On a sweltering afternoon outside the Regal UA Staten Island & RPX, Gabriella Velardi-Ward prepares to take a walk around the woods. She’s come armed with her walking stick and a phone for photographing whatever standing water she can find. But first she needs to show me her flood maps.
In this northwest corner of the Forgotten Borough, Velardi-Ward is one of dozens of Staten Islanders who have been waging a battle largely outside of the wider city spotlight, a stand against City Hall that they feel is a matter of life and death for the people who live in this part of the city. Those who've been attending to, photographing, and fighting to preserve this land for over two years call this area the Graniteville Wetlands and Forest, though it’s also been known as the Graniteville Swamp.
One can see why they chose the more flattering name. Oak trees tower alongside maples. Dragonflies flit by as if hired by central casting. It’s every bit as verdant and cool as anything New York urbanites travel miles up the Hudson to see on a weekend.
But if a multi-millionaire real estate scion—assisted by a cadre of de Blasio appointees, cooperating politicians and a highly placed lobbying firm—had had their way, two-thirds of this would already be gone, says Velardi-Ward, replaced by “a gas station, a BJ’s [Wholesale Club], and a parking lot for 835 cars.”
Velardi-Ward, who co-founded the Coalition for Wetlands and Forests two years ago to fight the tearing down of this forest, says the wetlands are crucial to helping prevent a repeat of Superstorm Sandy's devastating storm surge, which killed 24 Staten Islanders, more deaths than anywhere else the storm hit. Spreading out large storm maps she created by zooming in on the Staten Island parts of the Department of City Planning’s own maps, she notes that during Sandy, the western side of Staten Island, which is ringed with wetlands, was spared the flooding that devastated other parts of the island.
The land's owner is Josif A. LLC, a holding company that was incorporated in 2011 by Charles Alpert, a third-generation real estate developer who ranked 88th in 2016 on then-public advocate Letitia James’s yearly list of NYC’s 100 Worst Landlords. Four months later, the company began leasing the land to BJ’s Wholesale Club, even though it was not zoned for anything near as large as a BJ’s store, which average 100,000 square feet. The Alperts bought the land in two parcels, one in 1977 and one in 1984. At that time the city’s freshwater wetlands map was not yet made; when it was, in 1987, and the Alperts found themselves in the position of owning potentially protected land.
The developers responded aggressively, seeking ways to work around the protected status. In 2011, they petitioned the state Freshwater Appeals Board seeking a permit to build on the site despite the presence of wetlands. Moreover, they sought to entirely skip the public review process and the state’s environmental review process, and to instead strong-arm the state into agreeing to issue a permit within 90 days. But state attorney Udo Drescher wrote back a no, saying granting the requests would turn the review process into “a farce”—though the state would, of course, review the application once it went through the proper channels.
In 2017, the local community board, in line with a growing groundswell of opposition, voted with so many abstentions on a measure in support of the plan that it failed to pass. Yet in October 2017, the New York City Council approved a zoning variance nearly unanimously, with most councilmembers following the lead of Staten Island North Shore City Council Member Deborah Rose in voting for the plan. Borough President James Oddo had also approved it that year, albeit with several requested conditions including traffic improvements and tying remaining wetlands into the neighboring Graniteville Swamp Park.
In a statement emailed to Gothamist, Rose defends her position, arguing that Alpert's company conceivably could have developed the site with smaller manufacturing or storage facilities even without the variance. “I don’t think those who question my vote understand that a no vote would have resulted in an as-of-right development with the same, if not larger, footprint, but without commitments from the developer for increased permeability, bioswales, solar panels, skylights, and more," she writes. "I negotiated to the last minute to ensure a project that makes the area more green and resilient.”
Opponents of the plan, though, note that no one other than BJ's was looking to build on the land, and BJ's almost certainly wouldn't have wanted it without the rezoning for a large store. (BJ’s officials did not return requests for comment.) Also, the previous zoning of the plot as an M1-1 manufacturing zone brought with it many limitations the developer would have had to work around, such as stores no larger than 10,000 square feet.
Brooklyn councilmember Inez Barron, who was the lone vote against the rezoning, tells Gothamist, “As I understood the plan it would call for the removal of hundreds of trees as well as loss of wetlands, and we know that wetlands are a natural protection and a natural barrier for the water that comes in during events like Superstorm Sandy.” The council’s support for the project, she says, “baffles me.”
One explanation could be the big guns that Alpert brought to the fight in the meantime. In 2016 and 2017, JC Dwight—the real estate company Alpert is CEO of, and which shares a Madison Avenue address and floor with other LLC’s registered in his name, including Josif A. LLC—paid $420,000 to Herrick, Feinstein LLP, one of the city's largest lobbying firms.
According to the city's lobbying database, Herrick, Feinstein was hired to make Alpert's case to the Department of City Planning, to Staten Island borough president James Oddo, and to North Shore councilmember Deborah Rose. Among Herrick's registered lobbyists on behalf of Dwight: Former New York City comptroller and longtime U.S. Rep. Liz Holtzman.
(Gothamist was not able to reach JC Dwight for comment by press time.)
