Photo: Martha Snow

The North Shore waterfront is developing at a tremendous scale. While the creative and cultural sectors play an important role in this change, how can they continue to be a part of the shifting landscape? How can we utilize the arts and cultural activities to connect neighborhoods to the waterfront and create equitable, cohesive, quality public space?

The following conversation is edited from the Design Trust’s NYCxDESIGN panel on May 17 at the St. George Library Center. The panel, moderated by Design Trust executive director Susan Chin, FAIA, Hon. ASLA, included Lisa DahlFuture Culture Participatory Art Fellow; Munro Johnson, NYC Economic Development Corporation Vice President of Development; Rashida Ladner-SewardFuture Culture Community Working Group Member and Universal Temple of the Arts Communications Director; and Monica Valenzuela, Staten Island Arts Deputy Director.

Susan: Rashida, representing Universal Temple of the Arts, you’re involved in a number of community groups, including the Future Culture working group. What motivates you to invest so much into your neighborhood and what are your expectations?

Rashida: There had been a lack of community voice and input in the design of many of the current development projects in Staten Island’s North Shore. I wanted to change that by joining the Future Culture working group.

People brought myriad questions to the working group around the design and the redevelopment in St. George across Tompkinsville and New Brighton, and how that might impact the very unique Staten Island dynamics in everything from transportation to local businesses. Many small businesses and cultural institutions located more inland may have to shut their doors because of rising rents or not getting enough customers and visitors that the new waterfront development is supposed to spur. 

I wanted to make sure that my voice is heard, as someone representing a small arts organization on Jersey Street, which has many needs and, I anticipate, would be gentrified and changing rapidly in the years to come. I wanted to bring the arts and cultural community’s perspective to the forefront of civic leaders, elected officials, and the builders of these developments. 

I rushed here today from my day job. I work at the Universal Temple of the Arts on a part-time basis, in addition being a member of the Future Culture working group and Council Member Debi Rose’s participatory budgeting efforts. If I can lend my time to ensure that some of what we bring to the table are considered, then it’s time well spent, even if that means I’m up until midnight most week days.

Susan: Monica, the Future Culture initial recommendations were released in late March this year. Describe how Staten Island Arts is now taking a lead role in testing some of these recommendations.

Monica: First of all, the recommendations are online now—check them out tonight when you go home, if you haven’t already. We sat down with community members to think through many challenges and opportunities, and we wrote down ways to tackle them.

Now it’s time to get feedback on those recommendations and test them through pilots. We recently received a grant from the NYC Department of Small Business Services, as part of the Neighborhood 360 program, to launch two pilots before the end of June next year. The deadline to submit pilot ideas is tonight! (See the request for qualifications— RFQ.)

We offer grants from $3,000 to $5,000 annually as the local arts council. You also see grant opportunities from a number of city agencies to create public art. The budgets for those projects are usually temporary and very small. 

With the Future Culture pilot projects, on the other hand, our goal was to offer a substantial implementation budget, so we could create a robust creative team to push the envelope and visualize some of the recommendations in a comprehensive way. 

For example, we would like to test the idea of promoting exploration beyond the ferry terminal through wayfinding or place-based installations. We’re looking for innovative proposals to address the question of where to go exiting the ferry terminal. One might think of ways to use color or signage to complement some of the ways that the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) think about wayfinding. You could also use arts and cultural tools to create markers throughout the community. 

The implementation budget ranges from $35,000 to $40,000. They could be built projects, a performance, or a festival. We would like to achieve two pilots over the course of the next year to further refine or document. We look forward to announcing the pilots at the end of June.

Susan: Munro, the North Shore is seeing $600 million dollars of public investment and another $1 billion in private investment. How will some of those resources directly serve the cultures on the North Shore who have made it such a desirable place to develop?

Munro: The resources going to affordable housing, waterfront access, and transportation improvements should benefit the entire community. From more efficient use of parking lots, to mixed use development of the vacant coast guard site, to the redevelopment of an old abandoned naval port for waterfront access and housing, these developments will hopefully serve all the cultures and different communities on the North Shore, also providing—in some cases—a new canvas for arts and cultural activities. 

Susan: How does the Future Culture recommendations fit with the City’s plans?

