Staten Island: The Fifth Wheel of NYC?

On an average weekday, around 66,000 riders, many of them tourists, board the (free) Staten Island ferry, which connects lower Manhattan to NYC's most isolated borough. For the tourists, once the boat arrives at St George Terminal in Staten Island, they exit, and then immediately queue back up for the return boat to Manhattan.  This is a conundrum that has vexed Staten Island officials for years. People are arriving at their shore by the (literal) boatload, but never go farther than the terminal. How do they get them outside?

Many visitors ride the ferry, with its iconic orange fleet, for the unbeatable (and free!) views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline.

Many visitors ride the ferry, with its iconic orange fleet, for the unbeatable (and free!) views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline.

The city's northernmost borough, and the only one connected to the mainland, the Bronx, at least has Yankee Stadium, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Bronx Zoo to draw in tourists, plus some other treasures (more than most think!). What does its southernmost borough have to sell to tourists?

The Staten Island faithful would be happy to tell you: Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, historic Fort Wadsworth, the Lighthouse Museum, and more. But, as of now, that is not enough to draw tourists. So politicians have two big projects in the works to up the borough's profile.

The first, and more high-profile, is the New York Wheel. Observation wheels have been a huge economic boon to cities-- most famously, the London Eye-- and Staten Island is building one that will dwarf its predecessors (630-ft/192.0-m tall to the 443-ft/135-m of its London counterpart). A single rotation will accommodate up to 1,440 riders.

It is part of a large project for the waterfront that will also include the Empire Outlets retail complex. It is scheduled to open in Spring of next year... though that date has been bumped back already due to construction delays.

Will you travel to Staten Island to ride this?

Will you travel to Staten Island to ride this?

Further inland, a perhaps even more ambitious project is coming along.

Staten Island was once most famous for the Fresh Kills landfill, which for decades operated as the principal landfill for NYC's garbage. Covering over 2,200 acres (890 ha), it was once the largest landfill, as well as human-made structure, in the entire world. Urban legends even persisted, though false, that it was so large it was visible from space. And boy, did it smell lovely!

The landfill was closed in March 2001, but temporarily reopened later that year as a sorting ground for a large amount of the rubble from the World Trade Center. But it has not taken in garbage since.

What An Incredible Smell You've Discovered!

What An Incredible Smell You've Discovered!

Proposals to reclaim the site had floated around for years. But starting in 2008, work finally began on Freshkills Park project... a decades-long plan to convert the site into a massive park, 3x the size of Central Park. Although the entire park is not scheduled for completion until 2037 (!!), a lot of work has been done already, and it is now home to hundreds of species and plants and animals. The space opens up several times a year for open-house "discovery days" with other special tours (for kayaking, birding, etc) planning throughout each year.

I had the pleasure of visiting during a discover day this past summer, and found the park stunning. While I am skeptical that it will draw many tourists to the island, it already is an amazing resource for the city. A triumph of engineering.

From my visit this summer... way in the distance, the Manhattan skyline is visible.

From my visit this summer... way in the distance, the Manhattan skyline is visible.

(If you are curious about the process of converting a toxic landfill into a park and wildlife refuge, there's a great article on how they did it on the Smithsonian website.)

So, after decades of being in the shadows of the other four boroughs, Staten Island is preparing for its big coming out. What do you think? Do you think visitors will be adding the island to their NYC to-do lists?