What lucky neighborhood got the Mental Health Housing? Port Richmond

UPDATE: On July 21, 2015,  Community Board #1 voted overwhelming against the project. State Senator Diane Savino said, “We have too many questions.” State Assemblyman Matthew Titone said that St. Joseph’s track record was “abysmal,” and City Council Member Debi Rose said she was tired of “the North Shore being the dumping ground.”

When St. Joseph’s Hospital, located in Westchester County, planned to convert the vacant former convent on Fort Place in St. George to transitional dormitories for the mentally ill, it was thwarted by community opposition in a long, agonizing legal battle. The convent will now be converted to residential use. But St. Joseph’s was not discouraged, and persevered in its mission to bring mentally health housing to Staten Island, (rather than to its own Westchester County neighborhood). They came up with a new plan. They will build it on Port Richmond Avenue.

Rendering of St. Joseph Hospital's plan for 110 Port Richmond Avenue, via DNAinfo.

Rendering of St. Joseph Hospital’s plan for 110 Port Richmond Avenue, via DNAinfo.

Quite possibly this will be a facility that will serve the needs of the community and help people transition to full re-integration after hospital (or prison!) stays. On the other hand, it can turn into a mismanaged warehouse for humans that becomes a nightmare for the neighborhood. It all depends on St. Joseph’s commitment to the project and the community’s vigilance. The local community must be kept in the loop as to how this is being set up and St. Joseph’s should be required to monitor the impact of their facility on the neighborhood socially, economically and in services. They should also be required to use the housing for Staten Islanders in need of services, and not ship clients in from other counties (or from Sing Sing, as St. Joseph’s had been planning). The Port Richmond Community Board has already voiced its opposition, but this will not block the project.

110 Port Richmond Avenue at present, via Google Maps

110 Port Richmond Avenue at present, via Google Maps

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They’ve invented the Wheel! The New York Wheel is finally being built in St. George.

As with any large project that is so transformative and audacious, it has always been difficult to believe that the New York Wheel would ever get built. The groundbreaking has been postponed several times and the completion date has become one of those fictional futures that hang like a fig leaf over delayed projects for years beyond their expiration. Like most residents of the neighborhood, I have had a wait and see attitude: I’ll believe it when I see it!

Ear-pounding pile-driving going on.

Ear-pounding pile-driving going on.

But now it seems that it is actually inching closer to reality and I can almost see it… or at least the most fundamental innards of it. On a walk along the shoreline today, I snapped these photos of work in progress on the Wheel. It is a real, functioning construction site, with a couple of dozen workers busy at work digging and pile-driving and driving around in their gadgety construction vehicles. It is a welcome sight for those of us eager for some change in this neighborhood.

Thus, the Wheel joins the Empire Outlet Mall, already under construction and presages the start of construction of the Lighthouse Point project, all ferry-terminal-hugging projects at the center of St. George redevelopment.

More construction activity at the water's edge. Is this where the unloading pier will be built?

More construction activity at the water’s edge. Is this where the unloading pier will be built?

The Only Natural Park Land in St. George is about to be Paved Over

Go for a stroll next to the ferry terminal one day and look through the fence at the land about to be dug up and paved over for the Lighthouse Point development. Take a good look because you are about to see the last of St. George’s parkland for the last time. Is there any other natural hillside that goes from water level up to Bay Street or to Richmond

Rendering of Lighthouse Point (credit: Triangle Equities)

Rendering Lighthouse Point (credit: Triangle Equities)

Terrace anywhere else between the Verrazano Bridge and Snug Harbor? It is not a huge parcel of land, and unlike Empire Outlets and the New York Wheel, both going up on the other side of the ferry terminal, it is not a large project. Plans call for some street level shopping and a moderate sized hotel and a 12 story residential building. It is only three acres with some of that land already occupied by historic buildings which will be restored. Plans call for some open space, but if the preliminary plans are an indication, little of that will be green landscape. Details are here at NYCEDC

While the restoration of the historic structures is very welcome, the loss of open land in the heart of St. George is certainly not. One of the sad things about the urban landscape of St. George is that the beautiful hillside location has been paved over with no regard for the terrain, that the great potential of the hillside has never translated into beautiful parkland. Yet, here it is, and we are just giving it away to, what some might call, a mediocre development (though the final plans have yet to be revealed) without even a whimper of protest. DSC00179DSC00180

Where’s the drinking water? Underneath the lake.

Silver Lake shimmers in the sun just before the storm.

Silver Lake shimmers in the sun just before the storm.

Silver Lake is the largest body of fresh water on Staten Island. It is called a reservoir by islanders because for many years the lake was fed by the NYC water supply and served as drinking water for Staten Island. However, since the early 1970s, the drinking water has been collected in a large tank underneath the lake protected from surface pollutants, and the lake itself has ceased to serve that function. It is a beautiful sight for anyone driving by on Victory Boulevard or Forest Avenue.

