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.
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?
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,
but a larger view in the next rendering shows that the wetlands area is just a small part of the esplanade,
and that most of the waterfront will consist of concrete walkways and hard edge sea walls. Is 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.
This 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.
Here 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.
With construction presumably about to begin on two large waterfront projects in St. George, the New York Wheel and the Empire Outlets, the question arises what will be the impact of these mega projects on the shoreline. The water’s edge is a problematic area,
The water’s edge in front of the Empire Outlets site.
scarred by decades of neglect. rampant trash accumulation, runaway water pollution and a weedy, rock filled terrain. The recent park construction has greatly improved the shore with the creation of a carefully delineated soft edge. However, it is a delicate balance of nature and human use and one wonders how the tremendously increased human traffic that is in store for this area will impact that shoreline. Among the many things that the North Shore community must be vigilant of during the construction of the wheel and the mall is the effect these will have on the quality of our shoreline. The dark, slimy rocks and the turgid harbor water may not be the most picturesque water’s edge in the world, but it has its own modest beauty and it deserves to be treated respectfully.
The shoreline itself is not part of either project, and it remains the responsibility of government agencies. And since soft edge shoreline stabilization is the preferred approach nowadays, according to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, it is unlikely that the shoreline is in for a hardening (seawalls, stone-filled wire baskets, etc.). But soft edge shorelines need constant maintenance, and this one will be particularly vulnerable to degradation from the changes coming just a few yards away, with increased run-off from construction and ongoing use, and the probability of increased trash accumulation. In addition, there are proposals for new and expanded ferry service which will most likely require more docking structures in the water. How are the developers and the city planning on meeting the challenges that these new conditions create?
There are places along the Kills separating Staten Island from New Jersey where industrial sites come right up to the water. They are certainly not pretty places, but they do keep up the traditional economic activity that animates this area. Then there are other places where the lush green vegetation of these low flung marshlands have reclaimed land, or have remained fairly natural through all these years of development, at Fresh Kills and in green patches elsewhere. These areas show the great potential for a rebirth of this natural estuary as parkland and they remind us how Staten Island’s geographical isolation in New York (as opposed to the centrality of the New Jersey areas on the opposite shore) has spared us from a more extremely industrial fate. And then there are the maritime dumps – places where old boats, industrial equipment, machinery and plain old trash have accumulated washed up, driven over and trucked in, to create an insult to the concept of shoreline. Here at the far end of South Avenue is just such a spot, a boat graveyard and trash heap that despoils the waters of the Arthur Kill just across from the southern tip of the mysterious green wilderness of Pralls Island. This is a fragile ecosystem that needs far more care, exemplified by the bird sanctuary on Pralls Island, a place where egrets and herons thrive. It was seriously harmed by an oil spill in 1990 when 700 birds died. Hopefully the opening of the Fresh Kills shoreline as parkland during the next few years will spur interest in this shore and will lead to a clean up of these sites.