By Trudy Knockless
When tourists take a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry to get a close-up look at New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, most of them turn right back around and get on the next boat to Lower Manhattan.
Staten Island officials and business owners are hoping this will change after a 60-story tall Ferris wheel and an outlet mall are opened in 2016.
“This project will contribute to Staten Island not being the forgotten borough again,” said City Councilwoman Debi Rose of Staten Island (though the borough does have a zoo, museums, parks, lovely beaches and some of the oldest homes in New York City).
On Oct. 30, the City Council gave final approval to the project and its New York Wheel, which will be the largest Ferris wheel in the world. “It is a great example of smart development that helps bring in jobs,” said Rose. Union workers lined the steps of City Hall on Oct. 30, distributing flyers that read, “Staten Island wins when you vote yes on the St. George Wheel and the Empire Outlets.”
Not all Staten Island residents are so sure of the benefits, expressing doubts about increased traffic and crime and how many of the jobs created will be low-pay or part-time work.
“A lot of people are opposed because a lot of small business owners think larger businesses will take away from them,” said Jessica Hull, 29, though she said she thought small businesses would benefit from the increased number of visitors. Keisha Scott, 26, who has been living in Staten Island for 12 years, said, “I don’t think it’s going to benefit Staten Island too much; I don’t think Staten Island needs another mall. There may be a few more jobs with the mall, but I’m not sure how to feel about the wheel.”
New York Wheel, the company responsible for the development of the wheel, which is expected to cost more than $200 million to build, said 600 permanent jobs are estimated to arise out of ticket sales, maintenance and operations. Construction of the wheel – which should begin in 2014 and is expected to last until 2016 – would create an approximate 350 additional temporary jobs, according to the company’s website.
Modeled after other successful wheels, such as the London Eye, the New York Wheel anticipates that as many as 30,000 visitors a day will come for a ride, according to newyorkwheel.com. A ride will take about 38 minutes and cost between $25 and $30, the company said, and the wheel can accommodate up to 1,440 people per ride. A spokesman for the company said it expected to operate in the black from its opening and to pay off its debt within five years.
The outlet mall will offer 350,000 square feet of leasable space, with a mix of fashion, food, and entertainment, as well as a 200-room hotel, according to empireoutletsnyc.com.
Helen Settles, a retired schoolteacher and resident of Staten Island, said she had faith in Councilwoman Rose and believed the $700,000 in the budget to rebuild Cromwell Center, Staten Island’s largest community center, would be used to benefit children of the North Shore neighborhood. “I think she did well in making sure that there was going to be jobs for Staten Islanders, and particularly neighborhoods of color, in which there is great amount of unemployment, and this is good, and this is going to be sustainable in career jobs and not just something temporary,” Settles said.
Bobby Digi, president of the North Shore Business Association, said the development would be good for the Staten Island community, which he said has been the least recognized of all the New York boroughs.
It will “bring jobs to the neighborhood,” which has been “underserved for many years and has the highest rate of unemployment in the city,” he said. Digi also said the community would benefit from “real infrastructural development” — roads, lights and sewage systems. These costs have been allocated in the budget and it is “a perfect opportunity to get certain sections of the community improved,” he said.
According to Richard Marin, president and CEO of the New York Wheel, the wheel is sited where the city wanted it, and the company signed a 99-year lease with the city for the land. “We wanted to have a giant observation wheel on the harbor, they wanted us to put it in this location, they own this land, it was perfectly situated so that we can get the perfect view of the wheel from anywhere in the harbor,” he said.
Marin said the company had about a dozen investors. He compared the New York Wheel to the Eiffel Tower, noting, “You can’t think of Paris without thinking of the Eiffel Tower.” He added that it’s the same with the London Eye.
“There’s something about the circle,” he said, it has “a certain purity to it, because it’s perfection in a sort of geometrical sense.”
The New York Harbor “is the gateway to America,” said Marin. “It faces the Statue of Liberty, and we thought that framing the gateway to America with a wheel was a perfect symbol for the next 99 years of both the beauty of the location of New York Harbor, the significance of the spot …where all the cruise ships and all the immigrants sort of passed through.”
“We’ve picked a spot where the public transportation is perfect, the views are perfect, the totality of the harbor experience is perfect and quite frankly, with the kind of lighting we’re gonna do on it at night, facing the harbor, it’s gonna be a magnificent addition to the skyline of New York,” Marin said.