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Staten Island’s Bay Street rezoning approved by City Planning Commission

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The Staten Island BP calls the rezoning a “boondoggle” while activists say it is “irresponsible”

Staten Island’s north shore
Max Touhey

A proposal to rezone a stretch of Staten Island’s north shore passed the City Planning Commission (CPC) on Monday, despite simmering concerns that a spike in density will overburden the area’s infrastructure and create housing that is unattainable for locals.

In an 8-to-3 vote, the commission approved the city-initiated rezoning that would bring a swell of new apartments, retail, and office space to a 14 block-span known as the Bay Street corridor, which runs through St. George, Tompkinsville, and Stapleton. The city estimates it will add 1,800 new apartments into the area—up to 30 percent would be set aside for below-market-rate units—to house some 6,500 residents on the sleepy corridor, which at the moment is zoned for mostly manufacturing uses.

During the vote, CPC chair Marisa Lago touted the proposal’s vision for Staten Island’s north shore. “I’m pleased that the Bay Street corridor rezoning is more than just a rezoning, it’s a vision for a future community that provides new affordable housing options and allows residents to live, work, play, shop, dine, and enjoy the arts all within walking, biking, or public transit distance of their home,” said Lago, noting that she’s “confident” lingering concerns can be addressed in conversations leading up to the final City Council vote.

But the rezoning has faced opposition from locals and elected officials. Staten Island’s Community Board 1 voted to reject the majority of the changes after a heated five-hour meeting where borough residents vented their concerns, chiefly that there must be a greater commitment to low-income housing, and the need for significant infrastructure investments.

“We need housing that is truly affordable, housing that will allow my family tree, which have lived on this island for decades, to stay here,” said Laura Labetti, a nurse and a longtime Staten Islander, who weighed in during January’s community board vote. “But if that’s done without adding schools, making things accessible, really figuring out how to meet the peoples needs before the changes, then of course they’ll be problems down the road.”

The median rent for the St. George and Stapleton area has steadily climbed, data from the NYU Furman Center shows, with the typical rent for an apartment at $1,950/month in 2017—that’s up from $1,868/month in 2016 and $1,250/month in 2010. School District 31 is slated for 1,701 new school seats by 2024, but a report by the Independent Budget Office says the borough would need more than double that to eliminate overcrowding. Some North Shore schools are packed hundreds past capacity. And locals have long-asked for expanded bus service.

In February, Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo followed the community board’s lead and largely opposed the rezoning, calling it a “boondoggle” that creates “entirely new neighborhoods with absolutely no foresight or consideration of infrastructure and community concerns.”

“For five years, we have implored the de Blasio administration to focus on infrastructure first, before they dictated any zoning or rules changes that would allow a dramatic spike in housing density along the Bay Street Corridor and beyond,” Oddo said in a statement. “At every turn our pleas for collaboration, discussion, analysis, and a willingness to address current and future needs have been delayed, deferred, and ultimately ignored.”

In a statement, the Staten Island Housing Dignity Coalition—which is made up of community groups and churches on the north shore—said it is “deeply disappointed” that the CPC is advancing the rezoning.

“To be clear, we are not against much needed investment in this area, but we are against an irresponsible rezoning plan advanced by an administration that is ignoring the voices of Staten Islanders,” the group said.

The Department of City Planning says it is “leading a larger coordinated effort with an interagency team” when it comes to transit upgrades. Improvements that are being actively studied include new traffic signals, pedestrian islands, and wider sidewalks and medians. A DCP spokesperson noted that the city has already invested $27 million toward the implementation of the North Shore Transportation Improvement Strategy, and $3.7 million to create public spaces around the Tompkinsville Station on the Staten Island Railway, and $500,000 for streetscape improvements such as lighting and benches. Department of Transportation officials say the agency is looking into a new Bus Rapid Transit line, a reconfiguration of the streets leading to the Cromwell Center, and will be “monitoring” the area.

“These are initial investments with more to come as the proposal moves through [the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure]. To ensure that the right strategies are implemented at the right time, DOT and DCP will commit to a Traffic Monitoring Program to track development over time,” DCP said in a statement. “This will allow us to adjust the scope and timing of mitigation measures as we know more about the timing of new development and effects on roads, pedestrians, and cyclists.”

City Council member Debi Rose, whose vote in the council carries more heft as the local lawmaker, has her reservations about the plan and calls for significant improvements to transportation, schools, open space, and sewer for it to work for north shore residents.

“With those investments, this rezoning would be a good plan for the future of North Shore residents and small businesses,” Rose said in a statement. “We move to continued negotiations in coming weeks that will be crucial for the future of this project. Thoughtful planning and a commitment to infrastructure will reap a successful rezoning.”

Of the commissioners who voted against the plan, Alfred Cerullo, a former City Council member, questioned the wisdom of continued talks as the proposal heads into the final hurdles of the land use process: review by the council ahead of a make-or-break vote.

“Aren’t we the planners? Shouldn’t we be analyzing these plans to ensure that these decision that shape neighborhoods make sense?” Cerullo said before casting his vote. “So how do we get this right? I’m just not sure it’s like this.”