Year in Review: What Affected Borough Business Most in 2019?

For the Staten Island business community, the launch of 2019 was best defined by uncertainty.

While the national economic outlook was positive in January, major setbacks seemed to plague local business owners here: Plans for the highly anticipated New York Wheel had just been dashed, a proposed homeless shelter that threatened the North Shore’s ongoing revitalization was being battled by CB1 and the development of several major commercial projects were plagued by construction delays.

But as the year progressed, some of these fiscal hiccups were stifled while others were accepted, forcing retailers to either reinvent or move on.

Here’s a look back at the top five stories that had the largest impact on the borough’s business climate and where those buzz-worthy episodes stand today.

Empire Outlets Grand Opening

This much anticipated retail complex celebrated its partial grand opening on May 15, introducing stores like Nordstrom Rack, Crocs, Nike and True Religion to the borough.

“We’re getting about 160,000 to 180,000 visitors per week and that’s with only about 20 shops currently open,” Joe Ferrara, principal of BFC Partners reported in June, a full month after New York City’s first outlet mall was launched. “And the bulk of our traffic is coming from the big orange boat – statistics are showing that 63 percent of shoppers are arriving on the Ferry. And those statistics will only continue to grow as the rest of the center opens up.”

The project, which broke ground in 2015, was big news for Staten Island, which gained hundreds of jobs from both its construction and eventual launch. The 350,000 square foot center should include 100 designer outlets when complete, but only approximately 35 were open at the time of publication.
Empire’s developers aren’t deterred by the delays however, insisting that the space is 80 percent leased. And while major food and beverage options like Shake Shack have yet to launch, the signage and build-out are already in place; a hopeful indicator that the site will reach full capacity in 2020.

The Wheel

When project developers announced that plans for the embattled New York Wheel were officially dead on Oct. 23, 2018, a small contingent of Staten Island officials expressed hope that the Wheel might still receive yet another chance. Members of the SIEDC, a major cheerleader of the Wheel and its lasting impact on the borough, even publicly released suggestions for “Team Two.” But more than a year has passed since the privately funded landmark fell victim to construction delays and contractor feuds and while news of a smaller, “London Eye” like proposal circulated in August, there has been zero indication of that rescue since, let alone an official announcement for the abandoned site’s future.

“This is disappointing news because I believed the Wheel would be a net plus for our borough,” noted Borough President James Oddo when the project was first dissolved. “There are plenty of recriminations that will fester, but our work at Borough Hall is now focused on ensuring a smooth transition of the parking garage so commuters will be unaffected, as well as working with the city to resolve expeditiously all of the ‘what now’ questions. I have already spoken to NYC EDC President James Patchett, and these dialogues are underway.”

Work on the Wheel, which had been in progress for more than five years, was halted in May of 2017 after a highly publicized feud began over project delays and work payments between the New York Wheel’s developer and the project’s contractor, Holland-based Mammoet-Starneth. The contractor was fired, counter lawsuits were filed and Mammoet-Starneth declared bankruptcy in December of 2017, listing monthly storage payments for Wheel parts at $700,000 in court documents.

A standstill period ensued and deadlines were extended but the project’s fate was ultimately sealed when project developers waived their rights to ownership of the Wheel’s components. But the SIEDC, citing the project’s massive foundation pour and bases that are irrevocably in the ground, did not give up hope for this project as the year progressed.

“Team Two will have less expenses ($400 million already invested) and will have learned from Team One’s mistakes (contractor, agency delays, community support),” the agency noted in an email. “What are the other choices? The entire complex was designed to have a major international attraction, draw tourists off the Ferry, take a spin and then hopefully spend money at the Outlets, Lighthouse Point, Richmond County Bank Ballpark and the St. George Theater. Building something there without the same vision devalues the entire complex.”

Homeless Shelter

Staten Island residents and local business owners showed opposition to the city’s plans to erect a 200-family homeless shelter on the North Shore this past March, voicing their concerns to Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker and current president and CEO of the non-profit Women in Need (WIN), which is set to use the shelter.

