BJ’s Wholesale wants to come to Staten Island, and they don’t care if residents want their store to open or not. In fact, community opposition to the tune of 1,700 resident letters did nothing to stop the progress on the BJ’s Wholesale Staten Island Project. The Department of Environmental Conservation (a truly strange name for a governmental body that gives permits to builders) granted a permit to the builder to build on the coastal wetland that was the only protection from the flood waters of Super-storm Sandy in Graniteville.
It has been postulated by many environmental scientists, and the City’s own interactive flood maps, that the water that overflowed the banks of the Arthur Kill and flooded in from the Newark Bay would have easily overtaken and drowned the homes located in Regal Park, City West, and the Goethals Community mobile home park on the side of Goethals Road north.
While City Planning and elected officials, including our own City Council members, debate this issue, the project is quietly being green-lighted without any input from residents of the area. In fact, residents who are concerned are being fully ignored and not given a voice.
Considering that this community has been called an “Environmental Justice Community,” being made up of primarily minority and low income individuals, this seems to be a fight that must be won for the sake of racial justice. To that end, several environmental groups are joining forces with racial justice groups to fight for the land to be returned to the people, purchased by the City or the State, and given to the people as a natural area.
Many people are not aware of this, but there are actually no sizable natural parks in Graniteville and Mariners Harbor. One of the only parks that exists in this minority community is the very, very small (4.46 acre) Graniteville Quarry park. Another is a large pond of water, with a few trails around it. The pond itself if 67 acres, and the neighboring Bridge Creek area is about 22 acres of wetland that can be hiked when the weather has been dry. This is just behind the Goethals Community, next to the Goethals Bridge.
Another park is Mariners Marsh Park, which has been closed for an Environmental Impact Study for over 15 years, and residents cannot use this park any longer. While it is quite large, it is not open to the public at this time, and remains closed for an unknown amount of time into the future. This closure and environmental review is due to the EPA’s finding of hazardous materials in the park. Certainly, this is not quite a natural park that people should want to come to if there is hazardous material contained in it.
That is a staggering percentage of residents, and it seems to be quite an injustice that the DEC decided that there would be no public hearing, and they instead issued the builder a permit. Gabriella Velardi-Ward thinks so, and she helped form the Coalition For Wetlands And Forests in 2017 to protect this land.
As a matter of fact, this particular natural area was part of the City’s parks areas back in the 1970s. During the fiscal crisis in that time period, this land was sold to a developer and became private property. Due to the city’s need for money, it was sold in 1975. Over the course of the years since that time, the DEC was actually doing its job, and continually rejected permits by the builder.
This was until 2012, when the builder took the DEC to court and received a settlement allowing them to build on the freshwater wetland, and not the coastal wetland. The coastal wetland is a very small area, which would quickly become polluted if this large store, parking lot, and gas station were built adjacent to them.
The initial argument for protecting the land was the fact that Super-storm Sandy caused massive amounts of flooding all over Staten Island, especially in the Midland Beach area. It has been pontificated that, had the woodlands in that area not been built over by homes and businesses, the damage and death toll from that storm might have been lower, since there was nothing to stop the storm surge.
During Sandy, these wetlands, as they presently exist, are credited with saving the homes in Regal Park and the Goethals Community. Unfortunately, this is all postulation, as the only way to know for sure would be to cut everything down and wait for the next super-storm to arrive.
Of course, then it would be too late to do anything about it. All of the safety measures that were put in place by BJ’s, including their plan to build the lot above street level, would literally cause water that comes in from any storm to run downhill toward the homes in the area.
And did you know that there were 2 torrential rain storms per week last summer? While this summer has been less rainy than that, what would have happened if these homes were not protected by the wetland? A sump pump will not do anything for your house if the sump pump itself is underwater.
According to Carl Alderson, who is a Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Habitat Restoration Specialist and Licensed Landscape Architect for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had an educational talk about his very subject, the Staten Island wetland that BJ’s wants to occupy. In the talk, which you can view in the video below, he walked through why this area is in danger of flooding. First of all, one tree can absorb about 100 gallons of water per day, and then evaporate that water through its leaves. There are 1,800 trees in this wetland, with the capacity to absorb up to 18,000 gallons of water per day. The land itself is also capable of absorbing some water as well.
The current Environmental Impact Statement that was submitted and accepted by the DEC does not compare this development to not developing the land. Rather, it compares this large development to a smaller development, since this land was already zoned for use as a strip mall prior to the rezoning that they were applying for. According to Gabriella and other environmental scientists, this is not the way the EIS’ should be done. An Environmental Impact Statement should show the impact of development on no development at all, but the DEC accepted their EIS as submitted. This is part of the legal issue with this development.
Another issue, that is equally important, is that there is a lack of open spaces for the community. Most residents do not even realize that when they walk into this area that has a Parks Department sign, that much of the land is actually private property. This explains why it is so uncared for, with debris and rotting cars all over the property.