Munro: Where they marry new waterfront open space, infrastructure, and arts and culture, they fit very well. The North Shore has always been Staten Island’s transportation hub and there is already a concentration of arts and cultural institutions here. The development that we’re seeing is intended to build upon these strengths. The City’s plans take those assets and try to reflect and promote them back to the rest of New York City.

Susan: Lisa, your artistic work coming into this project has focused predominately on housing and development, including your “Pop-up House” installation last summer. How do you see Future Culture relating to your artistic practice? What is artists’ role and opportunity to push Future Culture recommendations forward?

Lisa: Our built surroundings affect us sometimes in ways we’re not even aware of. For many years I have focused on the stand-alone home as a metaphor for our private lives. I was interested in our attachment to the house and how that affects the city planning. That later started to segue into more ideas about urban planning. 

Future Culture allowed me to move from talking about these ideas to actually walking the walk. My interest lies in engaging communities to care about the spaces around them and to realize their ideas about those spaces. I think that is also the ultimate goal for Future Culture: to show how arts and culture can engage people with their surroundings and others; to make them care about who their neighbors are and what’s happening with the developments.

We’re beginning to create those tools of engagement. With arts and culture you start to see through the issues and affect your surroundings, neighbors, and community.

Susan: Rashida, your website talks about “continuously evolving to meet the changing needs of [y]our community,” and you have established Universal Temple of the Arts as a community anchor over the past fifty years. How can institutions continue to be adaptable and aware of changing community needs? 

Rashida: Institutions need to have their finger on the pulse. Being on the ground and connecting with new people in different ways is important. 

We’re trying to do that at Future Culture by convening a room of stakeholders from the immediate community—residents, business owners, and other folks—to have a discussion about what’s happening in their neighborhood. They share their fears and what they see for the future of their communities without feeling victim to the shifting dynamics. 

At organizations like Universal Temple of the Arts, we’re working with community members, many of which feel disenfranchised at variety of levels. We’re getting their thoughts on everything that’s going on in Staten Island, including how they felt about the West Brighton Homes closing and what they think is going to happen next to the Richmond Terrace Houses. 

We can be a vehicle and help people articulate their concerns, talk about what they would like to see happen culturally and artistically, and how they want to be engaged.

We’ll convene in June to continue that conversation. We’re looking on the ground to work with community leaders and folks on the street to come in and give their perspective about the changing environment in the North Shore.

Susan: Monica, community engagement is at the center of your work at Staten Island Arts. Is there anything you’re doing differently or have you tried as a new method resulting from the Future Culture project?

Monica: Staten Island Arts tries to bring in the community to help design its programs. We rely on the community that we serve.

Future Culture has helped us create more connections among our programs and departments. For example, our staff folklorist advised on the translation of the Future Culture materials for community outreach and ways in which communities she works with might receive information. Putting something on the website, for instance, might not be the best way to communicate with somebody and we might need to just pick up the phone to reach that person.

Future Culture is also becoming an advocacy tool. It is a way for us to collect what we’re hearing from the community. We’ll need that information when testifying at the City Council, or when we go to Albany and Washington D.C. to make the case for funding coming to this borough. 

In a challenging time like this when it’s critical to have your voice known, having a toolkit to help you do that intently is important. 

Susan: Munro, you’ve met the Future Culture working group and followed the project and recommendations closely. How has your involvement in Future Culture affected your work at NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC)?

Munro: It has been very positive and an eye-opener for me. Urban planners today generally recognize the importance and power of arts and culture for communities. But, traditionally, our arts & culture role in the planning office has generally been to set some space aside for arts and culture in the development, and do some perfunctory outreach to organizations. 

The experience with Future Culture has shown me and everybody on the team how deep you can go in terms of engaging the arts & culture community, and in understanding the full landscape of the different organizations. Again, arts and culture and their role in community development is familiar to us, but it’s not really our daily work at EDC from a hands-on standpoint. We’re really happy and grateful to be partnering with Future Culture to help that happen here.

Audience: Where is the resiliency in these waterfront developments that are taking place?

Monica: There is a section on the waterfront resiliency in the Future Culture initial recommendations around design using green infrastructure, but it’s not a full resiliency plan. Resiliency is a crucial topic and arts and culture can only do so much. We need to make a disclaimer in the room that we’re not a planning agency. We’re an arts organization in need for help. 

