Exactly nine days after Superstorm Sandy devastated Staten Island, leaving 19 dead and hundreds without homes, about 150 Islanders made their way to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center to attend a meeting sponsored by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
The topic for the evening was not the EDC’s disaster recovery programs, bolstering the coastline to prevent future storm surges or potential dangers from the dozens of contaminated sites that line the North Shore and that were flooded during the storm.
Rather, the meeting that night centered on a new plan to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel on the St. George waterfront. Known as the New York Wheel, the ride will sit between the ferry terminal and the baseball stadium — in both areas that could flood during 100 and 500-year storms. Approximately 1.5 miles north, Superstorm Sandy’s fierce waves washed a 712-ton oil tanker ashore.
The wheel is set to rise 84 feet higher than the Singapore Flyer, currently the title-holder for world’s largest Ferris wheel and will be accompanied by a 340,000-square-foot designer outlet retail complex and a 130,000-square-foot hotel.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the mega-project this September, saying it will bring much-needed economic development to the struggling North Shore of the island, which in 2010 had poverty rates 58 percent and unemployment rates 13 percent higher than in the rest of Staten Island.
Although a handful of residents, small business owners and union members at the Nov. 13 meeting on the development welcomed its promises of jobs and investment, more commonly, residents’ two-minute testimonies included adjectives like “insulting,” “outrageous” and “insensitive.”
“Part of our island was just devastated in the floodplains. And this is actually going to be built in the floodplain,” said local resident Stephanie Woodard. She called the structures “enormous, vulnerable.”
Officials with the company that will raise the New York Wheel assured meeting-goers that the structure would be designed to withstand 300-mile per hour winds and surges from storms as super-sized as those created by Sandy.
The rest of the complex, meanwhile, will be built to at least silver LEED certification and could actually help prevent damage from such storms, according to the company’s website. Furthermore, the buildings will “include almost five acres of green roof” and a water capture system to absorb rainwater and release it on a controlled basis into the harbor, according to the site. “It is safe to say that our project significantly protects what is now an exposed and relatively old retaining wall at Richmond Terrace.”
However, Nancy Rooney, a nurse who attended the Nov. 13 meeting commented, “I think the timing is poor and we need to reconsider our priorities on this Island.”
City Councilwoman Debi Rose, who said she “generally supports” the project, prefaced the meeting by stating that it “should have been postponed” in light of the fact that “Staten Island was ground zero for Hurricane Sandy.”
If the juxtaposition of the two events seems contradictory, closer observation of various land use plans and projects reveals that the New York Wheel tops a long line of seemingly contradictory development initiatives on the North Shore.
This 5-mile stretch of waterfront currently houses approximately 21 sites that are contaminated by previous or existing industrial development. All of them sit less than 70 feet from homes and along the shores of the Kill Van Kull, a tidal straight that is also part of the Diamond Alkali Superfund Site, the most costly cleanup ever undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Long before Sandy hit, local activists were practically begging city officials, through emails, testimonies and public meetings, to better consider the effects of rising sea levels and climate change on the area. Beryl Thurman, president of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island, has raised concerns about the city’s inattention to climate change, sea level rise and storm surges so often that some colleagues refer to her as “Chicken Little.”
Now that Chicken Little’s sky has actually fallen, will the Bloomberg administration proceed with the proliferation of development projects set to punctuate its end? Or will Sandy signal the start of a more systematized and careful approach to development that takes seriously toxic legacies on the North Shore and the effects of climate change? Events on the North Shore over the past two weeks indicate that Sandy’s alarm bells are growing faint indeed.
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