Whither the Homeport?

Vincent Valk considers the varied redevelopment schemes for a waterfront section of Staten Island, where he grew up, and wonders whether the Island is better off sticking to its strengths than trying to be an urban destination.

A neon sign for the Staten Island Ferry. Robertpaulyoung via Flickr

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A recent article in the Staten Island Advance took a look at a contest in which marketing students attempted to come up with ways to improve the desultory image of my hometown. The winning group focused on plans to redevelop an old naval homeport – a fifteen-year saga that is, in many ways, a microcosm of the challenges faced in revitalizing parts of Staten Island and communities around the country.

A little history: for a brief period in the early-to-mid 1990s the U.S. Navy operated a naval base and homeport on Staten Island’s long-declining northeastern waterfront. In 1994 the base, which according to many never made sense in the first place, was abandoned. It has sat mostly vacant since, a series of low, sprawling structures abutting the Narrows, with fantastic views of the lower Manhattan skyline and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge.

The site has been the subject of numerous redevelopment plans. In the late 90s, these included a movie studio – popular because it could use existing buildings – and a sports arena (who was it that managed to convince civic leaders across the country for a time that expensive sports facilities were magic sparks for development? The ghost of Bill Veeck? The monorail guy?). In keeping with the “whatever the development fad of the moment is, we’re gonna put it at the Homeport” theme, current plans include new urbanist-style dense, low-to-mid rise mixed use site, with apartments, retail, recreation and waterfront promenade.

This idea is in keeping with efforts to repackage Staten Island’s denser, northeastern neighborhoods as a sort of urban destination. I like this idea, but I must admit – there’s something sort of pathetic about it, like an awkward little kid straining to be picked in a schoolyard kickball game. A commercial that ran on local TV three or four years ago encapsulates this effort to me (sadly, I cannot find video footage). It featured a young, vaguely trendy – though with a noticeable New York accent – woman standing on the waterfront overlooking New York Bay, chatting on a cell phone and telling her friend she was “downtown.” When the friend asks, presumably, “Downtown where?”,” she replies “downtown Staten Island,” as though that were the only natural answer. But nobody ever calls St. George “downtown,” I suspect nobody ever will, and, more to the point, saying it does not make it so. St. George has its charms, but “downtown” it’s not. Something similar could be said of Staten Island generally.

I would like the place where I grew up to market itself as what it is, an old suburb with an often-unique character – and some surprising culinary and natural attractions – instead of uncomfortably vacillating between copycats of New Jersey and Brooklyn. Alas, unsure of how to position itself, Staten Island will probably continue to shout “me too!” at a bigger, bolder, more confident city. Such transparent posturing is unlikely to improve the borough’s image. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if it does more harm than good.

Nevertheless, the current Homeport redevelopment plan – if it sticks – is a step in the right direction. As the Architect’s Newspaper notes, the Island is “not exactly known as New York City’s most sustainable borough,” but as an acknowledgment of the need for greater density on what is, after all, an island in the middle of the nation’s most populous region, the plan is encouraging. I’m not convinced it will create a “downtown” or any kind of tourist destination, or do much to improve the Island’s guidosandgarbage-infused image, but it stands a good chance of improving the neighborhood.

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Tags: new york citybuilt environmentwaterfrontsbridges

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