As the city grapples with rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, developers are pressing ahead with plans for an ambitious addition to the shoreline of storm-torn Staten Island: the world's largest Ferris wheel.
Sandy's flooding spurred some changes to the nearly $500 million project, which includes an outlet mall and hotel. But developers haven't slowed it or scaled it back. Supporters say Staten Island needs the boost now more than ever.
Yet some residents, a city watchdog and a planning group have asked whether it makes sense to push ahead with a 625-foot-tall tourist attraction, set partly in a flood zone, before officials take a comprehensive look at how to build smarter after Sandy. And some say it's unseemly to talk about amusement rides when Sandy has left a trail of loss.
The storm gave wheel developer Richard Marin "momentary pause," he said. But he quickly decided to keep going on a project he considers a one-of-a-kind boon for the city's oft-dubbed "forgotten borough."
"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 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.
The city Economic Development Corp., which is playing a leading role in the reviews, says it's "as committed as ever" to the plan. Private money will pay for the project, and the city would get $2.5 million a year in rent for two parking lots where the wheel, mall and hotel would be.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg envisions the attraction becoming one of the city's premier draws, offering vistas of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty to as many as 30,000 riders a day. Sen. Charles Schumer has called the wheel "Staten Island's Eiffel Tower." Developers aim to get it going by the end of 2015.
The project is several miles from the Staten Island communities Sandy struck hardest. Still, the storm pushed 3 to 4 feet of seawater onto the wheel and mall sites, developers said.
The project was already planned so ground floors would sit above what the federal government has, at least to this point, considered a once-in-100-year flood. But the 100-shop outlet center and 200-room hotel are already being raised another 2 feet. The wheel's terminal building may also be moved up.
Nonetheless, since Sandy, the developers have been making sure the buildings can withstand flooding, Marin said. Surfaces on the wheel terminal's ground floor are now being planned in marble or other materials that can withstand seawater. Marin said developers are ensuring that electrical and mechanical equipment will be 30 feet above sea level, and the wheel itself will be designed to withstand sustained winds up to 129 mph, far stronger than Sandy's.
Mall and hotel developer BFC Partners is also elevating key equipment and looking at stone or a water-resistant wall material for the most vulnerable store spaces, partner Joseph Ferrara said. After residents expressed concerns that the mall's four finger-like buildings could channel a storm surge into the neighborhood, the company is thinking about designing the garages to serve as massive retention pools if needed, said Ferrara, who lives on Staten Island.
"Obviously, my heart goes out to the people who did lose what they lost, but we have to just forge ahead," he said, pointing to the amenities, 1,200 construction jobs and 1,250 permanent jobs the combined development is expected to create. "To me, that's an incredible opportunity that Staten Island should not lose out on."
The developers' stormproofing plans have addressed some residents' concerns, said David Goldfarb, an officer in a nearby neighborhood group. While some residents have misgivings, particularly about traffic, there's also an appetite for seeing something rise on a property where development plans have been broached and shelved for decades, he said.
But in Sandy's wake, some Staten Island residents are questioning whether it's the right time and place for the attraction.
Nancy Rooney, a nurse who lives and works on the island, went to a public meeting about the project last month and left with a rueful feeling about it.
"It was in poor taste to be discussing a Ferris wheel and all this glamor — it was very hard to embrace this when you knew that your colleagues and their family members were devastated, and there were people who don't have heat or electricity or homes," she said later.
Several City Council members and state legislators said in a letter they were aghast that the meeting was held little more than two weeks after the Oct. 29 storm, though they remained "generally supportive" of the project.
Marin said that developers were aware of the concerns, but that the meeting would have taken months to reschedule because of public-notice requirements.
Others say the wheel should wait until the city thinks through what Sandy will mean for waterfront building.
"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.
But to Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, Sandy's blow is no reason to step back from what he sees as a transformative project for the battered borough. If anything, it's just the opposite.
"We have to show the community, and we have to show the world, we're coming back," he said.
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