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A remote corner of Staten Island braces for major changes

Wetlands remediation and the presence of a new Amazon warehouse are transforming Staten Island’s west shore

For many years, Bloomfield has been one of the most isolated and neglected neighborhoods in Staten Island. Located in a marshland on the island’s northwest coast, the roads here are permanently flooded, the wetlands are a dumping grounds, and much of the street grid has been fenced off for decades, hidden inside a vast post-industrial wasteland.

Today, three new projects are transforming this desolate landscape, bringing in new life, new roads, and new visitors. Along the northern edge of Bloomfield, near the Staten Island Expressway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is overseeing the Goethals Bridge Replacement Wetland Mitigation Project, which is restoring 26 acres of wetlands around Old Place Creek. Further south, next to the West Shore Expressway, the NYC Parks Department and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) are working together to rehabilitate 68 acres of the Saw Mill Creek wetlands.

And in between these two restoration projects, a 3.5 million-square-foot warehouse complex is now being constructed. Located in a 676-acre property that once housed an oil storage facility, the Matrix Global Logistics Park has already signed up several tenants, including Amazon and Ikea, who will operate out of four massive warehouses. When completed, the Matrix complex will encompass 200 acres, all built on top of what was once a wetlands ecosystem.

Altogether, these projects will directly impact more than 800 acres of waterfront property, representing one of the biggest alterations of the New York City coastline in recent years. While it’s unlikely that a majority of city residents will ever visit Bloomfield, or see the marshlands along Saw Mill Creek and Old Place Creek, the impact of the decisions being made in this remote corner of Staten Island will resonate throughout the city.

The first phase of the Saw Mill Creek restoration project is already well underway, cleaning up a 54-acre wetlands area that had long been used as a dumping site for cars, tires, and household waste. Workers here have removed more than 40,000 cubic yards of debris, including 1,000 tires, according to the Staten Island Advance, and are now planting native grasses, trees, and shrubs. The difference between this restored landscape and the area outside of the cleanup zone is remarkable: One side of Saw Mill Creek is still piled high with rubbish, while the other has been excavated down several feet, and is covered with thousands of new plants.

This restoration is part of the Saw Mill Creek Pilot Wetland Mitigation Bank, which allows developers to buy credits in order to offset the environmental mitigation they are required to complete at other construction projects in the area. Although this is the first mitigation bank in New York, there have been 1,000 similar projects across the United States, which have helped to preserve and restore more than 960,000 acres of wetlands. If the pilot program here is successful, these banks could be used in other sites around the city.

Just one block north of the Saw Mill Creek restoration, the new Matrix Global Logistics Park is now being constructed in a 200-acre site surrounded by wetlands. Matrix has already completed an 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center here, and plans to create three more warehouses soon, including a 975,000-square-foot distribution center for Ikea.

The Matrix complex is situated within a larger 676-acre property that had been fenced off and abandoned for more than a decade. Previously, the site was home to the GATX oil tank farm, a 414-acre storage facility with 81 aboveground tanks that contained 218 million gallons of oil. Over the years, spills and leaks at this facility had contaminated the soil and threatened the surrounding wetlands, and in 1992, GATX agreed “to undertake a $6 million cleanup and repair program at the tank farm,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and to pay $90,000 in civil penalties.

GATX sold its land in 2004 to the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which planned to build a 82,500-seat NASCAR race track on the site. But local opposition doomed the project, and in 2013, the property sold again to Staten Island Marine Development (SIMD). As part of their purchase, SIMD made an agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to remediate 330 acres for future development, while also restoring “252 acres of freshwater and tidal wetlands that can never be developed,” according to the Staten Island Advance.

As part of its cleanup, SIMD spread more than six million cubic yards of clean fill across its development sites, raising the elevation between 10 and 22 feet above the floodplain. In 2016, the Matrix Development Group purchased three parcels of this remediated land, and its new warehouses are built high above the surrounding neighborhood and marshlands. The Matrix facility is also ringed by a system of manmade retention basins, levees, and culverts, all decorated with freshly planted wetlands grasses and wildflowers.

At the northern edge of the Matrix office park, along the banks of Old Place Creek, another wetlands ecosystem is being reshaped as part of an enormous development project. In a 70-acre site owned and managed by the DEC, the USACE is overseeing the Goethals Bridge Replacement Wetland Mitigation Project, which will rehabilitate 15 acres of intertidal salt marsh and 11 acres of scrub-shrub and maritime upland habitat.

This project was initially proposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a way to compensate for impacts caused by the replacement of the Goethals Bridge. During the bridge reconstruction, “approximately 47,000 cubic yards of fill material would be discharged into 1.364 acres of waters,” according to a permit application filed by the USACE. The project would also permanently alter the coastline of Staten Island by constructing concrete filled piers, steel sheeting, decking, and a new 4,000-foot-long maintenance road.

