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Need to Change our Culture of Build if You Can, to Should You Build it?

Hurricane Sandy cleanup at Cedar Grove avenue, New Dorp Beach two days after the storm.

It has become far to common for concrete condos to replace Victorian homes that once included green space in Brooklyn and Queens and townhomes built on former wetland and hillsides throughout Staten Island. Over the years, anyone who has attended a community board meeting or NYC Board of Standards and Appeal hearing can attest to the fact that NYC’s culture supports development first and infrastructure later. Many of our concerns have been dismissed by elected officials, community representatives and city bureaucrats alike, as we are told that the city has no funds to improve our infrastructure unless we allow the development first; only then would there be a greater case to be made for these these amenities. Post Hurricane Sandy, the problem is that these are not simple amenities to improve our quality of life, but a necessity to have a quality of life.

One of many homes along Lincoln Avenue with major flood damage due to Hurricane Sandy.

On Staten Island we have Hillside Preservation, Special Districts and Bluebelt (wetland) preservation, which serve to allow for drainage, preserve open space and protect property from flooding and erosion. However, in reality many of these protections under our laws are very limited. The recent Huffington Post article on Hurricane Sandy and Staten Island highlights many issues surrounding development on wetlands and the politics of funds not being spent on Seawalls, Bluebelt protection and infrastructure. Residents and civic groups from South Beach to New Dorp to Oakwood Beach, have been urging officials for storm protection infrastructure for years, and much of these requests have fallen on deaf ears. Post Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg urges infrastructure improvements and Senator Schumer calls for the funding all seven Army Corp of Engineer Studies for NYC region. Aside from studies and recommendations, what have they done to fund these projects over the last ten and twenty years , since they were elected to serve and protect the community?

The status of approved development sites, such as  the “Ferris Wheel ” or “Nicholas Avenue 9 1/2 acre site” , is one of many that should be called into question post Hurricane Sandy.  The hotly contested housing development called “Nicholas Avenue 9 1/2 acres”, raises major environmental concerns. It is located on wetlands, within a flood plane and only a few hundred feet from the EPA designated Superfund site, the Manhattan Project. Spillover from contaminated sites like this are real concerns across the city, such as Gowanas Canal’s Superfund site and numerous designated Brownfield areas (contaminated manufacturing zoned properties predominately located along NYC’s shoreline).

The Nicholas Avenue parcel has been a  hotly contested development site since 2001 and is located in Zone A, adjacent to the highly contaminated Manhattan project, under the Bayonne Bridge in Elm Park, border of Port Richmond.   Read more  As a founding member of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, I know first hand the uphill battle against development in environmentally hazardous sites like these. There was a push to convert manufacturing zoned property to residential during a building boom and Councilman O’Donovan first oppoed this, but later conceded to allow for development. Borough President Molinaro supported the residential development at the time. The North Shore Waterfront Conservancy (NSWC) had Port Richmond Civic members in common, thus opposing this development as poor planning.  Since it was zoned manufacturing, the property was investigated by NSWC and it was revealed that it was once owned by the same property owners as the neighboring Manhattan Project property, located across the street. Neither this information nor the close proximity of the contaminated property was included in the developer’s original Environmental Impact study commissioned by the former Congressman Fossella’s father, owner of an engineering firm. And sadly, at the time Community Board #1 stated they didn’t have any records on the Manhattan project and NSWC resorted to filling a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIL) with various agencies. The NSWC continues efforts on this and related issues.

Damage on the North shore during Hurricane Sandy , downed many trees and made some street impassable.

In most situations, as a board member of the Preservation League of Staten Island and a community leader with several civic organizations, I have seen development proposals basically wear down the system and civic leaders and residents move away or give up. The development proposals are re-vised and re-submitted years later, until the developer can build, after all it is his or her right to build and make a living, even in a hillside preservation or special district. But in a majority of cases, the property was either a hillside preservation, wetland or special district  prior to purchasing the land. The property owner that wants to develop knew this prior to submitting plans, yet economic hardship is a reason given to why many of these developments are approved and preservation laws are limited. These projects in the end cost the homeowner and neighboring residents and businesses millions if you look at environmental issues such as strain on infrastructure and loss of flood protection.

Recently as a former representative of  a Local Development Corporation, I attended a Staten Island Chamber of Commerce meeting in which the building industry representative complained about a new law which was implemented to required builders to replace trees, even in non–hillside areas. This was seen as the most devastating thing to happen to this builder. More trees to be built around or replaced cost money and that just cuts into the bottom line of one’s profits. The audience included Staten Island’s business community and elected officials, no one vocalized disagreement to these concerns. Many community development organization set up to preserve communities, not only business interests, haven’t taken a stand against these types of development and choose to stay neutral . Many developers after all contribute to their organization, sit on their board or their lawyers and bankers are. Recent smart growth and Brownfield Study Task forces have more representatives from the business and government sector than community residents.

