Issue 429 September 15, 2003
In July, Mayor Bloomberg announced the formation of the Staten Island Growth Management Task Force - consisting of various city commissioners, elected officials, industry gurus, and civic leaders - to address growth and development on Staten Island. While the creation of such a group is potentially good news for the congested island, a recent "downzoning" recommendation from the task force could end up hurting, rather than helping the situation.
The Task Force recently recommended a massive re-zoning plan for areas from Westerleigh to New Dorp. The rezoning would affect 68,000 lots, reducing their allowable density, making attached homes illegal and detached homes the norm. The move is in response to rapid, uncontrolled development on the Island that has strained infrastructure and threatened quality of life.
But a potential problem with downzoning is that it is a band-aid solution for a larger problem. Staten Islandís problem is not density. It is too much unplanned, medium-density development. A better solution is to create growth centers with increased housing density and commercial uses to focus the Islandís economic development where it most makes sense. At best, comprehensive downzoning will freeze the existing land use pattern and concomitant traffic nightmare in place, but not offer any improvement. Because of its low density, much of the Island is hard to serve by public transit, so traffic has become unbearable even during off peak hours.
While everyone surveying the S.I. streetscape says it needs more and better mass transit, the Islandís de-centered nature does not lend itself to intensive transit investment. Without any centers, a good mass transit system is simply not feasible. For example, a bus rapid transit system could efficiently link Staten Island neighborhoods to appropriately dense commercial nodes, but such a system will be difficult to plan without the identification of such growth zones.
Another problem with downzoning too much of S.I. is that it could end up producing an affordable housing crisis, excluding lower income families. Already, Staten Island is much wealthier than the other four boroughs, with a median household income of almost $57,000, versus a NYC average below $39,000. If economic growth requires Staten Island to depend on a mixed income work force, exclusionary zoning could create an increasing segment of "reverse commuters" who may need to drive to the Island from Brooklyn, New Jersey or elsewhere, further contributing to traffic woes.
The Growth Management Task Force has received a load of media attention, especially from the Staten Island Advance. Advance coverage has brought to light important issues, such as some developersí build-anywhere methods and the need for a moratorium on new development until the Task Force has completed recommendations. However, the paperís editors, on occasion, seem caught in a 1950s planning style that is unrealistic for the fastest growing borough of New York City. The paper has repeatedly referred to one task force memberís comment that a goal of the Task Force is to "stop the erosion of the American Dream in Staten Island" and said downzoning to single family units will help achieve this. One editorial dismissed affordable housing concerns: "In the past, with earlier downzoning efforts, some (City Planning) commissioners have expressed reservations about Staten Island officials trying to keep out "affordable housing".... Letís hope the impetus Mayor Bloomberg has given to the effort will pre-empt such ideological drivel this time around."
The reality is that, unless it wishes to choke off growth altogether, parts of Staten Island will have to grow "up" rather than "out." Room is running out for lowĖdensity housing and scattered office building or parks. The way to preserve existing residential neighborhoods while accommodating some population and job growth is to establish some denser, well-planned, mixed use (and mixed income) urban centers that can be well served by transit.
The re-zoning plan will likely be approved by the end of the year. Zoning amendments were already approved in February 2002 to control road, sidewalks, and front yard widths on Staten Island. Further down the road, the Task Force will reportedly look at other zoning regulations, such as parking regulations and other density issues.
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