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Exploring Staten Island’s hidden North Shore Branch, eyed for a new bus line

The MTA wants to build a new bus rapid transit line through a forgotten stretch of the Staten Island coastline

On the North Shore of Staten Island, just a half-mile from the St. George Ferry Terminal, sits one of New York City’s most unique urban waterfronts. The narrow three-mile strip of coastline situated between the Kill Van Kull and Richmond Terrace was once home to the North Shore Branch, a train line opened in 1886 for local commuters. Abandoned since the 1980s, its tracks have since become an overgrown wilderness, full of strange surprises.

Though located just steps from the historic campus of Snug Harbor and the Victorian homes of New Brighton, the waterfront here exists in a world unto itself. Elaborate fishing shacks, made from scraps of wood and fallen trees, are hidden behind chain link fences. Rusted tracks hang in midair, the ground beneath eroded by encroaching waters. In a forgotten parkland, lampposts and paths are overgrown by tall grasses. A mountain of salt is piled over one section of the old train line, while a shanty campsite has been built atop another, surrounded by quiet woodlands.

In the years to come, this forgotten coastline could be replaced by a new transportation system. This past June, after a seven-year delay, MTA’s New York City Transit (NYCT) released an updated proposal to create the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system along 5.3 miles of the former North Shore Branch. This express bus line would travel along a new dedicated route from the St. George Ferry Terminal to the West Shore Plaza, and would be constructed along the coastal portions of the old train line, as well as a mile-long aboveground viaduct in Port Richmond and an open cut under the streets of Mariners Harbor.

During a public presentation at Snug Harbor in October, the agency outlined some of what it has in mind for the bus line, highlighting the BRT’s faster transit times and added passenger capacity. “It may be difficult for people in New York City to imagine what bus rapid transit is, because we don’t have a good example of that here,” said Eric Bohn, a manager of Capital Projects at the MTA, who presented details from a Draft Scoping Document the agency published in September. “Think of it as kind of like a subway, in terms of the speed and frequency of service, but running with rubber tired vehicles.”

The cost of the North Shore BRT is not yet known, but the MTA has estimated that it would have cost $484 million to implement in 2010. The sources of funding are also still unknown, but the MTA believes the project would be completed by 2027. The agency will be accepting public comments on its proposal until November 18th, before it embarks on creating an Environmental Impact Statement.

For local fishermen who have been using the coastline here for decades, a major concern is that building a new bus route would create another barrier to the waterfront. “I’ve been fishing here for years. I don’t think I will be alive when they finish building that. It won’t be in my lifetime,” said one fisherman, casting his line out into the Kill Van Kull from a crumbling concrete bulkhead. “But it’d be a shame if they cut us off from the water. Get them to build us a dock!”

In recent years, New Yorkers have had many creative ideas for how to repurpose the city’s abandoned train lines. In Queens, an elevated urban farm is being considered for the Montauk Cutoff, and the QueensWay has been proposed for the Rockaway Beach Branch. In the Bronx, community members are working to daylight Tibbetts Brook along the Putnam Railroad, and a Lowline-style subterranean park has been suggested for the Port Morris Branch of the New York and Harlem Railroad. Despite years of planning and research, none of these proposals is close to construction.

The MTA’s proposal to build an express bus route on the North Shore Branch is a very different sort of solution, compared to parks, creeks, and urban farms. Constructing a new road here would involve chopping down thousands of mature trees that have grown up along these abandoned tracks in a part of Staten Island that’s lacking in green space. And at Snug Harbor, where the coastline has been badly eroded, the MTA has suggested it might shift the bus route inland, demolishing a strip of existing parkland.

At least one community group has already proposed an alternative for a section of the old North Shore Branch. In 2017, the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation (SIEDC) held a contest for proposals to create a High Line-style park along the route’s elevated viaduct, where the tracks run inland, above the streets of Port Richmond. The winning proposal, called the Staten Island Skyway, would create a hanging garden, farmers market, and running path along the elevated tracks. By contrast, the MTA’s proposal for the viaduct would be a private road, running a steady stream of busses outside residents’ second story windows.

“This is an environmental justice issue for us,” said Steven Grillo, the vice president of the SIEDC, in a 2017 Curbed article about the Skyway. “We are looking at the importance of creating open space and adaptive reuse, in an area that has the lowest access to parks of any part of Staten Island.… Why would you want a bus or a train running past your house? You would much rather want a park.”

The route of the old North Shore Branch railroad is also home to two expansive industrial campuses: the Atlantic Salt Company and Caddell Dry Dock & Repair Company. Both campuses are closed to the public, and bustling with heavy machinery and hundreds of employees, who would be greatly impacted by having to dodge constant bus traffic. The route also travels over several sections of waterfront that have been completely eroded by the Kill Van Kull, which the MTA says could necessitate building a causeway out over the water.

One of the biggest challenges facing this section of the North Shore BRT proposal is the reality of climate change and sea level rise. Two bus lines already run along Richmond Terrace, traveling adjacent to the proposed coastal route of the BRT. Although this street is elevated above sea level, buses here flooded during rainstorms this summer, leaving passengers standing on seats. These problems would be much worse for a bus route built further downhill, at the very edge of the water or above the water.

The same difficulties face the city’s recent proposal for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, commonly known as the BQX. Like the North Shore BRT, the BQX streetcar’s proposed route would travel through several neighborhoods along the coast that were badly flooded during Hurricane Sandy, including Long Island City and Red Hook. The city needs more public transit options for underserved communities, particularly with the encroaching threat of climate change, but the proposed locations of the North Shore BRT and the BQX are highly questionable. With the New York City Panel on Climate Change reporting that the city is facing up to 9.5 feet of sea level rise by the end of this century, why are we still making plans to invest millions of dollars in public funds into permanent pieces of transit infrastructure along a coastline that will soon be underwater?

