NEW YORK — Staten Islanders tongue-lashed a proposal to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel in a hurricane evacuation zone during a public meeting Tuesday night, questioning both whether it would hold up during a storm of Sandy’s magnitude and also the decision to go ahead with the meeting despite continuing recovery efforts.
The 625-foot-tall wheel would be located near the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island. The project is backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the city’s representative on major development projects, but would be funded with $250 million in private investment.
Among those opposed were an Occupy Wall Street protestor and a man wearing a “GREED KILLS” t-shirt, who directed particular ire at the president and CEO of developer New York Wheel, LLC, former Bear Stearns banker Rich Marin. But the harshest criticism may have come from local City Council member Debi Rose.
Rose stood side by side with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the wheel’s developers when the Ferris wheel idea was unveiled in September. On Tuesday night, she stood up with something different to say.
“Everyone knows that Staten Island was ground zero for Hurricane Sandy,” Rose said. The meeting “should have been postponed, but it wasn’t.”
Her criticism of the meeting’s timing echoed comments earlier in the day from City Council Minority Leader James Oddo to the Huffington Post, and a letter from all three Staten Island City Council members to New York City Deputy Mayor Robert Steel.
Were Rose and those council members to turn against the project, they could doom it. The City Council will need to approve zoning changes for the plan to go forward, and members from other areas are generally deferential toward local representatives.
That does not seem to be happening so far: Rose, Oddo and Council member Vincent Ignizio also said in their letter that they were “generally supportive of the project.”
Members of the general public, however, were far less forgiving at the meeting.
“It’s sort of like an insult to our residents here, that we’re just trying to embrace a wonderful time [the Ferris wheel] when people are so devastated,” said Nancy Rooney, a nurse. “I think the timing is poor and we need to reconsider our priorities on this Island.”
Stephanie Woodard said during the meeting Tuesday night, “Part of our island was just devastated in the floodplains. And this is actually going to be built in the floodplain: enormous, vulnerable structures.”
“After they’ve had to clean up a few times, are they just going to leave us with a rusting pile of junk?” she asked. “What’s going to happen to it? Where’s it going to fall and who’s it going to fall on?”
The question of whether the Ferris wheel would be able to withstand hurricanes will likely play a major role in its approval process in the wake of Sandy. New York Wheel said its structure would be designed to withstand 300 mile per hour winds — far stronger than those of the most recent storm — and that the Ferris wheel would also be able to ride out surges.
But the developers have acknowledged that their project lies in 100- and 500-year FEMA floodplains. David Goldfarb, the corresponding secretary for the St. George Civic Association, claimed that a previous proposal for the land near the ferry acknowledged that much of it would be unusable due to flooding concerns.
In an interview after the meeting, however, Marin of New York Wheel claimed that the structure would actually improve the area’s protections against the sort of deadly storm surges that claimed many lives on Staten Island during Sandy. The wheel would block powerful surges from hitting a retaining wall that protects Richmond Terrace, a major thoroughfare on Staten Island’s North Shore, and the utility lines behind it.
“The elements don’t smack up against that wall and cause potential deterioration or breach of that wall,” Marin said.
He also brushed away concerns over the timing of the meeting and the speed with which the proposal is proceeding. In light of the “devastation” caused by Sandy, he argued, citing the long rebuilding process for Lower Manhattan after 9/11, “the fact that we were already in process was a stroke of good fortune for this island.
“Where else is Staten Island going to see $500 million in private investment coming to its shores to be built and be productive within three years?”
Marin was similarly dismissive of the references to his past at Bear Stearns. In 2007 he was fired from his job as chief of a division of the company that managed two troubled hedge funds, due in part to criticism of his reviewing the Kevin Costner film “Mr. Brooks” while the company imploded at the start of the financial crisis.
“Sure, I’ve fallen down, like a number of people have, over the years,” Marin said on Tuesday night. “But I’ve done a lot of good things. People keep giving me the responsibility to do big things. I must be doing something right. And my guess is that this is a going to be very succesful project and my investors will be happy that I was doing it for them.”