Week 5/6

May 08, 2023

On April 27, I spoke with City Council Minority Leader Joseph Borelli of District 51, located in Staten Island. In his words, his district is the whitest in the city, and the area he lives in is very different from the rest of the city in the sense that there are trails and “beaches where nobody bothers you” near his home. A member of the Common Sense Caucus, Borelli states that the needs of car-dependent outer borough areas are different from those of inner suburbs and dense urban areas, though his district’s needs are similar to those of Majority Whip Selvena Brooks-Powers. Borelli is rather well-versed in the history of Staten Island and was able to provide me with lots of insight into the complex land use issues faced by the borough recently addressed by the Staten Island Special Districts Zoning Update, which City Planning Commission Director Dan Garodnick briefly addressed when I met with him in Week 1.

Contextualizing the current land use policy in Staten Island, Borelli began with the 1964 completion of the Verrazano Bridge. Following this, there was a projected explosion in Staten Island’s population density and volume, resulting in accommodations for cars and buses. The population density took closer to 50 years to reach the level that was initially expected soon after the bridge’s creation, yet there are now less opportunities for public transit due to the phasing out of cable cars, trolleys and other forms of transportation that are no longer used in the city. With current zoning restrictions, the borough is unable to add more train lines than the single one visible on the subway map. Zoning restrictions also essentially prohibit homeowners in Special Districts from adding additional structures (i.e. pools) to their homes without the review of the City Planning Commission, whereas only architects are needed to approve such changes through much of the city. This makes renovations slower and more expensive for homeowners, flooding the City Planning Commission with busywork that comes down to approving pools in individual backyards, which many would agree is not an efficient use of anyone’s time. The DeBlasio administration attempted to circumvent this, though proposed policy changes would reduce the amount of lot area homeowners may cover with nonpermeable surfaces among other significant environmental regulations. Borelli stated that this initiative would effectively make everything in Staten Islanders’ backyards illegal, partially due to the off-street parking requirement in low density zones. The proposed changes were controversial and ultimately did not advance through City Council, with inaction being prolonged and Borelli remarking that De Blasio “overplayed his wokeness” and was too environmentally focused in an issue that didn’t need such environmental attention.

Through my interaction with Borelli, I learned of concepts in Staten Island that were completely foreign to me. Parts of his district don’t have sewers, forcing some to use septic tanks, which are relatively rare in NYC; people often lease cars to traverse Staten Island due to the lack of public transit, which is generally common in low-density areas but uncommon in NYC; according to Borelli, the prevalence of NIMBY ideology in Staten Island causes policy in the borough to amount to “don’t build anything ever.” The cost and political will necessary to make changes that have repeatedly been discussed and dismissed have certainly been factors in the city’s inaction, as Staten Island is something of an anomaly in terms of size and landscape. Because of this, Borelli believes it is important that Staten Island secede from the city. Using the example of trains, projects to rezone Staten Island to incorporate more rail lines have been proposed and dismissed time and time again, with no real action being taken; Borelli insists that if Staten Island secedes from New York City, this novel Staten Island would be able to raise money for additional train lines on its own. While I have only ever passed through Staten Island while driving to other places, Borelli invited me to visit him in Staten Island and allow him to directly show me some of the issues Staten Islanders face, with the challenge that I should use public transit to reach him. This is an offer I intend to take him up on.

The hearing I planned to attend on May 4 was deferred to May 10. This hearing with the Committee on Land Use will review several Land Use Applications related to potential permits and minor zoning changes in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

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