How Dense Can You Get?

Staten Island is the epicenter of the national debate over balancing the need for affordable housing with the desire to control development.
by | August 2005

Let's agree from the start that there are builders on Staten Island who have done their profession no favors. Even in New York City, surely the nation's capital of commercial chutzpah, they've managed to stand out.

They have jammed entire townhouse communities onto single-home lots. They have built town-homes with backyards so tiny that practically the only way to grill a hamburger without trespassing is to lean out the door to flip it. They have given the island a new term--"ski-slope driveway"--by installing driveways that drop so steeply from the street they're unusable except on foot. They have even put up houses with front steps that lead directly to the street. Not the sidewalk, but the street. "They have created," says one city official, "some of the most abysmal housing I've ever seen."

It may be only a small minority of developers who've defied house- building principles your average eight-year-old could enunciate, but for Staten Islanders they symbolize a big problem: This once-calm island feels out of control. Long a redoubt of placid middle-class suburbia, Staten Island now shares the woes of suburbs everywhere. Its roads are jammed, its schools are crowded, its sewers are inadequate, it doesn't have enough police stations or firehouses--an entire infrastructure that was created for a quieter, less-crowded era is badly stretched. "People here," says Mike Morrell, president of the oldest neighborhood association on the island, "don't want any more development."

So it should be no surprise that over the past few years, Staten Island has been seized with a passion for "downzoning," or limiting housing density. It is a cause that has engendered near-religious devotion in local political circles and gained much sympathy in city government, where there is genuine dismay at some of the more egregious examples of island home-building and keen awareness that Staten Island is linked to New Jersey by three bridges. "We are trying to keep New Yorkers in New York," says Amanda Burden, chairwoman of the City Planning Commission. "If we destroy their communities, they will leave." Left unsaid, but impossible to ignore, is the fact that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, is up for reelection, and Republicans don't win citywide in New York without solid support from Staten Island.

Which is why a planning commission meeting in June was a shocker: While the commission easily approved a couple of additional downzonings for Staten Island, its members, for the first time, raised pointed questions about just what the city is doing in its least- populated borough--questions that, in one form or another, communities all over the country are facing as they struggle to define who will get to live there.

The problem is that in its zeal to protect Staten Island's quality of life, the city has run smack into the fact that Staten Island is considered by many New Yorkers of modest means to be their entree into the housing market. "This has always been the city's safety valve for the working class to get a little piece of the American dream," says Richard Flanagan, a political scientist at the College of Staten Island. Cops, firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers, pipefitters, construction workers--the borough was built on their hunger for a house and a yard. In an era of rapidly escalating housing prices, however, the downzonings have made it harder to satisfy that yen. "They've eliminated affordable housing types," says R. Randy Lee, a Staten Island developer whose company builds subsidized housing in the New York metropolitan area. "The houses that are most affordable to build and provide have been eliminated."

There is an obvious way out of this conundrum: Staten Island could plan for denser development in areas that can support it, create the infrastructure to make it workable and then rezone to allow it. But as Flanagan puts it, "There is no political opening for a dialogue about density here. No one wants to hear it."

From small towns in Vermont to popular cities such as San Francisco and Seattle to older suburbs that have been rediscovered, the mismatch between housing that ordinary working families can afford and what is actually available is growing--yet building more housing to meet the demand is fraught with political danger. As on Staten Island, resolving the dilemma entails making a host of difficult decisions about planning, zoning, transportation and infrastructure. The political wherewithal to tackle these issues, however, often has yet to catch up with the new reality of affordable housing: As the federal government withdraws from the housing scene, the responsibility for innovative answers to the nation's housing crunch has come to rest in local hands, both public and private.

"This battle will be won and lost in the zoning boards of America," says Howard Husock, director of case programs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and author of "America's Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake." "Each town and city will have to make its own decisions." The struggles of Staten Island suggest just how difficult making those decisions is proving to be.


Once full of farms, oystering hamlets and small industry--textile dyeing and printing, breweries, brickworks, an Ivory Soap factory-- Staten Island was for much of the last century truly a place apart from the rest of New York City. That changed abruptly in 1964, when the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linked the island to Brooklyn. Housing boomed as the island's population grew from 222,000 in 1960 to 352,000 in 1980 and about half a million today. But the basic development pattern--Victorians, colonials, capes and bungalows with front and back yards, many with detached single-car garages--held steady.

In 1971, in a bid to get ahead of the waves of newcomers that pretty much everyone could see coming, Republican state Senator John Marchi proposed a plan to have the Rouse Co. build a series of suburban communities with infrastructure to serve them. The notion was eventually derailed by a combination of environmental concerns and Conservative Party opposition to government planning, and it was the last time any comprehensive effort to plan for Staten Island was able to make much headway. "It was a turning point," says Flanagan. "That was Staten Island's lost moment."

