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Staten Island Building Bust Makes New Breed of Candidates Skeptical of Big Real Estate

After seeing megaprojects on Staten Island’s North Shore fail to materialize or flop after being built over the past decade, some candidates fighting to be the borough’s next generation of leadership are campaigning against high-end luxury developments.

Several City Council contenders running to represent the North Shore –– an area that’s attracted over a $1 billion in development plans, much of it incomplete or unbuilt, on city-owned land –– oppose the construction of River North, a proposed trio of towers near the waterfront and the St. George Ferry Terminal.

The resistance to the towers follows the pattern of Council campaigns across the city, with some candidates growing more critical of real estate developers and rezoning plans on luxury frontiers.

In Crown Heights, contenders are slamming the outgoing Council member for her support of a local armory overhaul. In Flushing, some Council hopefuls rallied against a large waterfront development.

Real estate developers are fighting back, launching Super PACs, targeting candidates they see as anti-business and supporting those they perceive as closer to their corner.

As Jeffrey Leb, treasurer of Common Sense NYC, a real estate-back super PAC targeting seven Council hopefuls, told THE CITY recently: “The people who were chosen to go negative on are all socialist-related. We feel that they did not have the best vision or outlook for the city.”

But Lorie Honor, who is running for Staten Island borough president, said that shared skepticism about development among Democrats like her and even some Republicans in the city’s most conservative borough is rooted in years of disappointment.

“We never get the delivery of the goods,” she said.

‘We Need a Change’

On June 8, the local community board voted to oppose River North, whose developers, Madison Realty Capital, are seeking several zoning exemptions so they can build 750 rental apartments in towers as high as 26 stories, offering views of Manhattan. Under citywide zoning rules, 30% of the apartments would be set aside as affordable.

The developer, which pledged to create a public plaza with green space at the corner of one of the buildings, told the board earlier this month that a smaller project wouldn’t be financially feasible. Community board members and candidates opposed the project in its current form, arguing that the benefits for local Staten Islanders were simply not enough.

Amoy Barnes, one of 12 Democrats running for the North Shore’s District 49 Council seat, said the developer should have provided plans for a supermarket and more parking spaces than the 331 proposed.

“They’re not against development, the community has said that. But what they want is responsible development,” said Barnes, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio. “There’s an infrastructure issue. The development company is asking for the community to vote for this [upzoning] but what are they actually providing and giving to the community?”

Jasi Robinson, an activist who organizes for progressive groups in the North Shore, said the pushback is the natural culmination of frustration from residents after years of failed and stalled projects.

“We needed to have a more transparent and involved dialogue with developers because a lot of the time we’ve been left out of the loop” said Robinson. “I am so glad that candidates are saying that we need a change and that it shouldn’t be so one-sided.”

Wheel and More Stuck

While the project will likely be decided by term-limited Councilmember Debi Rose, who has said she’ll weigh in after hearing from the community, the wariness of developers with big plans marks a sea change for Staten Island’s political class.

In the past, Staten Island politicians and community members welcomed flashy proposals like Empire Outlets, a 340,000-square-foot outdoor retail complex, and Lighthouse Point, a rental complex steps away from the Ferry Terminal, as a way to stimulate the local economy. And as those projects struggled, elected officials defended and supported the companies behind them.

But nearly all of the projects now remain unbuilt, unused or incomplete.

An entire floor of Empire Outlets, which for a time was struggling to pay back loans, is still closed off with dozens of storefronts still empty — with merchants’ plight exacerbated by the pandemic. The mall was required to build a hotel at the site as well, but construction never started and the city economic development agency allowed the developer to abandon the plan in March.

The $250 million rental complex Lighthouse Point is only partially built and hasn’t made much progress toward opening since its contractor filed for bankruptcy in September 2019. And the timeline for its future phases, which include a Westin hotel, is stuck.

The New York Wheel — a giant Ferris wheel that was supposed to be the focal point of the borough’s economic development dreams — only has its base parts and a closed- off parking garage to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent at the private site. And next door, Richmond County Bank Ballpark has sat unused for nearly two years. But the city’s Economic Development Corporation hasn’t given up on either site.

“From  the ballpark, the wheel, the parking garage, the outlet mall, Lighthouse Point — it’s all in the same area and so loaded with negatives for the community and very little perks, like union jobs, bolstering small businesses,” Honor said.

Madison Realty Capital’s director of development, Zachary Kadden, acknowledged that North Shore residents had been burned in the past by city-backed projects. Kadden said the company is determined to deliver “the much needed jobs, housing and amenities” to the North Shore.

“After years of broken promises we knew going into this project that we would have to convince the community to take a chance on our vision,” said Kadden in a statement.

“We are confident that River North will become a catalyst in helping the North Shore reach its full potential,” he added.

Beyond Politics for Some

The wariness toward developers isn’t purely a partisan issue.

Councilmember Steven Matteo, the party-backed Republican running for borough president said he supports bringing in new residential projects, but argued that River North is simply too big and out of character for the borough.

“Staten Island absolutely needs smart development and financial investment, especially now as we recover from the pandemic economic recession,” Matteo said. “But as I stated before, I share the concerns of my colleagues that a project of this magnitude will strain our borough’s already insufficient infrastructure.”

Ranti Ogunleye, Democratic candidate in the District 49 Council race, said that the percentage of apartments marked as affordable was too low to even consider.

“It’s not enough for the community,” said Ogunleye, a nonprofit director. “The community members have never been a priority. The priority has always been how to make more money for those developers. So not only are the projects stalled, but the projects were never going to be accessible to the people who live here, work here and raise their children. That can’t be.”

Some candidates in 2021 races are still supporting the project, including Leticia Remauro, one of three Republicans running for borough president.

Mike Schnall, a Democratic candidate for the North Shore Council seat, conceded that the project would have enjoyed more community support had developers sat down with activists and politicians to work on amenities together.

Mark Murphy, a Democrat running for borough president backed by the borough’s party committee, agreed.

“On my watch, a developer is not going to come in and rezone the North Shore so they can build a tower with no infrastructure to support it,” said Murphy. “The roads and schools and drainage and sewers and infrastructure need to come first.”

This article was originally posted on Staten Island Building Bust Makes New Breed of Candidates Skeptical of Big Real Estate

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