Construction was reportedly supposed to break ground on the island in 2018, with a proposed opening for BJ’s in late 2019. But then an unlikely folk hero emerged: In the latter half of 2018 the state Department of Environmental Conservation abruptly mandated that the developer wait till spring of this year to search the parcel for signs of elusive eastern mud turtle, a species endangered in New York State.
The wetlands survived another winter and spring waiting for the turtles’ yearly migration period of late May and early June, when the owner was to send a consultant out to set turtle traps. (Velardi-Ward and others say the contractor, who is certified as a qualified bog turtle surveyor by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ideally should have looked a little earlier in spring.) In July, the developer’s environmental consulting firm, who had contracted the search out to a wildlife specialist, reported that the survey found two common snapping turtles, but no eastern mud turtles.
With the turtle holdup cleared, the development is currently in a 30-day public comment period, ending August 30, regarding the freshwater wetlands permit it is seeking from the state DEC. The activists are gathering public comments for submission, in hopes of prompting a hearing on the permit.
Paula Segal of the nonprofit environmental justice organization Take Root Justice, who is providing legal support to the local activists, has also threatened a court challenge over the project's environmental impact statement, which she says is insufficient because while it compared the BJ's plan to what could have been built as-of-right without the rezoning, it assumed in both cases that the site would receive the state freshwater wetlands permit, something that had not yet taken place, the same permit the state refused to be bullied into issuing in 2012, and the very permit that is now up for review.
“If [regulatory agencies] don’t require the developer to write a proper environmental impact statement, they will be sued," promises Segal. "They will not be able to build anything based on the study they have now.”
Mitchell Korbey, a partner at Herrick Feinstein and chair of it’s Land Use and Environmental Group, insists that there is nothing wrong with the EIS that was filed. “It was approved by the city after an exhaustive review,” claims Korbey. “The city of New York certified this application and said it was complete. The city planning commission said it was complete.”
The "certification" Korbey refers to is the city's own environmental review process, called CEQR (City Environmental Quality Review), which took place before the council's consideration of the zoning variance. CEQR has long come under fire for being more of a rubber stamp than a comprehensive review: The website of the mayor's office in fact specifies that it is "not an approval process," but a process of "disclosure." (The Pratt Center for Community Development issued a scathing report last year accusing CEQR of ignoring neighborhood socioeconomic impacts and community displacements.) And since the year 2000, not a single development project put forward to City Planning has ever failed to pass CEQR.
The EPA itself notes that wetlands provide benefits that include "natural water quality improvement, flood protection, shoreline erosion control” and more. It’s because these benefits are well established that about 10 of the 28 Graniteville acres have been designated as protected wetlands and an adjacent buffer zone, even under the city variance.
But numerous experts we spoke with agreed that protecting tidal wetlands where they are today is not nearly conservative enough. Because of climate change and sea level rise, as well as other factors, wetlands migrate over time. More land conservation than what is now mandated is necessary to account for what the island will need for protection ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, long after the owner has turned a profit and walked away from the community.
“None of us have any assurances,” says Jim Scaracella, a lifetime Staten Islander who is active with the Natural Resources Protective Association, a Staten Island organization that conducts volunteer beach and wetlands clean-ups across the island.
Scarcella, who joined Velardi-Ward and neighborhood groups like the Richmondtown and Clarke Ave. Civic Association to oppose the project, also wonders who will be in charge of maintaining a manmade retaining pond promised by the developer, and if or when the city or state will require a study on the impact of development, with its loss of hundreds of air-cleaning trees and increased truck traffic, for the asthma sufferers nearby: “We can’t afford it,”says Scarcella. “There’s so many kids with asthma on the North Shore. We can’t afford 1800 trees going down.”
The nearby residential neighborhood of Mariners Harbor has the greatest number of Medicaid recipients who are also asthma sufferers in the entire borough, as well as increased particulate matter pollution in that section of the island and an odiforous New Jersey industrial corridor just across the water. (Many islanders have also pointed out that nearby North Shore retail corridors have been falling prey to store closures, and that building new developments instead of reviving existing ones is folly.)
“The east shore is getting a 5.3-mile sea wall," Scarcella says, referring to a $615 million project that will, tellingly, include the restoration of wetlands. "What does the North Shore get?”
Velardi-Ward soon takes me to another wetlands border, this time abutting the Goethals Community, the city’s only mobile home park, located within eyesight of the entrance to the Goethals Bridge leading to New Jersey. As we walk next to marsh grasses swaying far above either of our heads, Velardi-Ward reminisces about a recent meeting of the group with local officials.
“At the meeting somebody was talking about improving the infrastructure on Staten Island,” says Velardi-Ward, as she stops dead in her tracks. She does that a lot, to make a point, to take a photo, or even to collect seeds from any of the rarer plants. (Velardi-Ward herself is a former architectural designer and construction supervisor for the NYC Parks Department, who worked in the hard-hit Midlands Beach section of Staten Island post Superstorm Sandy.) “ But we have to also start talking about this,” she gestures to the wetlands and the forest beyond, “as the infrastructure of Staten Island.”
Correction: Due to a misreading of the environmental impact statement for the Graniteville project, the original version of this article initially stated incorrectly that representatives of the city Department of Transportation and Landmarks Preservation Commission opposed the development plan. Neither those agencies nor their individual employees filed comments critical of the plan. Gothamist regrets the error.