Doing it the right way

December 11, 2008 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

The municipal parking lot on Bay Street in Stapleton has been a white elephant for decades, ever since Stapleton ceased being the commercial and business hub it was before the advent of the mall era. On any given day in recent years, you’d see just a handful of cars in the lot’s 128 metered parking spots and the revival that some Stapleton boosters insisted would one day fill the lot has remained a fantasy.

So city officials, who weren’t deriving much in the way of revenue from the lot’s meters anyway, reasoned it could be put to far better use by transferring it to a private developer.

That developer chosen, BFC Partners, originally proposed 162 units of housing for seniors. The plan was to have a range of mixed-income co-op units. But some Stapleton residents and others complained that seniors don’t generate the kind of economic activity and cultural vitality that this downtown area desperately needs.

BFC revised the plan to provide co-op units priced between $190,000 and $390,000, with a handful of others selling for market rates as well as several low-income units brokered by Habitat For Humanity.

That plan dovetailed with the Bloomberg administration’s push for affordable housing, which is why the city was willing to “sell” the site for $1.

It was also hoped the new complex, with its waterfront views and proximity to the ferry, would attract the younger, cosmopolitan professionals who would help revitalize Bay Street.

The plan also called for ground-floor stores and shops and 156 parking spots for the buildings, with another 52 in an adjacent metered lot, so it seemed to satisfy everyone’s concerns.

The city conditionally approved the plan, dubbed Stapleton Court, earlier this year (after a mapping snafu and debate about the exact number of parking spaces); construction was rushed to start in July in order to beat the deadline to claim a tax benefit for building affordable housing.

Now, however, the parking lot is gone and piles have been driven into the ground, but the wheels are coming off the plan.

For one thing, it seems that BFC never secured adequate financing to build the project. Even with the $1 price tag for the 50,454-square-foot property and a temporary construction loan from the city Department of Housing Preservation & Development, BFC says it can’t complete the project under the terms of the approved plan. Work at the site was halted last month
Then, the economy went in the tank.

And so now BFC said that it wants to build 162 rental units instead of co-op apartments. It is seeking city approvals for that significant change. Juan Barahona, project manager, explained, “There was no other option; the subprime mess scared the banks away from any lending for for-sale projects. We didn’t think [the economy] would be as bad as it got.”

Few people did see it coming. However, yet another building with rental units is a far cry from the economically stimulating project that BFC planned and the city approved earlier this year. That’s not what is needed on Bay Street. Stapleton has plenty of apartments for rent. What it needs is people who will invest and have a long-term stake in the community.

Kevin Barry, chairman of the Downtown Staten Island Council, which opposes the change in plans, said, “We want people to push baby strollers on the sidewalk and to join the PTA.”

HPD, citing the radically altered economic conditions in the housing market, seems inclined to go along with the change to rental apartments. Seth Donlin, a department spokesman, said, “We all share the same goal, which is to see this site developed with quality, affordable, working-class housing.”

Mr. Barahona said, “It’s either we do rental or we do nothing; we can’t do a for-sale project. It’s not the ideal solution, but it will bring people there.”

But building a bunch of new apartments for people to live in wasn’t the only goal here. HPD’s claim that rental units accomplish the same goal as for-sale housing misses the point. There’s a sharp distinctions between how renters and homeowners tend to view their community.

We agree with Councilman Michael McMahon, who said of BFC’s 11th-hour switch: “It totally changed the equation. The original selling point of this was they were taking a municipal asset and turning it into affordable, working-class housing.”

The revised plan may satisfy HPD’s need for housing unit numbers, but it is not the same plan Stapleton residents and elected officials signed up for; it’s not the plan that got BFC the site for $1. Sure, things have changed, but maybe that’s the best reason not to proceed. After all, BFC has yet to demonstrate that it has the wherewithal to complete either project, at least not without major infusions of city help.

As Mr. Barry said, “[BFC] should move on. How about they walk away, pave it and see it in the rearview mirror?”

He’s right. After all these years of a mostly empty parking lot, there’s no rush, especially to build a poor substitute for what Staten Islanders hoped to see there.

The city should go back to square 1, ride out the economic crisis and then bring in a developer with both the wherewithal and the vision to do this project the right way.

Staten Island Advance

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Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Public Waterfront, Staten Island. Tags: , , , .

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