The history of Silver Lake on the Parks Department website.

Staten Island needs a Wooden House Project of its own!

There are many lessons to be learned from the gentrification of Brooklyn. For Staten Island, one of the most relevant is the revival of the wooden framehouses.

There is a reawakening of interest in the woodframe houses of Brooklyn that is bringing beauty to neighborhoods once thought of as ugly, substandard and ripe for destruction and rebuilding. This renaissance comes as a surprise, since wooden houses have always been seen as the ugly stepsisters of the elegant brick and brownstone townhouses that, for most people, characterize Brooklyn charm. The sturdy row houses of brownstone, carefully built and beautifully ornamented, have always been valued as important assets in the urban fabric, and even during their darkest days of neglect they rarely suffered the indignities of thoughtless refacing and degradation. The wooden houses, however are quite different. Generally older and built in a variety of individualistic styles, they were not treated with kindness or understanding by their twentieth century owners. In only the rarest of cases have they survived intact to this day. However, in the new century they have come into their own, as an appreciation for their uniqueness and wide range of styles and histories takes hold. In a turnaround of fate that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, a considerable number of old Brooklyn woodframe houses have been allowed to shed their aluminum siding and have been returned to their original beauty, or in some cases, to a beauty they have never had before.

For several years three inspired and dedicated preservationists, Elizabeth Finkelstein, Chelcey Berryhill and Sara Durkacs, have been writing the Wooden House Project website and blog. The original focus of the blog was the stock of wooden houses in Brooklyn, but it has since broadened its view to Manhattan and elsewhere as well, as the ever restless writers have grown. The scope of the “project” has grown, too, perhaps beyond what these writers could have hoped for. It seems that the Wooden House Project website has tapped into a nascent movement and has given that movement a voice, a look and a forum. Even as the writers have moved on to other interests and other places, their website has continued to inspire, and, if I am reading the tea leaves correctly, convinced them to continue their project, even as they personally pursue new interests.

I grew up in a wooden house in Brooklyn. It was one of two typical frame houses with old fashioned porches sitting side by side on an original block of Bergen Street. An original block because before that this was farmland. The house was built in the 1870s and it still retained its original cladding of wooden shakes, having never suffered the re-siding or renovations that disfigured so many others. However, with the passing of time, the house slowly dried up and cowered down in a weedy lot, until it was finally demolished in the late 1980s. I imagine how nice that house might look now, were it to have survived until today, and been restored. In Brooklyn the glass is half full and half empty, so many wooden houses destroyed, so many others still standing, still hoping to be selected for a celebrity makeover.

Tale of two St. Georges, both wood, both historic. One neighborhood is baronial, meticulously preserved, highly valued. The other is just hanging on, hoping for a better day.

Tale of two St. Georges. Both wood, both historic, but one neighborhood is baronial, meticulously preserved, highly valued. The other is just hanging on, hoping for a better day.

A highland street in St. George

A highland street in St. George

On Staten Island’s North Shore, the situation is quite different. There are no brownstones. Instead there are many large wooden residences that are over 100 years old. These are to be found at higher elevations, away from tawdry commerce and where the harbor views are often spectacular. Many of these have been beautifully restored in St. George, Stapleton Heights and elsewhere. Then there are the lowly woodframe houses built for more modest residents. There are many more of these, entire neighborhoods characterized by one and two family detached houses from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly at the lower elevations near the shore. Some have distinctive facades, mutilated or not, many come with surrounding gardens, some paved over, some full of trash, some lovingly tended. They are in dire need of the attention that those large manors on the heights have long enjoyed. With modern improvements to the streets and urban context, these historic houses can form the core of charming, human scale neighborhoods in places like Mariner’s Harbor, Stapleton, Rosebank that would be unique in the city.

The area between Tompkinsville and Stapleton is a prime example of an extensive woodframe neighborhood with great potential.

A lowland street in St. George.

Take a look at the neighborhood between Stapleton and Tompkinsville, for example. It is full of wooden houses waiting to be restored, all along a dozen quiet streets, a stone’s throw inland from the URL development now under construction at the old Homeport site. For some images to the area, click here: Exploring the forgotten hollow between Stapleton and Tompkinsville.

Some people are already on the case and are restoring these neglected homes, but despite the hard work of these individual homeowners, there is still no critical mass, no forward momentum. What is lacking is the vision, the will and the market. Perhaps if we had such a wooden house movement like the one that this Brooklyn blog champions, we would be on our way to revitalizing these wooden neighborhoods. I am sure that the wooden house movement will eventually take hold on Staten Island as well. Hopefully it will happen before many more local houses succumb to the fate that befell my old Bergen Street home.

Two homes on Hendricks Street. One with its beautiful original natural shakes, the other showing the signs of fussy, inappropriate renovations and subsequent neglect. Which one is a harbinger of the future?