Even so, for a long time Staten Island was able to get by with a sprawling development pattern, a road network of mostly two-lane avenues and a couple of expressways, and a transit system consisting of the ferry to Manhattan, a single above-ground rail line and bus service. But as once-empty lots were filled in and developers started tearing down existing homes to put up townhouses, the island's dependence on the car caught up with it. Builder Randy Lee notes, "Staten Island has 2.7 cars per household, and if you take away people like the elderly and people in public housing who don't have cars, it's more like 3.1 cars per household. And these cars have to have roadways to drive on and places to park." The result is that one of the first calculations residents make when they see new development is the number of new cars they can expect to see on their streets and vying with them for parking spaces. Small wonder there's no appetite for new development.

Yet people keep coming. On the island's North Shore, the poorer and denser part, there are neighborhoods where three or four families are crowding into two-bedroom apartments, and the demand for housing is so intense all over that illegal basement rentals are proliferating, bringing in more cars and straining resources even further. This is not all bad: The once-decrepit North Shore community of Port Richmond, for instance, has been entirely revitalized by Mexican families in the past few years, but it is also desperately overcrowded. So far, the only official response has been to strike at the symptoms, not the cause, says the Reverend Terry Troia, who runs a nonprofit service agency for the homeless and low-income families there. "We're quick to close illegal SROs, but I don't see anyone building legal SROs," she says. "We're quick to cite illegal rentals and move the families out, but not to find a solution for that family. Don't we have an obligation to house the people who pump our gas, clean our offices, staff our emergency rooms, teach our kids?" Instead, Port Richmond is on the list for downzoning.

To be sure, New York City is hardly blind to the need for affordable housing. At the start of his administration, Bloomberg announced an initiative to spend $3 billion on creating 64,000 units of affordable housing, and the city has been an enthusiastic user of tax credits and "inclusionary zoning"--under which developers can build more market- rate units in their projects than zoning would otherwise allow, in exchange for building affordable units. It has won plaudits from affordable housing advocates, and a more tempered response among those who argue that it is driving up the cost of housing for everyone else, with its inclusionary zoning efforts in two mammoth new development projects, the Hudson Yards on Manhattan's far West Side, and the proposed remaking of Brooklyn's waterfront.

On Staten Island itself, the city is working on a small range of affordable housing projects: a 141-unit affordable co-op development called Stapleton Mews; a 100-unit development for senior citizens on the grounds of an old hospital; and the complete reworking of a rundown public housing project known as Markham Gardens that could create up to 476 units of housing for seniors and Section 8 voucher- holders, townhomes affordable to low-income buyers and low-income rental units. Moreover, says Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, "People tend to forget that New York City has added more than 800,000 people since 1990, so there is a greater imperative than ever to preserve existing affordable housing."

Yet the city's approach is limited by its belief that "affordable housing" is possible only where it is the instigator. As planning chair Amanda Burden put it recently, "Where you see affordable housing, it's met two conditions: Either it's on city-owned land or it's where you can provide the density to do inclusionary zoning." Staten Island has few places that meet either of those conditions right now, which means that if housing is going to be created on the scale needed to meet demand, the market will have to do it. This is not impossible. Although critics of Staten Island's builders insist that all "the market" is interested in producing is $400,000 townhouses, builders themselves are quick to point to townhouses that sold for $350,000--which is "affordable" by the city's own measures-- and less. "I've built maybe 2,000 units of affordable housing on Staten Island for rental and for sale, under various government programs," says Randy Lee, "and of those, over 1,000 were affordable homeownership units; the last group sold for about $250,000." That was, he points out, before the downzonings went into effect.

So the city finds itself in an ungainly position. It is aggressively pursuing affordable housing as a citywide policy, while at the same time making the construction of affordable housing less likely in large swaths of Staten Island through its downzoning efforts. "What the city's doing," says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a writer on development issues and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, "is downzoning these areas in which there's enormous market demand and at the same time providing subsidized housing in areas like Brooklyn and Manhattan, where there's also enormous market demand. So for this moderate-income group who want to buy on Staten Island, the city's providing subsidized housing in Brooklyn. It seems insane."


This inconsistency got its first official acknowledgement at the June meeting of the City Planning Commission. The commission approved two new downzonings and put a third on the docket, but it also saw the first open stirrings of unrest with the city's policies begin to surface. "This commission has systematically been downzoning large parts of Staten Island, the Bronx and Queens," said Irwin Cantor, a courtly structural engineer from Queens who sits on the planning commission, "but what we are also doing is zoning away our heritage of welcome to the newly arrived and the striving. At the end of the day, they will come, and they will need to be housed." Burden responded that "there is always a tension between affordability and the preservation of the character of a neighborhood," but in the case of Staten Island, she would lean toward the latter. "I believe that inappropriate development does not necessarily enhance affordability," she said.