“The city is still refusing to listen to input from local business owners and residents who will be directly affected by the absurd location of this shelter,” noted local business owner Peter Lisi, who vehemently opposed the shelter since its announcement in 2018.

Lisi, who said he is not against the presence of another homeless shelter in the borough, instead questioned the city’s judgment regarding its placement at 44 Victory Boulevard – a site which has been historically categorized as neglected and dangerous for years and is now currently slated to benefit from the Bay Street Corridor rezoning plan and resulting Downtown Staten Island revival.

But despite community opposition, the Department of Homeless Services announced its ultimate decision to secure the site in May with construction slated to begin in the winter of 2020. The Staten Island Downtown Alliance continues to protest the planned shelter and a lawsuit against the city is currently in the works.

Corporate Commons Three

With a total of 11 buildings, 200 tenants and more than 10,000 daily visitors to their Corporate Park, The Nicotra Group has firmly established itself as Staten Island’s largest private real estate developer, adding beautiful art, architecture and nature preserves to a mile-long stretch of land in Bloomfield. And in 2019, Lois and Richard Nicotra made further strides in adding yet another couple of acres to their portfolio – continuing the construction of a new, well-appointed office building, rooftop garden and vineyard on the West Shore of the borough.

“This is one of the biggest projects we’ve ever undertaken,” noted Richard Nicotra, who owns and manages The Corporate Park of Staten Island with wife Lois. “This property will feature another socially responsible restaurant, a vineyard and a 40,000 square foot organic rooftop farm. It is going to be a great addition to the property and we are truly excited about all of the wonderful details that we are going to include.”

This newest project, called Corporate Commons Three, is being developed on a nine acre site and will feature an eight-story, 330,000 square foot LEED certified, Class A office building complete with finishes and amenities that you would expect to find in Manhattan. CetraRuddy, an international award-winning architecture, planning and interior design firm which recently published an extensive white paper on the future of Staten Island, is working on this project for The Nicotra Group.

“Lois and I travel all over the country and the world and are inspired by all of these wonderful projects in which art and landscaping are the star,” Nicotra said. “And that is exactly what we’ve tried to bring here to South Avenue. This is one street that doesn’t have strip mall shops and neon signs flashing. Our goal is to continue to build a true neighborhood of corporate buildings where Staten Islanders enjoy coming to work, play and visit.”
The last structural beam was added to the building in April during a “topping-off” ceremony. Nicotra says this property will add 2,500 more jobs to the borough in the coming year.

BIDs Continue to Expand

With a mission of improving conditions for business in a specific area, generating jobs and improving the quality of life for those who use a particular district, local Business Improvement Districts have helped boost New York City’s economy since the early 1970s. And throughout the past decade, several BIDs have cropped up on Staten Island, making improvements to a variety of neighborhoods in the borough.

“My original goal was to change the dynamic between government and local business,” noted Mid-Island Republican Councilman and Minority Leader Steven Matteo, who is responsible for the formation of two of the Island’s BIDs – West Shore and New Dorp Lane as well as the Richmond Road and Victory Boulevard Merchants’ Associations. “Small business is the backbone of our economy, we want them to succeed, but many business owners see government as an obstacle to their success. My goal was to change that perception.”

Matteo, who proposed forming a New Dorp Merchants’ Association when he was running for the City Council seat in 2013, with a mission of bringing the Lane back to its heyday, says he is a strong proponent of BIDs because they keep neighborhoods clean and safe and help boost local business.

“By forming a BID, these community members and business owners are gaining a voice and a seat at the table,” Matteo said. “If you have the desire, form the steering committee, get the ball rolling. BIDs bring positive change to all of our borough’s commercial corridors.”

There are currently four active BIDs in the borough – Forest Avenue, West Shore, South Shore and New Dorp Lane – with one more on Victory Boulevard currently in the legislative approval process. The Richmond Road Merchants Association, which was formed recently, is currently readying to apply for BID approval and an effort to create a North Shore BID was announced this summer. The Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Staten Island are behind the push, uniting local business owners along Bay Street Corridor. We’ll keep an eye on their progress in 2020.