The impetus for Future Culture came out in response to Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane happened and we couldn’t go into our offices, we found ourselves making phone calls to artists who we knew lived on the east and north shores, and going through our database with zip codes to locate others. Here I was talking to artists at their homes about their washer, car, and everything else that were just gone during Sandy, and we were going to community meetings about resiliency and recovery. You become like a social worker in a way. 

This was quickly growing beyond the scope of our mission as a grant-awarding local arts organization and we decided to ask the Design Trust for help with planning and policy.

We’re trying to connect Future Culture to other initiatives specifically focused on resiliency, such as the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program (NYRCR) funding for the Tompkinsville and St. George promenade. We’re in conversation with the NYRCR committee about ways in which visionary design can be put in use to protect the waterfront. 

Margie Ruddick, Future Culture Urban Design Fellow, is looking at how we can create a more naturalized area that can absorb the storm surge. 

We’re also thinking about resilient communities and building cultural connections, as part of our project goals. 

Audience: How are the communities of color, who live in the Richmond Terrace Houses, for example, brought into this, so as these developments are taking place around the waterfront, those communities of color are not looking into something that is not for them? How are you going to make it so they feel welcomed to participate in this project?

Rashida: There are a lot of different examples around NYC, such as Harlem or Gowanus, for the communities of color on Staten Island to take note of. 

What are the warning signs of when and how these changes happen? What was the advocacy in place and why weren’t most of those measures more successful? It will involve people who may have been a part of those advocacy movements to talk about what challenges there were—while managing the expectations of people, because there will be changes for sure. 

We need to have a clear understanding right now that, even if the plan is five or ten years from now, houses in our neighborhoods might be knocked down or gutted out and turned into luxury apartments. What does that mean for my family whether or not I might be displaced? What kind of voice can people have in those changes? 

Those are real questions that people need to be asking right now and holding elected officials accountable for answers. If they can’t get answers or don’t like the provided answers, they need to keep asking and asking in thousand different ways. The change is going to happen, but how it happens and whether or not people are going to be involved that change should be a part of the conversation. We can look at the past experiences as to how we can navigate the change. 

Lisa: In instances where an artist is not going to be able to fix such a large issue, the greatest thing we can bring through arts and culture is education. There are ways—visual or demonstration—to get people thinking. People become more proactive as they acquire tools of a language to address the issues. It’s not a fix for everything but it’s a way to get some actions started.

Audience: What brings these new developments together in a way is that they are all on the waterfront. We could really connect them through public spaces and walkways along the waterfront and Bay Street. What is the City’s vision in that regard? Is there an overarching plan to connect all these developments? 

Munro: EDC recently published DOWNTOWN STATEN ISLAND: Live, Work, Play, Connect. The plan is available online, and I’ve brought hard copies tonight to share. It articulates much of what the overarching vision is. But I think much of “the plan” is really rooted in the point you already made, i.e., that the waterfront connects it all. From the new Stapleton waterfront further north to Tompkinsville, to the ferry terminal, Empire Outlets, the Yankees Stadium, and to the New York Wheel, we’re creating, gradually, a unified, publicly-accessible waterfront. That’s going to be an incredible amenity and even a transportation option for the North Shore. Pedestrians will be able to walk directly from south of Stapleton almost around to New Brighton.

Audience: My concern is that I don’t want the North Shore waterfront to be turned into a version of Atlantic City—where outside the casinos there is nothing on the boardwalk and for the community. A walkway from Stapleton to West Brighton won’t just appear without an intent planning.

Munro: The Future Culture work is very important in that context, i.e., by looking at the collection of individual projects together, comprehensively, with a heavy community engagement piece. Together, we’re taking a fresh look at how the individual developments can work together, how we can weave arts and programming into them and have these different esplanade projects be a reflection of the communities that they adjoin.

Audience: How do you encourage visitors to explore beyond the ferry terminal?

Munro: In the 2010 plan published by EDC and the Department of City Planning (called “North Shore 2030”), the future sites of the New York Wheel, Empire Outlets, and Lighthouse Point were identified as nearby opportunities to lure visitors out a little further from the ferry terminal to explore what Staten Island has to offer. To a significant extent, that is the vision that we are executing today. 

Rashida: In our working group, we talked about creating a brochure of cultural locations from Rosebank to Mariners Harbors, and modes of transportation to take people to those places.