Two homes on Hendricks Avenue. The darker one with its beautiful original natural shakes, the other showing the signs of fussy, anachronistic renovations and subsequent neglect. Which one is a harbinger of the future?

 

What’s to become of Stapleton’s shoreline?

As construction at the new waterfront development at the former Navy Homeport in Stapleton gets underway, we turn our attention to the shoreline. What will the new waterfront esplanade look like?

One rendering on the NYEDC website is of a charming inlet of restored wetlands,

New-Stapleton_The-Cove-Rendering_0

but a larger view in the next rendering shows that the wetlands area is just a small part of the esplanade, homeport-map

and that most of the waterfront will consist of concrete walkways and hard edge sea walls. New-Stapleton_New-Stapleton-Waterfront-Rendering_0staplshore03minIs this consistent with the stated goal of creating soft edged shorelines within the harbor? To learn more about the NYEDC’s Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy click here.

Let’s look at what is there now. The shoreline is in terrible shape and will need a complete restoration. However, it is easy to see that there is much potential for a pleasant interface of land and sea.  In fact, a far larger segment of the waterfront could be dedicated to wetlands than is shown in the renderings.

 

staplshore01minThis waterfront was an active longshore area in the past. Debris from the light rail line that serviced the dock facilities are still there, including rusting rails and ties. Around these old rail lines are many discarded cobblestones, now green and wet. It is probably too much to ask for a restored light rail service, considering that the Staten Island Railroad is just 100 yards away, but perhaps the cobblestone pavement can be reinstated to give a link to the waterfront past.

hardedge01minHere is where the hardedge presently begins in front of the Ironstate construction site. It is clear that this seawall is a far less satisfying aesthetic experience than the wetlands. If there must be such a section of wall, are there ways to mitigate it, as is being done on Governor’s Island? Additionally, are there plans for a ferry dock here to connect Stapleton by sea with the rest of the harbor? If there is any hope of modifying the present plan for the waterfront, we should be discussing these things now and engaging the EDC on possible changes.

 

St. George Courthouse prepares for discovery

courthouse06minAfter years of dusty, dead slow construction, the new state Supreme Court Building in St. George is finally getting ready to make its case.  The St. George courthouse is nearing completion, shedding its plastic netting and construction fences and revealing itself to the world. And it is a revelation, far more engaging and integrative into the fabric of the neighborhood than one could have feared. courthouse02minFor years now, the busy facets of its facade seemed to bode ill for the finished product and the variety of materials and jagged lines of the structure looked garish and too aggressive. However, with the fences coming down one can see that there is a connection between the bulk of the courthouse and the nearby buildings, and that the materials blend in well with the 20th Century mix all around it. In addition, the placement of the courthouse behind the hillside park allows it to maintain a comparatively low profile for pedestrians on Hyatt Street. Even the odd rampart roofline, which looks a bit clumsy from the neighborhood behind the courthouse, has a certain appeal when viewed from the harbor, giving the St. George skyline a certain Gibraltar-esque quality. (The first two numbers of St. George’s telephone exchange, 44, by the way, refer to “Gibraltar,” so the analogy is apt.)

The main entrance on Central Avenue hugs the hillside, gently sloping down with it. The garage component of the project is seen in the distance.

The main entrance on Central Avenue hugs the hillside, gently sloping down with it. The garage component of the project is seen in the distance.

The shabby office buildings from the 1960s on St. Marks Place have a new neighbor from a new century and they get along like tres amigos.

The shabby office buildings from the 1960s on St. Marks Place have a new neighbor from a new century and they get along like tres amigos.

 

The courthouse nestles behind the park, letting the bulk of the hill take precedence. The park still has a long way to go.

The courthouse nestles behind the park, letting the bulk of the hillside take precedence. The park still has a long way to go…

 

… but when it's done, it will give St. George a proper town square.

… but when it’s done, it will give St. George a proper town square.

The courthouse was designed by Ploshek Partnership, which has, for some odd reason, recently changed its name to Ennead Architects.

This is the same firm that created the new entry pavilion to the Brooklyn Museum, the Rose Center at Hayden Planetarium and many other bright, innovative buildings going up in New York and elsewhere. A look at their website shows that they are very, very busy indeed.

A look at the rear aspect of the project shows that some problems persist. St. Marks Place is still an eyesore across from the courthouse with its string of haphazard and poorly maintained housing. The parking component of the project, the St. George garage,  has been open for several years now and the leafy vines that soften its facade in the warm months become grey bristles in winter. And that special blight of Staten Island, frayed and tangled telephone wires, line the sidewalk.

The vegetation rising up the side of garage is grey and leafless during winter.

The vegetation rising up the side of garage is grey and leafless during winter. And they can’t possibly be planning to leave that mess of wires, can they?

 

They can't possibly be planning to leave that mess of wires, can they? If only the solution were as easy as Photoshop!

If only the solution were as easy as Photoshop!