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Stuck Waterfront Ferris Wheel Plan Takes Center Stage in Staten Island Political Races

The unfinished New York Wheel and its four base parts have sat untouched in Staten Island’s St. George neighborhood since 2017, July 2, 2020.
The unfinished New York Wheel and its four base parts have sat untouched in Staten Island’s St. George neighborhood since 2017, July 2, 2020.
Clifford Michel/THE CITY

The base parts for the New York Wheel, an unfinished $650 million waterfront Ferris wheel once touted as Staten Island’s answer to the London Eye, have sat on prime public land — untouched — since 2017.

Staten Island’s current elected officials have stuck by the project, seen as the linchpin of the so-called North Shore Renaissance around the St. George Ferry Terminal, even after its initial developer declared the wheel dead two years ago.

But now several candidates running for City Council and borough president are breaking ranks and pledging to push City Hall and the city Economic Development Corporation to abandon the project, once slated to rise 630 feet with sweeping views.

“It would make more sense to find out what people are willing to do there,” said Leticia Remauro, a Republican candidate for Staten Island borough president who wants EDC to solicit new projects for the site.

Her proposal: Build the Donald Trump presidential library there. Other candidates are calling for a public pool or community center, while some want to seek ideas from local residents — not developers.

Staten Island borough presidential candidate Letitia Remauro speaks in favor of additional financial support for restaurants during the coronavirus.
Staten Island borough president candidate Letitia Remauro speaks in favor of additional financial support for restaurants during the pandemic.
Leticia Remauro for SI Borough President/Facebook

Some Council hopefuls, meanwhile, are still pushing for the wheel, first floated by former mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2012.

The debate over whether the wheel should remain the center of what EDC once envisioned as a postcard picture-perfect project echoes fights over development brewing across the city since Amazon dropped its plans for a headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, last year.

In Flushing, Queens, City Council candidates have been running against a large waterfront development –– though the proposal recently cleared a key vote with the blessing of term-limited Councilmember Peter Koo. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, outgoing Councilmember Carlos Menchaca effectively killed the Industry City rezoning plan before announcing a run for mayor.

The details are different in each case, but all boil down to conflicts over what constitutes appropropriate development in a city starved more than ever for both economic growth and affordable housing.

A Smaller Wheel Eyed

The New York Wheel was supposed to be the economic anchor for other major North Shore developments in various states of completion, notably a $350 million outlet mall next to the St. George Ferry Terminal and a pair of pricey apartment complexes.

The projects represent over $1 billion invested in the area near the ferry terminal. But now some of the ventures face major challenges, heightened by the pandemic. Meanwhile, the future of the nearly two-decade-old Staten Island Yankees’ stadium future is in doubt after the loss of the minor league team.

EDC is allowing CanAm Enterprises, a non-controlling minority-investor that has sunk at least $200 million into the Ferris wheel project, to maintain the site while looking for a contractor to build a smaller wheel.

Candidates want EDC to utilize what they see as flexibility over the city-owned site’s future use, especially since the New York Wheel, which paid the city $14.5 million when it amended its lease in October 2014, has been fighting to declare bankruptcy.

Ranti Ogunleye is running for City Council on Staten Island.
Ranti Ogunleye is running for City Council on Staten Island.
Ranti Ogunleye for City Council/Facebook

Ranti Ogunleye, a nonprofit director and a Democratic candidate in the Council race, said the city should build an indoor swimming pool or rebuild a beloved community center at the site. The two projects have already been budgeted for by the city, but haven’t gotten underway.

“We could use that property in a better way,” said Ogunleye. “I’d definitely reimagine the space to see how it can be more accessible for people in the North Shore who don’t see that space as their own.”

Two Council candidates — Kamillah Hanks, who unsuccessfully challenged North Shore Councilmember Debi Rose in 2017, and Amoy Barnes, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio — said that if elected, they’d gather feedback from local residents on what to do with the site.

“It needs to be done properly and with the blessing of the community,” said Hanks, who said she’d engage local stakeholders on the issue if elected. “Because the community did approve a 630-feet wheel and it just didn’t work out, so now we’re a little bit more gun shy.”

Split on Liberty Towers

Many of the candidates running for the North Shore Council seat, in a diverse area where residents tend to make less than those in other parts of the borough, are chiefly concerned about housing and affordability.

Some told THE CITY that they see approving or denying future residential and commercial developments as deeply connected to preventing gentrification.

The seven candidates running for the Council seat also collectively represent a more hardened stance on North Shore developments than local politicians have taken in the past decade.

All of the Council candidates interviewed were dissatisfied with the percentage of apartments marked affordable for a trio of newly proposed high-rise apartment buildings in St. George near the ferry terminal called Liberty Towers, a development with 750 units.

The size of the development, which includes a 26-story building, has drawn the ire of some borough Republicans, including Councilmember Steven Matteo, who’s running against Remauro for borough president. Remauro supports the building plan.

The developer has proposed that 30% of units be designated as affordable, setting them aside for tenants with modest incomes, equivalent to annual household earnings of up to $81,920 for a family of three.

Many of the candidates believe the community lost out when Urby, a $275 million waterfront apartment complex in Stapleton, offered 20% of its apartments as affordable, which officials accepted.

Amoy Barnes
Amoy Barnes is running for City Council.
Clifford Michel/THE CITY

Barnes said that it would take a minimum of 50% of Liberty Tower apartments being designated affordable to win her support.

“When I look at development, I look at it as: ‘Who is it for?,’” said Barnes, who cited concerns that high-end apartments would push lower-income residents out of the neighborhood. “If it’s not for the people who live there, then it’s not worth it.”

Kelvin Richards, a Legal Aid attorney running for the North Shore seat, said he wanted the income limits to be closer to $51,200 for a family of three and is calling for more two-bedroom apartments.

Richards, however, is one of the candidates who isn’t ready to give up on the New York Wheel. He’s not alone: Selina Grey, a political operative and close ally to current Councilmember Debi Rose, and Troy McGhie, a high school teacher and ex-Rose staffer, all still support building the New York Wheel.

“I see the Ferris wheel as tied into the entire economic development of the North Shore, said Richards. “A successful Ferris wheel means a successful Liberty Towers. A successful Ferris wheel means a successful Urby.”

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