There are very unique areas with lots of small businesses that have a great value to the community but don’t get a lot of foot traffic. How do we make those places known? Marketing is a part of that conversation. We talked about coalitions that other organizations and institutions can start in order to pull our resources together for marketing. 

Audience: I served on the local advisory committee for the Bay Street corridor facilitated by NYC Department of Planning in 2015. The Department produced a draft scope of work and collected thousands of comments from the community. Have you talked to the City Planning about Future Culture?

Monica: We actually provided comments on the City’s drafts and our goal for Future Culture is to inform the rezoning plan. For example, we’re elaborating on the definition of the “office space” to encompass working space for artists. 

NYC Department of Cultural Affairs is also working on the first-ever citywide cultural plan. We will attend their public review meeting tomorrow at the Port Richmond Library. 

We’re connected to all the planning efforts to make sure we have a seat in the table. 

Audience: How about the green space in all these projects?

Munro: The developments combined will be delivering 15 acres of new green space, most of which is going to be at the New Stapleton waterfront.

Audience: Transportation is also a serous problem. I wonder if a culture bus could run between the Alice Austen House and Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. 

Audience: We put on the Art by the Ferry Festival every year. What if there was a shuttle service funded by the new developments from the ferry terminal to the festival that would stop by at the other arts organizations along the waterfront?

Munro: A great idea. It might resonate with the developers since there is already an initiative underway, called Destination St. George, to promote the major cultural destinations on the North Shore—including Snug Harbor and the St. George Theater, among others—locally and even internationally. You will also find this reflected in the Future Culture Recommendations, in the form of a cultural hub and a cultural commission, which are more specific marketing proposals.

Audience: What steps should community members take to help Future Culture push the city agencies to adopt some of your recommendations?

Susan: Rashida is a fine example of a community member involved in advocacy and making her voice heard. You must speak up. You have to go to the community board meetings, visit your council members and bring in your ideas.

Rashida: The Future Culture recommendations are to equip people with language around what they need for advocacy on the issues. We’re building that capacity among individuals to understand what the impacts are and how we can navigate the challenges. Having that framework in your dialogues is important, whether you’re at a community convention like this or the city/state budget hearings. Those community representations make a difference. 

Calling your elected official means a lot. If they get a thousand or ten thousand calls about an issue, then that official knows that it’s a real problem and concern to the community, and that they have to address it. That voice is very critical and powerful. 

There are also ways for us as small arts & cultural organizations to collaborate more. We should unify forces for a stronger voice. I hope that type of coalition would come out of our Future Culture work. 

Audience: I’m a new Staten Island resident. When I moved here, I was very excited and encouraged by some of the developments that looked great. However in the months that I’ve been here, I also noticed that Staten Island is a victim of a lot of bad development. How do you define a good development project?

Munro: A good project builds upon the existing strengths of the community, involves a robust community engagement process that connects to those strengths, and includes a strong equity component.

Audience: I got priced out of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and moved to Staten Island. How can we prevent that from happening in Staten Island?

Munro: We are a city that is growing. The housing supply is insufficient relative to demand and so prices go up. The city is expected to grow one million more people by 2040. That is a lot. The good news is that there is a big push right now for including affordable housing in new housing development in a way that there wasn’t before.

Rashida: That’s only if the federal budget doesn’t get cuts. Having an understanding of what is actually a privately owned space versus a city or state owned lot is important in this push for preservation. When there is a private sale of land or property and the private owner decides to develop it in a way that doesn’t fit within the existing cultural landscape and natural environment, there is not much we can do.

It comes down upon us to know what the city and state owns and demand, as the rightful residents and taxpayers, that the public land be developed in a certain way. We need to find out what is included in city and state deals, and ensure that when elected officials say we may have to sell a property or build at a certain public land, there are some parameters to follow.

We need to have a clear understanding right now that, even if the plan is five or ten years from now, houses in our neighborhoods might be knocked down or gutted out and turned into luxury apartments. What does that mean for my family whether or not I might be displaced? What kind of voice can people have in those changes? Those are real questions that people need to be asking right now and holding elected officials accountable for answers. The change is going to happen, but how it happens and whether or not people are going to be involved in that change should be a part of the conversation.

Rashida Ladner-Seward, Future Culture Community Working Group Member and Universal Temple of the Arts Communications Director