October 29, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

Preserving Staten Island

The latest skirmish in Staten Island's development wars involves a 17th-century homestead that may be the oldest surviving house in New York City, according to David Goldfarb, president of the Historic Districts Council. The owners of the Manee-Seguine Homestead hope to renovate and sell it as a single-family home, while also constructing three new houses on the half-acre site.

Architect Michael Biagioli, who developed the adjacent property, told the Landmarks Commission yesterday that the homestead is in very poor shape and in desperate need of immediate repairs to its roof, windows, and stucco.

He proposed financing the renovation through the sale of the other houses. Preservationists immediately testified against the proposal.

James Ferreri, president of the Preservation League of Staten Island, said that the homestead "should not be held in ransom by the owners for a return on their investment."

He said that three adjacent 19thcentury houses had been demolished by developers in the last two years, and that Manee-Seguine may be the only oysterman's cottage in the borough still standing on its original waterfront site.

Preservationist Linda Jones testified against the construction of the third house, and urged the developers to give the Parks Department an easement across the homestead's front lawn.

The developers' lawyer, Frank Angolini, pointed out that the owners have been looking for a way to save the house for six years - and that "there are no other avenues - no public money, no tax breaks - other than the present proposal." This landmark is an orphan, he said.

It would be possible to tour Staten Island and conclude that preservationists have already won the major battles. But that's because Staten Island has been the most masterful of the boroughs at one kind of historic preservation - rehabilitating abandoned social welfare institutions into community centers supported by government and private donors.

Thus the 28 historic buildings of Sailors' Snug Harbor, a 19th-century seamen's retirement home, have been converted into the Snug Harbor Cultural Center for performing and visual arts.

The huge buildings and extensive grounds of the Willowbrook State School for the mentally disabled have been taken over by the College of Staten Island, a campus of the City University of New York, and beautifully rehabilitated for academic use.

The gorgeous Colonial Revival buildings of the Farm Colony-Seaview Hospital grounds are being restored, one by one, and given over to dance, theater, and community uses.

Historic Richmond Town, Staten Island's original government center, is now an outdoor museum. The borough also has the Greenbelt, the city's largest park at 2,500 acres. These are not minor achievements, and reflect tremendous public will by Staten Islanders intent on preserving their heritage.

However, the more fundamental, normal market route to preservation - the route that has saved old urban neighborhoods all over the country - has been far less successful. The Manee-Seguine controversy looms as simply the latest instance of Staten Island's repeated failure to save deteriorating landmarks via the market.

Take the St. George Historic District, familiar to most New Yorkers as the neighborhood where the ferry docks. It has an extraordinary, diverse array of housing stock beautifully sited on pretty streets and hillsides looking over the water. It should be one of the hottest neighborhoods in New York. But it definitely is not.

There's only one way to save St. George's many deteriorating old houses - and that's via a tremendous upsurge in demand by buyers. Without demand, all the historic designations government can offer won't help. But where are the buyers?

Preservationists who live in St. George, like David Goldfarb, fear that splendid old houses will be torn down and replaced by multiple townhouses crowded onto the large lots.

This is actually happening. But why, given the demand New Yorkers have shown for old houses all over the city, including in once-sad neighborhoods?

Brendan Sexton, a former president of the Municipal Arts Society who owns a large house in St. George, notes that even very inconvenient neighborhoods like Dumbo have condos selling for six figures.

St. George's market "is room temperature when it should be sizzling hot," he says. When Mr. Sexton bought his house in 1979 it had been vacant for seven to eight years. His neighbors said they assumed it was going to burn, just as other properties had burned. St. George has come a long way from the 1970s, but why is it now stuck in some market rut?

Staten Islanders have grievances, believing their borough is plagued with high density and overdevelopment. One reason they think this is visual.

As you approach Staten Island on the ferryboat, your eye will at first miss St. George's low-rise beauty, and be drawn instead to a few huge, ugly buildings - some public, some private.

The waterfront looks crowded and messy and overdeveloped when it is in truth badly planned and underdeveloped.

Staten Island has very few people housed on a great deal of land. However, because so much of the development is in prominent spots - on roads and ridges, for example - the place "looks filled up," to use a favorite phrase of planner William Whyte's. But it isn't filled up.

In fact, both St. George and neighboring Stapleton are marred by vacant lots that stick out like missing teeth.

Mr. Sexton points out that St. George was "once far more densely populated, sort of like downtown Brooklyn. It had industrial and commercial density that was integral to a beautiful and thriving Staten Island."

However, as industry decayed after World War II, population and commerce declined. Then came urban renewal and the disastrous siting of public housing projects in the early 1960s.

Allen Cappelli, a consultant to the Builders Association, also draws on Brooklyn as a model. "We should think of St. George as Park Slope-ish," he says. "We should look to greater density, preserved houses, lovely apartment buildings, maybe garden apartments." However, all of this requires buyers.

Maybe the problem is Staten Island's own anti-development campaign targeted at outsiders. Staten Islanders like to point out that theirs is the borough farthest removed from Manhattan.

Instead, they should be pointing out, as Mr. Sexton does, that the 25-minute ferry ride is one of the most pleasant and efficient commutes in the entire city.

Buyers from the rest of the city can save St. George, and the Manee-Seguine Homestead, and other privately owned landmarks - just as they have saved so many neighborhood that once looked lost. However, first Staten Island needs to put out a welcome mat at its waterfront.