Few people know that when Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into New York Harbor in 1524 he first landed on Staten Island. Though the Island was possibly the first place that European explorers arrived on land, Staten Island often seems last when it comes to implementing public policies that improve the quality of city living. Staten Island has all the problems facing the rest of the city--unplanned and uncoordinated growth, traffic congestion, and disappearing open and public space.
But nestled in this borough bounded by bays and kills are a few model solutions as well. The Staten Island Bluebelt, for instance, uses wetlands to capture stormwater runoff and, with nature's help, treats this tainted water for half the cost of the mechanical treatment that is necessary in more densely paved parts of the city. The Island has the only ferry in New York City that truly functions as public transportation: it runs 24 hours a day and is free (yes, FREE) to all riders. Just north of Fresh Kills landfill sits a paper re-manufacturing plant that takes a portion of the city's solid waste stream and uses these scraps to produce marketable goods, in large quantities. Looking ahead, the island is poised to become a choice borough if it can capitalize on its most famous assets, particularly its geographic proximity to (gasp!) New Jersey.
The island nature creates an insular feeling among residents and visitors alike. When viewed with Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, it seems to many people that only Staten is an island, when in fact four of the five boroughs really rest on islands as well. This psychological sense of non-belonging last culminated in a referendum question in 1993 in which islanders voted to form their own city, though the State Legislature never approved the secession. Three years later Fresh Kills landfill closed.
For a half century Fresh Kills landfill was both the largest physical landmark as well as psychological burden which islanders carried with them wherever they went. The closure of the landfill, while a mental boon for islanders and a boost to property owners, has not yet brought about a sustainable or even sane solid waste management policy for the city. But we are getting closer. Recently, officials from VISY paper organized a tour for borough leadership of a solid waste handling and sorting facility in Germany that is as close to the state of the art as anything in existence in the U.S. While garbage is not pretty business, the reality is that it is New York City's largest export as well as an expense item that accounts for nearly three percent of the city's annual budget. It is a problem we will have to solve to survive as a city.
In many ways the landfill's swing from open to closed is characteristic of the highly politicized nature of land use decision-making that afflicts US cities with the urban planning equivalent of bipolar disorder: now it is wide open, now it is sealed shut. Rarely is there any in-between. But fortunately for New York there is Staten Island.
The latest instance of this bi-polar disorder was diagnosed this past July, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the creation of a task force to examine "growth management" on the island. Often derisively referred to as an overdevelopment task force, this entire effort, and the land use debate on the island, should instead be framed as an under-transit task force. It is a well-known fact that islanders feel alienated from much of the rest of the city. While they have only two linkages (a bridge to Brooklyn and a ferry to Manhattan) they have three connections to New Jersey in the form of the Outerbridge, the Goethals, and the Bayonne Bridges.
But as the population of the island has doubled since the time the Verrazano Bridge opened in 1964, the island has not added any new physical connections to surrounding boroughs or cities. Sure new funds are being tapped for additional express buses to Manhattan, but what the island needs desperately are new transit options that reduce pressures on the bridge and ferry crossing already jammed to capacity. For instance, the congestion on the Staten Island Expressway will not be solved with widened on-and off ramps here and there, but if there were other options such as passenger ferries or even truck ferries between New Jersey and Brooklyn the commuters and goods would actually have an option of how to travel.
A borough of nearly half a million people needs better transit not just between boroughs but within Staten Island itself. With rail lines along the west and north shores of the island now sitting idle for decades, how long can it be before policymakers realize that the solution to the island's development pressures woes are the mostly intact rail rights-of-way that are staring them in the face?
Perhaps the most visionary thinking for Staten Island has originated outside the state. Just a couple of years ago the executive director of New Jersey Transit suggested that the new Hudson Bergen Light Rail that now ends just across the Bayonne Bridge might someday pass over the Bayonne Bridge and all the way down to Tottenville at the southern tip of Staten Island. Such imaginative and apolitical thinking is what this congested island will need to prosper in the future. Beholden to a city and state so fixated on Lower Manhattan, perhaps Staten Islanders would be better off taking their case to Trenton.
Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.