Weighing jobs vs. climate change in New York's hardest hit borough.
Staten Island got hammered by Superstorm Sandy. The storm surge swept many homes from their foundations and carried them out into the salt marshes. Water poured into countless basements in shoreline communities. Some 23 people died, the highest toll in any of New York City’s boroughs.
More than two months after the storm, Staten Island is still struggling to imagine what the new normal will look like. Many people have yet to return to their homes, with some even being housed in trailers in Connecticut by a charity organization. So you might think that this wouldn’t be the time to talk about building the world’s tallest Ferris wheel in an area near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal that got three to four feet of storm surge.
No, the privately funded $500 million project known as the New York Wheel, solidly backed by the Bloomberg administration, is by all accounts rolling ahead. There will be some minor modifications inspired by the megastorm, such as raising the electrical and mechanical equipment and changing some of the building materials. But otherwise, all systems are go.
The New York Wheel, planned to be the tallest in the world at 682 feet, was announced back in September, when the effects of rising sea levels and increasingly severe weather events were still theoretical propositions for Staten Island. Flanked by a designer outlet mall and a hotel, the Ferris wheel would be able to carry 1,440 people at once. Opening day has been scheduled for December 31, 2015. And according to recent announcements from the developer, the storm won’t change that timeline:
"We're providing some things for the city and for the local community that they would have no other way of getting right now," said [Richard] Marin, the chief executive of New York Wheel LLC. "Quite frankly, this borough is extremely lucky that this kind of project is under way."
The company is looking to line up a multimillion-dollar sponsor by April, with serious interest from a half-dozen companies at the moment, as the project works its way through various government reviews, Marin said.
Jobs are a major selling point. The developers project that the full complex would mean 1,200 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent positions for the borough, which often complains about being neglected by the city at large. They also predict that the wheel, with views of the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan, would attract millions of tourists each year to shell out between $20 and $30 for a 38-minute spin over New York Harbor, and perhaps head out to explore more of Staten Island’s attractions.
The sales pitch has been persuasive to elected officials such as borough president James Molinaro. Not everyone is happy, though, with the pace at which the project is moving forward in Sandy’s aftermath:
"Before the storm, I don't think that anyone had really given much consideration to the fact that these projects are being built in a flood plain," said Beryl Thurman, a Staten Island environmental activist. She thinks the attraction "should be put on a back burner until the city of New York can come up with real answers."
The city Independent Budget Office, a watchdog agency, and the Municipal Arts Society, a nonprofit urban planning group, both spotlighted the Ferris wheel plan in separate blog posts wondering what development lessons the city will learn from Sandy.
Building the Ferris wheel and other waterfront projects without a citywide look at coastal building "increases the risk that the next 'superstorm' will exact an even higher price tag," IBO spokesman Doug Turetsky wrote.
The developers have emphasized the importance of getting the project under way while the current mayor is still in office. That is undoubtedly one reason they went ahead with a public meeting needed to move the process forward just two weeks after Sandy hit.
On the New York Wheel blog, an October 31 post just two days after Sandy tried to put the storm in the best light:
[Sandy] does have the silver lining to the New York Wheel in that it helps us think through extreme conditions and causes us to ratchet up our precautions to an even higher level of safety and protection to insure that the New York Wheel will stand strong on New York harbor for years and years.
In the weeks since, there’s been a lot of talk about more thoughtful development of the waterfront and ensuring that the city plans for future storms. Whether the New York Wheel represents thoughtful development or a rush to build before reflection leads to second thoughts remains an open question.