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Staten Island’s Spinning Its Wheels on Stalled $1 Billion Waterfront

Richmond County Bank Ballpark, a stadium near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal which leases land from New York City, July 2, 2020.
The Staten Island Yankees won’t be playing through their summer season this year at Richmond County Ballpark, a stadium near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
Clifford Michel/THE CITY

The four base parts of the New York Wheel — once the planned spinning linchpin of Staten Island’s hoped-for downtown economic revival — have sat untouched for three years.

Next door, the Staten Island Yankees’ summer season was recently cancelled — but rugby could be on the way.

In June, nearby Empire Outlets, a $350 million mall with sweeping vistas of Lower Manhattan, reopened under Phase 2 — but only 32 of 75 storefronts are currently operating.

A sign at Empire Outlets.
A sign at Empire Outlets
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

And Lighthouse Point, a planned $250 million mixed-use development next to the St. George Ferry Terminal, only recently restarted construction after its contractor went bankrupt last year. There’s no timeline, though, for its completion.

“I don’t wish for any of these projects to fail, but they’re failing and somebody needs to say: ‘The emperor has no clothes,’” said Kelly Vilar, executive director of the Staten Island Urban Center, a nonprofit that aims to deepen community involvement on the North Shore.

Over the past decade, over $1 billion worth of megadevelopments have been built or are in various states of limbo along a 1.5-mile stretch of city-owned land. The projects were intended to spark a “North Shore Renaissance” — but the dream remains unrealized with developments either incomplete or facing existential challenges amid the pandemic.

“We need to continue to do — within reason, within common sense — all that we can do to get these projects completed,” said Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo.

Unlocking further large-scale investments throughout the borough, he said, depends upon it.

A Stuck Wheel

The only hope for the New York Wheel, declared dead in October 2018, is CanAm Enterprises, a minority stakeholder that poured at least $200 million into the planned Ferris wheel through 412 foreign investors, who hope to obtain visas if the project is realized.

The city’s Economic Development Corp. has largely remained silent about the project and hasn’t terminated its lease with the developer, which is still in court with its ex-contractor. But the agency is trying to pull off a scaled-down version of the original 630-foot answer to the London Eye with CanAm, according to elected officials.

“We’re encouraged that there continues to be interest in advancing the development of the site, and EDC is committed to delivering a positive outcome that will benefit the community,” said Shavone Williams, a spokesperson for NYCEDC.

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

Oddo told THE CITY that he spoke with NYCEDC’s president and representatives from CanAm Enterprises in June and, despite pandemic-related setbacks, said that both parties remain committed to the project.

“This group has absorbed the monthly cost of maintaining” the site, Oddo said. “My perspective is the City of New York should do everything in its power to give this group the opportunity to make this happen.”

CanAM Enterprises didn’t return requests for comment.

The Yankees Bomb

Minor League Baseball recently cancelled its season, leaving the Staten Island Yankees with no way to make money in 2020, aside from merchandise sales.

As the Baby Bombers face an increasingly grim financial outlook, officials are trying to prevent Richmond County Ballpark from becoming a ghost town, even eyeing a professional rugby team to use the field.

Adding to the financial angst, the team, owned by Nostalgic Partners, could lose its affiliation with the New York Yankees next year as Major League Baseball looks to cut ties with some minor league teams. Instead, the Staten Island club would be able to join a “dream league” with undrafted players.

The move would mark another step back for a team that’s had the lowest attendance in its league for the past four years, with numbers plummeting 68% over the past decade — even before the pandemic.

The president of the Staten Island Yankees, Will Smith, declined to comment.

Staten Island politicians and business groups say they’re focused on supporting the club, but all agree that NYCEDC needs to begin exploring options to bring other sporting or entertainment events to the stadium.

Last year, NYCEDC sought out a professional events operator for the ballpark. A spokesperson confirmed that companies have responded, but added that “we’re still in the due diligence phase.”

Oddo has pushed the city on letting Rugby United New York, which has a February through May season at MCU Park in Coney Island, use and invest in the Staten Island ballpark.

“We were involved from the outset in pushing the city to entertain and listen to the folks from the world of rugby who want to make that their home stadium, which obviously hit a wall when COVID started,” said Oddo. “There is a way to continue to have the Staten Island Yankees to play a full season and open up that facility to lots of other things.”

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo
Staten Island Borough President James Oddo
Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

Richmond County Ballpark was built with city funds in 2001 for $29 million. A lease agreement between the Yankees and NYCEDC, obtained by THE CITY via a Freedom of Information Law request, shows that the team has been using the space for free the past few years since it hasn’t sold enough tickets to trigger a rental payment.

“Nostalgic Partners and EDC are aligned and advocating for the long-term success of the ballclub,” said Williams.

Rep. Max Rose (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn) and Oddo have mounted a campaign to save the team from being potentially cut out of MLB’s minor league system.

“This team means so much to our borough. Not only does it offer jobs and a big economic boost, it provides civic pride and family fun,” the two wrote to New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner in May.

Lighthouse Point Blinks

Staten Island’s two highest-profile residential developments have also been mired in delays. A spokesperson for Lighthouse Point’s developer, Triangle Equities, didn’t provide a timeline for its second phase, which promised to restore four historic buildings, create a 15,000-square-foot event space and build a Westin hotel.

In Stapleton, Ironstate Development has yet to start construction on the second phase of development for its luxury Urby apartments, which was slated to bring 325 additional units to the site in 2018.

Meanwhile, NYCEDC pledged that $120 million in public investments would be constructed near Urby, including a BBQ area, a playground, sports courts and an esplanade extension.

A spokesperson for NYCEDC didn’t provide a timeline for when these amenities would come online, and said design and construction are on hold while the city battles COVID-19.

“The pandemic has put everything on pause,” said City Councilmember Debi Rose (D-Staten Island). “I fully expect our waterfront recreation space to resume as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Ready to Start Over

While elected officials wait, some Staten Islanders are ready to move on.

Leticia Remauro, acting executive director of the Staten Island Downtown Alliance, said the group has pushed NYCEDC to cut bait and solicit new proposals for the New York Wheel.

“It would be wise for them at this point to see what could happen there and honestly they should’ve done that a few years ago,” said Remauro.

A documentary produced by Staten Island Urban Center has called for locals to give up on the expensive developments and take part in brainstorming new proposals for the North Shore waterfront.

On June 30, community leaders and residents gathered on Zoom to talk about just that. Some kicked around ideas that included pushing for a long-promised indoor pool to be placed at the wheel site.

“We just want to make sure that our waterfront isn’t this barren, empty lot of projects that went nowhere,” said Vilar.

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