There is a large issue that the Coalition for Wetlands and Forests have run into at this point, that the community might be able to help with. It is, sadly, a technicality issue. After the permit was granted (which, as stated above, was done despite the fact that letters were received from 37% of residents of the area), there was supposed to be a period of 4 months in which the SICWF should have been able to file an appeal. However, this land was somehow designated as a special case, and the CWF was told (after filing their appeal) that they only had 30 days in which to do so.
At this point, they have already been before a judge on this technicality, where the builder attempted to dismiss the case due to the statute of limitations of one month, but this was disallowed by the judge. However, the court asked why they did not file in 2017, when the project had first been announced by the builder. Legal steps were followed that are on the books, and that follow the law, so the SICWF is appealing the deadline of 2017.
However, at this point, they cannot even discuss the merits of the case. They have to get past the technicality hurdle first, in order to stop the builder from demolishing this natural area. The DEC should not have ignored the residents in the first place, and issued the permit to the builder despite clear community opposition. Were these residents ignored by the city as a result of racial injustice?
Fortunately, at this point, the SICWF has joined forces with several Racial Justice groups, and they have formed sort of a coalition to fight these injustices. According to Staten Island’s own city councilwoman, ALL residents deserve a park and natural areas. All residents, of course, except those in Graniteville and Mariners, as discussed above. Why do the residents of other areas have a 193 acre park, when Graniteville residents don’t even have a 5 acre park.
Debi Rose is also quoted as saying, “The era of haphazard or nonexistent planning on Staten Island is over.” It can be argued, though, that this particular project is an absolute mess in terms of planning, and that very little or no planning went into it. Not only does it take away one of the few natural areas in the Mariner’s Harbor and Graniteville community, but it will be a disaster to the community when another super-storm does come. Even if another super-storm never comes, and there were instead torrential rains every two weeks in another summer or two, and this wetland was not here, where would the water go?
According to a statement from Debi Rose from 2017, when she voted to approve this project, the BJ’s Wholesale Staten Island Project takes some of the stormwater mitigation concerns into account, and she fought for and won many concessions from the developer, including increased numbers of bioswales (which collect rainwater and divert it from city stormdrains, which are already overwhelmed), along with landscaping along South Avenue, and an agreement that all trucks will use Forest Avenue to enter and exit the parking lot and delivery areas.
These bioswales and other mitigation efforts will do nothing to preserve the wildlife in this area. This area is currently a resting space for migratory bird species, and many types of animals call this wetland their home.
In addition, the other concerns raised by the Staten Island Coalition of Wetlands and Forests, such as the reduced amount of natural areas for residents to use, and the traffic and small business economic impact that is likely from this retail store, which will compete with local gas stations and other small businesses, were not addressed by any members of the City Council, or by the agreements reached with them. As Ms Rose stated, there could have easily been a simple strip mall built, without any additional input from the City Council or any other governmental department, as this land was already zoned for that.
A strip mall, though, would not have brought the traffic issues, small business impact issues, and racial injustice issues that this particular type of wholesale store is likely to bring. It might have even benefited the community by bringing more small businesses into the area. There are many small businesses in this area that are likely to be impacted by the building of this wholesale store, and many of them may go out of business. This would mean jobs lost for residents of the area who currently work for the small businesses. So, a net gain could easily become a net loss, depending on how many businesses are unable to remain in the area and compete with BJ’s.
Debi Rose also stated that this particular area is a food desert, and that there are no grocery stores. However, there is presently a large Western Beef supermarket a very short distance away on Forest Avenue. This BJ’s would, in fact, compete with this grocery store as well as other businesses in the area.
Finally, BJ’s Wholesale is an exclusive store, with a relatively high cost of membership in order to shop in the store. While for some, the cost is not significant, to many in low income areas, it is unaffordable. As a result, many who are low income, in this community, will be unable to afford the cost of membership.
This means that the majority of shoppers at this store will be from other areas of the island, who are closer to this store than to the current Costco Wholesale, located by the Mall. It will not help to bring groceries to residents on public assistance, as public assistance will not pay for the cost of membership, and $50 yearly membership is a lot for many people in the area. They do accept EBT, as of 2009, but again, the cost of membership is not waived for SNAP beneficiaries.
The two-fold issues mentioned in this article should be very concerning for residents of Staten Island. It is hoped by the coalitions that are forming, that the Governor or the Borough President can be convinced, by community pressure, to purchase this small area of land, and make it into an official park. All elected officials have discretionary funds with which to do just this.
That way, it can be a park and a wetland for years to come. Wildlife will have a place to safely call their forever home, and this community can rest easier when the next storm surge threatens their neighborhood. It is possible that the movie theater, storage area, Home Depot, and other recent projects were responsible for the re-zoning of the flood maps that occurred after Sandy. Perhaps this time, the community can think ahead and prevent another re-zoning in the future due to poor planning.