November 22, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

Spoiling Staten Island

The latest battle over development in New York is raging in Staten Island, still the most pastoral of the five boroughs, although its population has doubled over the last 30 years. The combat, which is anything but peaceful, is being treated by most Manhattan press as a mere local skirmish, of little concern to the rest of the city. However, with its potentially magnificent waterfront, its splendid parks and greenbelt, and its good schools, Staten Island should be regarded as a key resource in the city's future.

The Bloomberg administration, whose views have been clear since early October when the mayor denounced "overdevelopment," has set in motion the government machinery for change in the borough. The Department of City Planning is holding hearings this morning to find out what the public thinks.

The mayor's Staten Island Growth Management Task Force, which was convened in early August, will announce its proposals on December 2. City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden has promised to fasttrack the recommendations, which are expected to include extensive zoning changes aimed at reducing housing density.

The mayor's senior adviser and chairman of the task force, Vincent LaPadula, summed up the task force's positions for a local daily, the Staten Island Advance: "In two words: Lower density. We want to use Staten Island as a template for the rest of the city."

No idea could be more disastrous. Using a no-growth, no-density Staten Island as a template for the rest of the city would destroy New York as we know it. A vocal group of Staten Islanders - perhaps even a majority - believe that their island is being destroyed by an explosion of poorly planned, badly constructed, ugly housing development. Lovely old single-family houses have been torn down to make way for rows of bulky, flat-roofed, wooden townhouses, which often lack both front and backyards.

Most of these developments are constructed on private streets, which are built and owned by the developer rather than by the city. The advantage of this for the developer is that private streets are exempt from city zoning. The disadvantage is that private streets are denied city services - no sanitation pick-ups, for example.

Few of the townhouse developments provide any open space, parks, or play areas for children. Some have no trees or landscaping. Many provide no sidewalks - each townhouse is crowded right to the edge of the property. Children play in the developments' private streets, and some play and ride their bikes on the public roads, such as the terrifying Hylan Boulevard, reputed to be the most dangerous thoroughfare in the city.

Most townhouses have only garage space for one car, even though there are an average of 2.7 cars in each household in Staten Island. The result is that cars not only crowd the developments' private streets, they also often spill over into adjacent neighborhoods and public roads. Yet the townhouses sell quickly because, as Allen Cappelli of the Building Industry Association argues, the buyers get more house for their money than anywhere else in New York.

The truth is that the mayor has it precisely backward in Staten Island. The problem is not overdevelopment - it's underdevelopment. Staten Island is an example of classic exburban sprawl, the kind that was analyzed and denounced by William Whyte in "The Last Landscape."

In seeing density as a threat, when the problem is in fact sprawl, the mayor is showing himself to be a captive of the decentralizing ideas that nearly ruined cities and their exurban areas in the 1960s.

"For years we wasted land with impunity," Mr. Whyte wrote in 1968, "now we no longer can."

The sprawling underdevelopment of the 1960s through the 1980s sucked resources and money out of central cities while blanketing the countryside with inefficient, hard-to-serve housing tracts. Let's not repeat these in the New York City of today. What's wrong in Staten Island is not that property is over-used, but that it's inefficiently used, and, as a result, it's underused.

Drive around the Forgotten Borough's 56 square miles and look at the signs: scores of vacant lots. Forsaken freight yards. Social service agencies housed in once-elegant buildings. Ugly government buildings cheek by jowl with even uglier parking lots. Clogged roads everywhere. Miles of derelict waterfronts. Obsolete industrial areas not far from residential neighborhoods.

Because the city's southernmost borough lacks density, it lacks good services. Households in the new developments must have two or even three cars just to function. A working spouse must take a car to work, since neither work nor the meager public transportation is within walking distance. A stay-at-home spouse needs a car for the simplest errands.

Hence, the night-and-day traffic jams. As Mr. Whyte wrote decades ago, this "pattern scatters the places where people work as well as the homes they live in; it makes them utterly dependent on cars, and unnecessarily lengthens the trip they have to make."

Staten Islanders are right to be unhappy about what's happening to their unique borough, the most physically beautiful in New York City. However, they're wrong about the solution. They are never going to be able to halt demand for housing in their borough - nor should they want to. The home-owning imperative is good for everyone.

Staten Island shouldn't downzone, it should upzone. It should encourage city planning to direct demand away from inefficient, low-scale housing on scattered sites, and toward high-density housing near transportation hubs.

It should remove manufacturing zoning along the length of its waterfront and permit high-density residential building. With its extraordinary harbor views, the waterfront could sustain a mixed-use development of 50,000 to 80,000 people - enough to support its own ferry as well as its own local transportation.

Waterfront residents wouldn't add to the clogged streets, except for destination trips to restaurants, shops, parks, and museums - where their patronage would be welcome. What's more, the Navy's homeport has already put hundreds of millions of dollars into the waterfront's infrastructure, so capital investment would be a fraction of its usual cost.

The mayor's task force is probably going to make some sensible short-term recommendations on parking and lot sizes, but it's going to ignore the real issue: Staten Island is our last landscape. As Mr. Whyte wrote, "Increased competition for land use is not a force for blight; it is a discipline for enforcing a much more economic use of land, and a more amenable one."

Rezoning for high density can make development in Staten Island both economic and amenable. It can restore it. It can revitalize it. And it can enhance property values while preserving its open space, saving its landmarks, and improving its quality of life or it can let its open space, landmarks, and quality of life be eroded in the future as in the recent past by low-density sprawl.