red Hook. A draft of the final route should be ready by the end of this year. In the meantime, check out the Friends of the BQX's recently launched website for updates, project FAQs, and a spate of shiny new streetcar renderings.
- Raphaela Platow—Director & Chief Curator, Contemporary Arts Center
- Michael McInturf—Interim Director, School of Architecture & Interior Design, DAAP
- Heather Wehby—AIA Cincinnati Equity in Architecture committee & Architect, Emersion Design
- Robert Benson—Professor Emeritus, Architecture & Interior Design, Miami University
- Richard Rosenthal—Arts Philanthropist, Name Donor of Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art
- Mark Stedtefeld—Architect and Principal, Emersion Design
- Patricia Kucker—Associate Dean, Faculty & Academic Affairs, DAAP
- Christoph Klemmt—Assistant Professor, Architecture & Interior Design, DAAP and former designer with Zaha Hadid Architects
Jimenez Lai brings his The Tower of Twelve Stories to Coachella, a 52-foot-tall sectional model made up of a mess of stacked platonic bubbles. Inspired by the Lenoard Cohen song, “Tower of Song,” Lai’s work also takes inspiration from theories on the American skyscraper, from Rem Koolhaas’s notions of its genericism to Louis Sullivan’s prescriptions of classical proportioning for the type. The structure contains embedded lights and glows from within at night. Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea’s Katrina Chairs utilize steel frames clad in plywood to create a sextet of bright yellow lawn chairs topped with stacks of Soviet-era, prefabricated apartment blocks. The monumental work takes its name from the disastrous storm that hit New Orleans in 2005 that gives the work resonant symbolism: it asks in surreal irony if one chair can hold an entire community above water. Phillp L. Smith’s Portals uses mirrored members to create a 85-foot-wide circular room around a large tree. This room is punctuated by fluorescently lit Space and Light era-inspired geometric niche sculptures. A planter containing the tree comes with incorporated seating. Wife and husband team Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis from Latvia repurpose scrapped wood and other building materials to create their two-storied The Armpit, an homage to the Latvian equivalent of the “man cave.” The installation fetishizes Latvian male’s tendency to crave time alone in the garage and upends a traditionally masculine space by allowing the view to peer into the cave and observe scenes of male solitude and domestic intimacy. Architecture-trained Argentine artists Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt take inspiration from the Mexican bolero song, ¡Bésame Mucho!, for their silk flower-clad monumental text sculpture of the same name. Coachella-based artists Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez, collaborating as The Date Farmers, evoke the Mexican migrant farm worker with their work, Sneaking into the Show, a Chicano Art-inspired totem showcasing a duo of migrant workers and their plow.Takin a break from my normal thing(s) to shoot @coachella ! @goldenvoice @instagram Art = @0super A photo posted by Jeff Frost (@frostjeff) on
Lastly, Robert Bose’s Balloon Chain utilizes variously colored balloons strung together with attached LED lights to create a responsive amorphous sculpture that billows along with the hot desert winds.