For 10 years, the Teleport was a barren wasteland. Two buildings totaling 300,000 square feet were empty, with tenants leaving one by one for brighter pastures in New Jersey, and new tenants not flocking to replace them.
Then, in 2008, Richard Nicotra, owner of the nearby Hilton Garden Inn and Staten Island Corporate Park, purchased the former Teleport I and II buildings, hoping to revitalize them into a place where people wanted to work.
Today, only five years later, the buildings, now known as the Corporate Commons, are 90 percent leased.
“What makes me proud is when I get into the glass elevators at those buildings and I look out at the parking lot, and I see it filled with cars,” Nicotra said. “I think about the 10 years when there was not a car in that parking lot.”
When he bought the buildings, Nicotra said they were like a scene from the Twilight Zone: There were desks, coffee cups, papers, pens and furniture but no people. And it had been that way for 10 years, ever since AT&T and its 3,000 employees moved from the Teleport to New Jersey in 2001.
“The ripple effect of losing 3,000 people was devastating to the economy. For 10 years, it just stood that way,” Nicotra said.
Losing a large business and that many workers hurt surrounding Staten Island businesses. Hotels and restaurants had fewer frequenters, and stores had fewer shoppers. With the Teleport a desert when he took over ownership of the buildings, Nicotra knew he needed to make changes.
The first major move was loosening the “onerous” security at the Teleport, working with the Port Authority, which he said understood the dilemma. Tight security was once necessary at the Teleport because of the satellite dishes located there, but they hadn’t been around for years, so the regulations were outdated.
The second change Nicotra made was developing the Teleport into an attractive place for tenants and their employees to work. He used his background as the former owner of Everything Yogurt to open the Commons Café, a healthy breakfast and lunch spot that eliminated complaints from tenants about lack of amenities, put 25 people to work and, at the same time, donated all the profits — $106,000 in the first year — to non-profit organizations in the community.
“I was a tenant in 200 malls around the country (with Everything Yogurt), and for the most part I was treated like garbage,” Nicotra said. “I come from the philosophy that I would treat my tenants like kings, and that’s what I do. You can’t be a great landlord unless you’ve been abused by landlords, and I have over the years. My tenants grow with me and they stay with me, and that’s why we are doing so well.”
Nicotra has plans to expand the Teleport even further. There is land around the buildings where he could build, and he’s currently investigating the possibility of doing so.
“But make no mistake, the office market in Staten Island is tough. The rents that you can get and the cost of building is tough. But this is where we live; this is where we do business,” Nicotra said. “We could make a lot more money if we built a building in Brooklyn or Manhattan, but that’s not where we live. We’re satisfied with what we have here.”
Nicotra is busy with his other projects, as well. Opening two more Staten Island locations for Commons Café as well as franchising the operation are in the works, as is opening a high-end pizza and pasta restaurant in the Corporate Park that will operate on the same theory of donating profits that Commons Café does.
Over at the Hilton, Nicotra built a new tower, adding five floors of bigger guest rooms and suites, a two-story ballroom and a rooftop bar called “Above” that is a combination of Manhattan, Paris and Las Vegas, he said.
Even though his situation looks rosy, Nicotra is quick to admit that times remain challenging. While the Teleport is 90 percent leased and expansion is on the horizon, he’s concerned about poaching tenants from other parts of Staten Island. All his current tenants are from the Island — they’re not attracting outsiders.
“We want more blood, fresher blood, to come in, and we’re just not getting that on Staten Island,” he said. “The tolls continue to kill us. I think that has a devastating effect on our economy and will continue to. It affects us in our wedding business, our room business. It’s cheaper to stay in a hotel in New Jersey than it is to pay the tolls to come to us, then pay the higher room rate to stay with us. The tolls are really keeping our economy in check. We’re becoming more and more isolated here. We’re becoming more and more cannibalistic here.”
While Nicotra admits he could make more money elsewhere, he says he remains committed to Staten Island because this is where he’s from; it’s where his grandparents came in 1910, and it’s where his family has chosen to stay.
But improving his community takes time, work and dedication. He spends $100,000 each year doing maintenance, planting flowers and trees along South Avenue, with the goal to make it the “Park Avenue of Staten Island.” His next vision is to commission a famous artist to develop sculpture along the medians of South Avenue to welcome travelers as they arrive.
“It makes my heart sing when somebody says ‘I go out of my way to drive down South Avenue,’” he said. “We’re here to raise the bar here.”