In Staten Island, it seems like anyone with some construction knowledge can become a builder, inherit your parent’s old Victorian, knock it down and build four homes. In the end new housing is welcome, because people buy these homes, and it creates jobs and adds more to the city tax rolls. So obviously our elected officials are in favor of development, but there is a real disconnect when it comes to building if you can and building if you should. The culture needs to change. That tree or parcel of nearby wetland must be viewed as protection not a obstacle to one’s quality of life.

Devastation like this homes in New Dorp Beach has been unseen prior to Hurricane Sandy.

As recently as May 2012, residents and the Richmondtown and Clarke Avenue Civic Association have been battling a developer from building 13 single-family detached homes in a 6.8-acre wooded area of Richmond adjacent to freshwater wetlands that are part of the Richmond Creek Bluebelt and drainage system for storm-water management. The civic members argue that any development here is against existing Bluebelt protection laws and PlaNYC also.

The Staten Island article on March 12, 2012 by reporter, Virgina Sherry includes the following background information and states:

“PlaNYC, issued last April, included 132 initiatives and 400 specific milestones to be reached by Dec. 31, 2013.  the plan stated “Since the early 1990s we have relied upon wetlands and natural areas in our Bluebelt system in Staten Island to absorb storm-water runoff, thereby eliminating the need for costly storm sewer systems. “The Bluebelt system is composed of streams, ponds, and wetland areas that treat and detain storm-water prior to its release into the harbor. It provides effective storm-water management for more than 14,000 acres of S.I., or about one-third of its total land area,” the plan states.

Post Sandy, the milestones set by PlaNYC need to be reexamined as well as any development approved or planned in Zone A- flood designated areas and wetlands. Otherwise, the destruction of Hurricane Sandy is for not and we are sitting ducks for the next natural disaster.

Resources:

The Natonal Flood Insurance: ” In 1968, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to help provide a means for property owners to financially protect themselves. The NFIP offers flood insurance to homeowners, renters, and business owners if their community participates in the NFIP. Participating communities agree to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA requirements to reduce the risk of flooding. ” as per FloodSmart.gov. Map your risk at this site.

FEMA Library- get Flood Maps

Huffington Post and Hurricane Sandy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/06/staten-island-hurricane-sandy_n_2245523.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#slide=1708438

Article on Hurricane Irene and impact on West Brighton : http://www.silive.com/northshore/index.ssf/2011/08/dealing_with_the_damage_from_h.html

August 12, 2011- Staten Island experiences flash flooding: http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2011/08/staten_island_roads_and_baseme.html

Richmond Town and Clarke Avenue Civic Association’s fight against development in Special district:  http://www.silive.com/eastshore/index.ssf/2012/03/richmond_residents_fight_on_ag.html

Beryl Thurman, current President of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, has been leading the fight on many recent North shore issues concerning climate change , wetlands and open space. Have we not learned anything?

From the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy website: Proposed Development Projects along Staten Island’s North Shore that are either in the flood plain or wetlands:

  •   Spectra Energy’s un-Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion, Arlington, Staten Island – flood plain
  •  New York City EDC’s New York Container Terminal 4th Berth Expansion, Arlington Marsh & Cove, tidal wetlands, Arlington, Staten Island. – wetland
  • Army Corp of Engineers Blasting and Dredging Project in the Kill Van Kull, Lower Newark Bay and Arthur Kill
  • Partial Remediation of the Devon Storage Facility, historic tidal wetlands fill, Mariners Harbor, Staten Island- flood plain
  • New York City EDC’s Staten Island Terminal LLC, cement facility, Mariners Harbor, Staten Island – flood plain
  • Port Authority and Coast Guard’s Raising of the Bayonne Bridge, Elm Park and Mariners Harbor, Staten Island – flood plain
  • Nicholas Avenue 9 1/2 acres, Elm Park, Staten Island, 89 units of housing being built in a wetland and flood plain
  • New York City EDC’s New York Farries Wheel, Retail Outlet Stores, Hotel and Parking lot, St. George, Staten Island- flood plain
  • New York City EDC’s Stapleton Luxury Apartments for 20 and 30 year olds on Front Street, Stapleton, Staten Island – flood plain

Disclaimer: This is the personal opinion of Angela D’Aiuto.

 

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