The Manhattan Institute's
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city's planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Rethinking Staten Island

Julia Vitullo-Martin, October 2003

Staten Island has become the center of the city's hottest—and oddest—development controversy. Staten Islanders believe that their borough 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 back yards. Few of the townhouse developments provide open space, parks, or play areas for children. Some have no trees or landscaping. Many have no sidewalks—each townhouse is crowded right to the edge of the property.

Yet these townhouses, priced between $250,000 and $500,000, sell very quickly, mainly to residents moving in from other boroughs. Amanda Burden, chair of the City Planning Commission, recently noted that of the 58,304 people who moved to Staten Island in the late 1990s, 34,212 came from Brooklyn. As Alan Cappelli of the Building Industry Association points out, the buyers are eager because they get more house for their money in Staten Island than anywhere else in New York.

Certainly it is better for New York City that home-owning, tax-paying Brooklynites move to Staten Island rather than to, say, New Jersey. Yet Mayor Bloomberg has entered this war on the side of the anti-development forces, condemning "overdevelopment" and instructing the City Planning Commission to do something about it. In October, mayoral senior adviser Vincent LaPadula summed up the administration's strategy to the Staten Island Advance in words that have since become famous. "In two words: Lower density. We want to use Staten Island as a template for the rest of the city," said LaPadula.

The administration, however, has it backwards in Staten Island.

Overdevelopment is not the problem. The problem is not too many people using property too intensively. Instead, too few people use too much property. Staten Island is an example of underdevelopment—classic exurban sprawl—as a trip around the island would show: Staten Island has scores of vacant lots. Forsaken freight yards. Social service agencies in once elegant buildings. Ugly, new government buildings paired with even uglier parking lots. Clogged roads everywhere. Miles of derelict waterfronts. Obsolete industrial areas not far from residential neighborhoods.

Re-thinking manufacturing zoning. According to the Department of City Planning, a little over half of Staten Island's 5,678 acres of manufacturing-zoned land is vacant or underused. This includes sections of the Fresh Kills landfill and some state-designated wetlands, which cannot be developed. But most of the 2,642 underused manufacturing acres would be available for residential development if rezoned. Large chunks of the obsolete manufacturing acreage are located on prime waterfront sites that could be readily marketed for high-density development. This is a resource that Staten Islanders should be using to concentrate development productively.

Density is not the problem. Because the island lacks density it lacks good services—of any kind. Households in the new developments must have two or even three cars just to function. Hence the night-and-day traffic jams that will not be corrected by downzoning. On the contrary, until Staten Island develops some high-density nodes, public transportation will remain negligible as a means of getting around the island.

Re-thinking density. Mobilizing the Region, a transportation advocacy group, is one of the few public policy groups to point out that the proposed downzoning—which would make attached homes illegal and detached homes the norm—is "a band-aid solution for a larger problem," which "is too much unplanned, medium-density development. A better solution is to create growth centers with increased housing density and commercial uses to focus the Island's economic development where it most makes sense. At best, comprehensive downzoning will freeze the existing land use pattern and concomitant traffic nightmare in place, but not offer any improvement." While everyone surveying the streetscape says Staten Island needs more and better mass transit, says MTR, Staten Island's "de-centered nature does not lend itself to intensive transit investment. Without any centers, a good mass transit system is simply not feasible."

The affordability of housing is a problem. Even as the mayor denounces overdevelopment, his top planners see the contradictions. City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden noted at a public hearing that downzoning large swathes of Staten Island would conflict with the mayor's simultaneous push to create affordable housing throughout the city as part of his $3 billion plan. Staten Island cannot have both affordability and downzoning. With a median household income of $57,000, Staten Island is the wealthiest borough in New York. Like many wealthy exurbanites before them, Staten Islanders are under the impression that large-lot zoning will protect their old houses and neighborhoods by forcing the building of only expensive single-family homes. Borough President James Molinaro was probably speaking the sentiments of many Staten Islanders when he commended the downzoning: "I think what we are doing here is going to prevent teardowns."

Yet planner William Whyte could have been describing Staten Island in his 1968 book, The Last Landscape: "The citizens who had put through two-acre zoning had been under the erroneous impression that plots of this size would more or less dictate expensive houses." But zoning cannot dictate expensive, single-family homes when the market demand is for less-expensive townhouses—as the exurban sprawl all over America demonstrates.

Thinking with the market. That Staten Island even faces what one preservationist called a "frenzy of teardowns" is astonishing. The market is phenomenally strong in New York's other four boroughs for Staten Island-style, gorgeous old houses—including the deteriorating ones. Yet Staten Island's historic neighborhoods like St. George have dozens of vulnerable houses—with speculators as the most likely prospective buyers. The way to save these houses is through a marketing campaign that attracts buyers from elsewhere in the city. But that means rethinking the current anti-development stance.

The mayor’s Staten Island Growth Task Force will release its findings on December 2.

October 2003
City Planning Commission’s Staten Island Growth Management Overview
New York Public Library’s “Staten Island on the Web”
Preservation League of Staten Island
Staten Island Advance’s real estate reporter Karen O’Shea
Building Industry Association