This stance drew a fervent second from City Councilman Andrew Lanza, a Republican who represents the well-to-do South Shore of Staten Island and who is, at the moment, the champion of downzoning there, with 10 separate proposals that have either been approved or are in the pipeline; all three of the proposals the commission dealt with that day were his. Lanza was blunt. "Don't be fooled by this affordable housing red herring," he fumed. "It's a diversion, a smokescreen. It's a lie."

Patience for this argument is starting to wear thin among some members of the City Planning Commission--although with a mayoral election looming, not in public. "In all the other boroughs," notes one person familiar with the commission's thinking, "we have seemed to blend downzoning with some degree of 'upzoning,' or adding density. That doesn't happen on Staten Island. There are pieces of Staten Island that can be upzoned. It's true, they have lousy infrastructure, but they don't come busting anyone's chops to get better infrastructure. They use the lack to explain why not to build."

In truth, there are any number of neighborhoods on Staten Island that could tolerate more density, and hence new opportunities for affordable housing--most notably the string of neighborhoods along the train line and the neighborhood around the ferry terminal, St. George, which already has high-rise office buildings. "St. George is a natural choice for density," says Allan Cappelli, a consultant to the island's builders' association. "It ought to be like downtown Brooklyn, or Park Slope--it's got every bus line, the ferry, the train. It's a community that's desolate at night; it desperately needs people there. And instead they downzoned it!"

But building would take a comprehensive effort to step back and look at where growth on Staten Island should occur, and island politicians have seen little to gain in trying to force hard choices on an electorate that wants an uncrowded suburban lifestyle. "There's never really a constituency for planning for infrastructure," says Cappelli. "An anticipated constituency doesn't have clout--government responds to those who are there, not those who are coming."

To be fair, political leaders on Staten Island have for years now been talking about turning an abandoned rail line along the North Shore into light rail; the city has made it clear that it has other priorities. Which is the other part of the island's problem: The city officials ultimately responsible for paying attention to Staten Island have tended to rely on what Richard Flanagan calls "bread and circuses" to keep it happy: a new minor-league baseball stadium, redoing the ferry terminal, closing the much-hated Fresh Kills landfill. "Compared to the Bronx and parts of Brooklyn, this is a solidly middle-class borough and other city residents have needs that need to be met first," Flanagan explains. "But the way city hall has met Staten Island's needs has been public relations and symbols, not the ongoing substantive engagement of government that goes on every day."


The result of all this is that no one--neither Staten Island's political leadership nor New York City's--seems to know how to start the process of building a constituency for grappling with the island's growth. At the City Planning Commission hearing in June, for instance, it was hard not to notice that when Michael Fazio, president of Staten Island's builders association, practically begged the commission to look into appropriate increases in density to meet the demand for housing, Burden's response was to put the onus on him and his colleagues. "If the Building Industry Association would actually look at sites that could be upzoned, then build a consensus in the community for upzoning," she said, "then that becomes a critical component of what you're bringing before us."

There are, in fact, a variety of efforts underway on Staten Island that could, eventually, bring about change. The plan for remaking the Markham Gardens public housing project, for instance, was hammered out by a group of clergy-led affordable housing advocates and North Shore politicians, and they've indicated that they plan to keep meeting. The island's chamber of commerce is working with city and state agencies to come up with a comprehensive transportation plan. And the City Planning Commission is working on proposals to develop the industrial land along the island's remote West Shore.

There is also the island's Growth Management Task Force, created a few years ago by Bloomberg to get a grip on the "over-development" problem. The task force's report, which was aimed squarely at the bad townhouse designs that so irk Staten Islanders, was the basis for a new series of design regulations aimed at ensuring that new homes have adequate yards and parking spaces. More recently, the task force issued a recommendation--since accepted by the City Planning Commission--that commercial areas where builders had been replacing stores with new housing instead require ground-floor commercial uses and housing above, a classic zoning technique for creating new affordable housing.

Since the task force is the only publicly sanctioned body with a cross-section of Staten Islanders looking at development, it would seem like a natural place to start a broader planning effort, but it is unclear whether its members would agree. "This task force wasn't to plan for what's coming, it was put together because the house was on fire," says Joe Markowski, president of the New Dorp Central Civic Association and a task force member. "This was an attempt to salvage what's left."

The truth is, none of these efforts meets Staten Island's fundamental need, which is for a political process capable of deciding where new housing can legitimately go. "Someone has to want to create the rules that will facilitate it," says Sandy Krueger, CEO of the Staten Island Board of Realtors. "It takes government to come in and say, 'We'll do a consolidated master plan, not just fight fires.' The problem is, it was beneficial to a lot of parties to allow uncontrolled development. Now we're at the day of reckoning, and there is no effective leadership."

Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent

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