Exactly nine days after Super Storm Sandy devastated Staten Island, leaving 19 people dead and hundreds homeless, about 150 Islanders came to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center to attend a meeting sponsored by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
The topic of the evening was not EDC’s disaster recovery programs, strengthening the coastline to prevent future storm surges or the potential dangers of the dozens of contaminated sites that line the North Shore that were inundated during storm.
Rather, that evening’s meeting centered around a new plan to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel on St. George’s waterfront. Known as the New York Wheel, the ride will run between the ferry terminal and the baseball stadium – in the two areas that could be inundated during 100 and 500 years of storms. About 1.5 miles to the north, fierce waves from Superstorm Sandy grounded a 712-ton tanker.
The wheel is expected to rise 84 feet taller than the Singapore Flyer, which currently holds the title of World’s Biggest Wheel, and will be accompanied by a 340,000 square foot designer retail complex and hotel of 130,000 square feet.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the mega-project in September, saying it will bring much-needed economic development to the struggling north coast of the island, which in 2010 had poverty rates of 58 percent and unemployment rates 13% higher than in the rest. of Staten Island.
While a handful of residents, small business owners and union members attending the November 13 development meeting welcomed his promises of jobs and investment, residents’ two-minute testimonials included more often adjectives like “insulting,” “outrageous” and “insensitive.”
“Part of our island has been devastated in the flood plains. And it’s actually going to be built in the floodplain, ”said local resident Stephanie Woodard. She called the structures “huge, vulnerable”.
Officials from the company that will lift the New York Wheel assured attendees that the structure would be designed to withstand winds of 300 miles per hour and storm surges as gigantic as those created by Sandy.
The rest of the complex, meanwhile, will be built with at least LEED Silver certification and could actually help prevent damage from such storms, according to company website. In addition, the buildings “will include nearly five acres of green roof” and a water capture system to absorb rainwater and release it in a controlled manner into the port, 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 November 13 meeting, commented, “I think the timing is bad and we need to reconsider our priorities on this island.
City Councilor Debi Rose, who said she “generally supports” the project, prefaced the meeting by saying it “should have been postponed” in light of the fact that “Staten Island was zero point for the Hurricane Sandy ”.
If the juxtaposition of the two events seems contradictory, a closer observation of the various land use plans and projects reveals that the New York Wheel comes at the head of a long line of apparently contradictory development initiatives on the North Shore.
This 5 mile stretch of waterfront is currently home to approximately 21 sites contaminated by past or existing industrial developments. All are located within 70 feet of the houses and along the banks of the Kill Van Kull, a tidal straight line that is also part of the Diamond Alkali Superfund site, the costliest clean-up ever undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Long before Sandy struck, local activists were practically begging city officials, through emails, testimonies, and town halls, to better consider the effects of rising sea levels and climate change in the region. Beryl Thurman, president of Staten Island’s North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, has raised concerns about the city’s inattention to climate change, sea level rise and storm surges so often that some colleagues call it “Chicken Little”.
Now that the sky for Chicken Little has indeed fallen, will the Bloomberg administration proceed with the proliferation of development projects that will punctuate its end? Or will Sandy signal the start of a more systematized and cautious approach to development that takes into account the very toxic legacies of 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 indeed weaker and weaker.
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