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Will Staten Island’s North Shore revitalization succeed without the wheel?

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On the heels of the wheel’s demise, local stakeholders predict what’s next

An aerial view of city buildings and trees along a waterfront. Max Touhey

The New York Wheel was heralded as Staten Island’s boldest project, a world-class tourist destination that would rival the London Eye and best stalwart attractions like the Empire State Building in annual revenue. It was poised to be the beacon on the horizon that told the rest of New York City that Staten Island was ready for them.

And then on October 23, after over five years in the pipeline and $400 million in private investment, the New York Wheel was pronounced dead. The results of the developers’ divisive, much-litigated efforts are a concrete plinth and completed parking garage.

The 630-foot attraction was a lofty project from the start, poised to be the world’s tallest observation wheel—briefly, before a similar project in Dubai was announced—in the city’s most overlooked borough. “What’s great is that people do come to Staten Island; they just have nothing to get off the ferry for,” Jonathan Bowles, executive director of Center For an Urban Future, opined to the New York Times in 2015. The wheel, a short walk from the St. George Ferry Terminal, was positioned as the thing that would lure them off the boat.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo has remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped following the announcement of the wheel’s demise. In a statement posted to the borough’s official Twitter account, Oddo reacted to the “disappointing news” saying “there are plenty of recriminations that will fester, but our work at borough hall is now focused on ensuring a smooth transition of the parking garage so commuters will be unaffected, as well as working with the City to resolve all of the ‘what now?’ questions.” (Oddo declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Those “what now?” questions fall to the NYC Economic Development Corporation, which leased the land under the wheel and contracted its developer nearly a decade ago, but the NYCEDC is also operating on a plain of uncertainty. “The NY Wheel was an ambitious venture,” EDC spokesperson Ryan Birchmeier said in an emailed statement. “While the developers were unable to secure the necessary funding for this project, the City is committed to working with the community and local stakeholders to determine potential uses for the Wheel site.”

The Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, meanwhile, sees only one way forward: Find another team to finish the job. The wheel’s base is in place, and the next developer would be less some $400 million in costs to see the project out, it argues.

“Either we do a wheel or we wait for the next administration,” says Cesar Claro, president and CEO of the SIEDC, noting how a project to transform Stapleton’s home port site with a movie studio was scuttled in the twilight of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty. “The business community of Staten Island will not support any new initiative in the closing days of an administration. We will come out against it adamantly.”

Claro also notes the secondary effects that the loss of the New York Wheel would have on the community. Not only would fewer people be traveling to Staten Island and spending their money at North Shore destinations, but a future with no wheel likely also means less investment from the city in transportation to Staten Island and in resiliency measures along the North Shore waterfront. The SIEDC is in the process of drafting a letter to James Patchett, head of the NYCEDC, expressing its position on the matter.

The wheel was only one of several major development projects seeking to turn Staten Island’s North Shore into a destination, and the others have all made major advances to deliver on that vision. Empire Outlets, the 100-storefront outlet mall developed by BFC Partners, is moving towards a spring 2019 opening date. A spokesperson for the company says that roughly 75 percent of the storefronts are spoken for by retailers including H&M, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom Rack, and Levi’s, and leasing is ongoing for what remains.

Despite the loss of the wheel, BFC Development principal Joseph Ferrara is optimistic about the future of the area. “Our project is a beacon of economic development for the borough and for the city,” Ferrara says, noting that the firm was planning Empire Outlets before it knew of the wheel. “The transformation and renaissance that everyone’s been speaking about for years is already here.” In 2017, Staten Island Ferry ridership rose to 23.9 million people, a four percent increase over the previous year. New information kiosks in the St. George Ferry Terminal, wayfinding signage, and the debut of 300 dockless bikes this summer on the North Shore (with nearly 20,000 trips taken on them since then) all point to that forward momentum.

A five-minute walk from Empire Outlets, the development known as Lighthouse Point is wrapping up its first phase, which includes 65,000 square feet of commercial space, 12 residential floors, and a 300-car public parking garage. Tenants like flexible and co-working space company Regus and Lighthouse Point Market are slated to debut in the spring of 2019. A second phase, which will include a Westin hotel and the rehabilitation of four historic buildings on the site, is due to begin next year. (Developer Triangle Equities declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Staten Island Urby.
Max Touhey

Ironstate Development’s amenity-laden rental complex Urby Staten Island is the only major North Shore project that’s completed. The 450-apartment complex opened in 2016 and now has Yelp reviews spanning the extremes: Reviews from tenants past and present note the development’s strong cultural programming and above-par amenities like its 24-hour gym, 5,000-square-foot urban farm, and sprawling pool deck. But there are also complaints of disorganized management, a lax enforcement of the project’s no smoking policy, and a lack of security on the premises. In May, an altercation at the development ended in a stabbing death. (Curbed has reached out to Ironstate for comment, and will update with any new information.)

“The general consensus here is Empire Outlets and Lighthouse Point will be successful,” Claro says, speaking of the developments flanking the wheel site, “but the wheel would have been a transformative project for the entire North Shore of Staten Island.”

With the wheel’s erratic history—amid an extended timeline, funding woes, and allegations of faulty construction—its end is not unexpected. Even so, stakeholders in the community suggest it’s too soon to predict what the site’s future holds. With or without the wheel, Lighthouse Point and Empire Outlets will open, and ferries will continue to shepherd thousands across New York Harbor. And the De Blasio administration continues to eye Bay Street for a rezoning that could redefine the North Shore with around 2,500 new units of housing and 600,000 added square feet of commercial space. Whether or not a wheel ever turns, the momentum it helped build is rolling forward.