In July 2017, a $10.2 million contract for the restoration of the Old Place Creek wetlands was given to the JRCRUZ Corporation, and work is now underway at the site. Hundreds of new shrubs and grasses stretch toward the new Goethals Bridge, which opened in May. Although this project will restore a critically endangered urban ecosystem, the wetlands cleanup at Old Place feels quite small when compared to the $1.5 billion bridge project nearby, which is now ferrying millions of drivers between Staten Island and New Jersey.

The Saw Mill Creek flows out from Bloomfield to the Arthur Kill, passing between the NYC Parks Department’s Saw Mill Creek Marsh and the New York state DEC’s Saw Mill Creek Wetlands.

The wetlands on the western side of the creek now feature a healthy blend of native grasses, and have undergone several restorations in the past, for which the Parks Department “has received numerous grants.”

The creek flows underneath Chelsea Road, which marks the dividing line between its restored areas, and the areas that are currently undergoing restoration.

On the eastern side of Chelsea Road, landfilling and pollution are more readily apparent. The marshland here has been used as a dumping ground for decades.

Despite numerous cleanups in the area, the banks of the creek here are still highly polluted, with car parts, tires, household debris, and other rubbish piled high.

A visit to this same area of Saw Mill Creek in 2011 revealed that it was being used as a communal dump. This abandoned trailer is still there today, but has since been turned into a cat colony.

Overgrown mounds of construction debris and household trash were piled around the wetlands in 2011.

Dumping in this area had been taking place since at least the 1990s, according to the Staten Island Advance. One clean-up effort in 1996 removed “1,400 tires, 10 cars, three boats and tons of other debris” from the marsh.

An abandoned boat at the edge of Saw Mill Creek, as seen in 2011. Much of this debris was only recently removed as part of the current mitigation bank cleanup.

Along the creek today, the contrast between the restored areas and the as-yet-unrestored areas is striking. One side of the creek is still lined with abandoned cars and tires, the other with new plants.

Most of the wetlands here is being cleaned up as part of the Saw Mill Creek Pilot Wetland Mitigation Bank. Thousands of new plantings here are protected by fencing and other deterrents to keep away birds and deer.

The mitigation bank opened in October 2017, and the first phase of its cleanup began in January 2018, addressing 54 acres of marshland, which are being graded down to their original elevations.

When completed, the cleanup will have removed “more than 75,000 cubic yards of debris and soil” according to the Staten Island Advance, “which can fill more than 1,897 large dumpsters.”

This field of shrubs was recently planted by a team of workers. They are clustered around a newly excavated and restored branch of the marshland.

The next phase of the cleanup will address 15 acres, and there are still 1.684 credits left in the mitigation bank, at a cost of at least $1.5 million per credit.

Just across the street from the mitigation bank project on Chelsea Road, the streets are lined with industrial businesses that have carved out a home amid the wetlands.

These businesses include concrete plants, construction companies, and bus depots, which all operate on roads that are permanently flooded by the surrounding marshlands.

Along Bloomfield Avenue, one block away from the Saw Mill Creek Marsh, the flooded roads are now bordered by the elevated landscape of the Matrix Global Logistics Park.

In 2011, this same stretch of flooded road was nearly impassable. It remains to be seen how the new Matrix complex will affect its low-lying neighbors.

The former site of the GATX oil tanker farm, as seen in 2011. This 414-acre property was fenced off, with its roads closed to the public.

A 2011 view of the northern end of Chelsea Avenue. This abandoned street had been made completely inaccessible, behind a razor-wire topped fence, as it passed through the former GATX property.

Today, most of the streets in the industrial zone have been repaired and reopened, for the first time in decades. This is either 5th Street or an extension of Lamberts Lane, a road that was once completely inaccessible.

Down this road, the first warehouse in the Matrix Global Logistics Park has now been completed, housing an Amazon fulfillment center.

Workers are already onsite at this 855,000-square-foot warehouse. When fully staffed, it will include 2,250 full-time positions, according to the Staten Island Advance.

Though they are elevated at least 10 feet above the floodplain, the Matrix offices are surrounded by a new system of culverts, ponds, and stormwater detention basins.

These water features are ringed by marsh grasses and wildflowers, which seem to have been planted more for aesthetic purposes, as opposed to a wetlands restoration.

The stormwater system appears to be channeling water away from a five-story parking garage. Much of the landscape here has been paved over to make way for automobiles.

Immediately to the north of the Matrix complex is the Goethals Bridge Replacement Wetland Mitigation Project, which is being managed by the USACE.

This wetlands restoration is reshaping the landscape of Old Place Creek, another property belonging to New York’s DEC.

The wetlands restoration, which is expected to be completed by 2020, appears to be quite expansive, but pales in size and scope when compared to the $1.5 billion Goethals Bridge replacement, far off in the distance.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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