The proposed route of the North Shore BRT would travel along Richmond Terrace from the St. George Ferry Terminal before descending down to the Kill Van Kull at a ramp near Nicholas Street.

The BRT would run below Richmond Terrace along the old route of the North Shore Branch. This section runs adjacent to Bank Street, with its former trackbed covered in construction debris.

Bank Street, freshly paved, is squeezed between the old North Shore Branch right of way and the Kill Van Kull. On a quiet weekend, the street was mostly empty, visited by fishermen seeking out their favorite fishing hole.

Next to the eastern end of Bank Street is a section of forgotten parkland that has become an overgrown wilderness. The streetlamps here were part of an esplanade designed by HMWhite, which was created to connect to the nearby Staten Island Yankees stadium.

In 2013, this section of the park’s esplanade was mowed and easily accessible. It has since been abandoned and is accessible only by pushing through dense overgrowth.

Further west along Bank Street, an elaborate fishing camp has been built on the eroded coastline, with a fire pit inside. Local teenagers climb through the holes in the fences near here to swim in the Kill Van Kull, which can sometimes be deadly.

Abandoned cars rusting in the overgrowth along Bank Street, as they have been for more than a decade. The coastline here has been in the same decayed condition since a previous visit in 2008.

The public portion of Bank Street ends at the Atlantic Salt Company, where the old North Shore Branch crosses a green field towards a mountain of salt. The company has been located here since 1977, and is currently expanding its operations by demolishing an old gypsum manufacturing complex that stood on its property. Several bus lines run along Richmond Avenue, next to its fenced-off campus. On a weekend, the road was empty.

Behind the fences, salt is unloaded from boats on the Kill Van Kull and piled into huge mountains. In some winters, the company sells more than 300,000 tons of salt, which is mainly used to clear roads. The BRT route would cut through the middle of this operation.

The salt pile ends abruptly near Clinton Avenue, across the street from Liedy’s Shore Inn, a waterfront bar founded in 1905 that was once frequented by retired sailors from Snug Harbor. The waterfront is a much quieter place today.

Fishermen cast their lines adjacent to the Atlantic Salt Company near a combined sewer overflow runoff point. Besides pollution from raw sewage during rain storms, the Kill Van Kull has a long history of oil spills and other industrial pollution.

To the west of Atlantic Salt, the old North Shore Branch runs through a hidden woodlands, located across Richmond Avenue from Snug Harbor. The trees here are hidden at the bottom of a steep embankment, about 30 feet down from the road above.

The train tracks make their first appearance here, overgrown with trees and shrubs. To follow the train line, the MTA would have to remove the woodlands here, running the BRT at the edge of an eroding coastline.

The tracks lead to a shanty campsite with a fire pit and protective rain tarps. The woods here were previously used as an elaborate BMX race track, with ramps built around the trees. The Kill Van Kull is washing the ground out from under the tracks.

Further west, the old train bed leads towards a small fishing pier, which was once the dock for Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The Billion Oyster Project has reintroduced oysters to the waters here.

A walk leads down to the water from the Snug Harbor campus, which was founded in 1833 as a home for retired seamen. The grounds of the campus include the waterfront here, which is reached by crossing the old train tracks.

The tracks are hidden in the overgrowth to the left, next to a public pathway that leads along the Kill Van Kull. The BRT could potentially cut off access to this section of the coastline.

The tracks continue along a badly eroded section of the coast, also adjacent to Snug Harbor’s campus. The MTA has said that it could potentially build a causeway out over the water here, or could shift its bus route inland, taking out the park space.

Tracks hanging in midair. The Kill Van Kull has steadily eroded the neglected coastline here for decades. Some locals believe that a recent dredging project to make a deeper channel for super-sized cargo ships has exacerbated the problem.

A low concrete seawall is collapsing into the Kill Van Kull just a few feet away from Richmond Terrace. As sea levels continue to rise, this section of the coast will be inundated more frequently, unless the bulkhead is repaired and a higher sea wall is put in place.

The tracks continue past Blue, a restaurant where diners often eat outside, enjoying views of the passing ship traffic. The BRT proposal would run express busses next to the restaurant’s patio.

Past the restaurant, at the end of Bard Avenue, is one of the few places on this stretch of coast where the public can walk into the waters of the Kill Van Kull. There are no fences blocking off access here, behind a gas station and parking lot.

The tracks continue behind another large, fenced-off parking lot. Several elaborate fishing stations have been built here, on old concrete blocks falling into the water.

The tracks hang five feet in the air above a completely eroded coastline, but fishermen have still found a way to access the waterfront.

This is as far as the public can go along the old North Shore Branch, before it enters into the campus of the Caddell Dry Dock & Repair Company.

The Caddell shipyard has been operating on Staten Island since 1916, and its busy campus with hundreds of workers now stretches along two-thirds of a mile of waterfront. The proposed BRT cuts right through the heart of the shipyard, which the MTA’s Draft Scoping Document acknowledges “would likely be problematic for the viability of their current operations.”

On the far side of the shipyard, the BRT would run across the entrance to Heritage Park, at this parking lot. Opened in 2014, the park was built at the site of the abandoned Blissenbach Marina, a remediated brownfield.

The park is one of the few public green spaces on the shores of the Kill Van Kull, and was built with a resilient design, in anticipation of future storms and floods, including permeable soil, native plants, and a dune buffer.

The tracks continue into the overgrowth next to the park, before entering into an elevated viaduct. Hundreds of trees in this forested area would be destroyed to make way for the North Shore BRT.

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.

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