Betting on the New York Ferris Wheel to Elevate Staten Island’s Fortunes

 

By PATRICK McGEEHAN, The New York Times - It does not cost anything to take the boat there. A quaint waterfront minor league baseball stadium offers sweeping views of Lower Manhattan and cheap tickets. A fort dating to the War of 1812 is one of the country’s oldest military installations. There had been talk of a Nascar track.

And yet the problem persists — how to get tourists to venture out onto Staten Island and not take the next ferry right back to Manhattan.

Now, New York City officials believe they have the answer: a gigantic wheel. CA15 news wheel3

Or, more precisely, a 630-foot-tall one that would become one of the world’s largest Ferris wheels.

It is the city’s latest and arguably most ambitious attempt to draw tourists to Staten Island. Workers have begun laying the foundation for the wheel, which, when it opens for business in two years, will carry as many as 1,440 riders and be visible across New York Harbor.

Every year, two million tourists ride the Staten Island Ferry, and yet most of them never leave the terminal.

“What’s great is that people do come to Staten Island; they just have nothing to get off the ferry for,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute. “People on the ferry are going to see this huge wheel beckoning, and lots of people are going to want to do it.”

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Officials hope a Ferris wheel, seen in a rendering, will lure tourists to Staten Island. Credit Perkins Eastman
Tourism officials are already promoting the wheel, along with the new Whitney Museum of American Art and the observatory atop One World Trade Center, as part of “the new New York,” said Fred Dixon, the chief executive of NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism organization.

“We were bullish on the idea from the beginning,” Mr. Dixon said recently in an interview from London, one of the European cities where he had been promoting the wheel.

The wheel and a sprawling outlet mall are known collectively as “Destination St. George,” and will be a “game-changer” in the quest to attract more tourists to that Staten Island neighborhood, Mr. Dixon said. “There’s no question that’s been the single biggest challenge, to convince them to get off the ferry and spend some time there.”

But before the wheel can attract anybody, it has to be designed, fabricated, shipped in pieces to New York from around the world, delivered to the site on barges, and erected like a gigantic K’nex project. The city’s Economic Development Corporation has asked the Army Corps of Engineers for permission to build a temporary pier for the unloading of the barges.

With so many moving parts, the wheel still presents many hurdles for developers. But Rich Marin, president and chief executive of the New York Wheel, said financing is not one of them.

His company is close to raising the full $500 million it will need to build the wheel along with a terminal building and parking garage, he said. Nearly one-third of that sum, $150 million, has been collected from 300 Chinese families that invested with the hope of receiving visas through a program run by the federal immigration service.

Rich Marin, president and chief executive of the New York Wheel, says it could draw 3.5 million visitors a year, making it as popular as the Statue of Liberty. The wheel will have 36 cabins that can hold as many as 40 passengers each. Mr. Marin, who worked on Wall Street for years, said that the wheel “might not have been built” without the Chinese investors, and that their enthusiasm was a “very strong indicator” of the project’s viability. A report issued in September by the city’s Independent Budget Office estimated that the Staten Island Ferry draws 1.8 million riders from out of town annually. Most of them take the free ride to get a closer look at the Statue of Liberty. Tourism officials and Mr. Marin project that 3.5 million people will visit the wheel every year, which would make it as popular as the statue.

The wheel was originally proposed for Governors Island, which is closer to Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront. But city officials pressed for it to be built on Staten Island, a borough five miles from Manhattan with the reputation, Mr. Marin said, that it “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Among the proposals that never bore fruit was a plan to build a Nascar racetrack. “We seem to have hit the right note, the right formula,” Mr. Marin said. “Maybe it’s the right time, maybe it’s the right place.”

Of course, the project still has its detractors.

Robin Levin, who lives in a 145-year-old Victorian house across the street from the site, said she objected to the four-story garage for the wheel because it would block the view of the harbor. Some neighbors, she said, worried that the developments would “cheapen” the neighborhood, but she said she welcomed the outlet mall and the 200-room hotel that is planned to sit atop it, an amenity that she said the St. George neighborhood had sorely lacked.

David Goldfarb, a longtime member of the St. George Civic Association, said he knows “what it means to have crowds of tourists around all the time” because he commutes from the neighborhood to an office in the Empire State Building. “It’s a mixed blessing,” he said.

The site where the New York Wheel will stand after it is designed, fabricated, shipped in pieces from around the world, delivered on barges, and erected like a gigantic K’nex project. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in April at the mall site. Donald Capoccia, a principal of BFC Partners, which is developing the mall, said national retailers had agreed to lease 160,000 square feet of space there. The mall is scheduled to open in early 2017, Mr. Capoccia said.

The developers still hope to raise some of the financing for the $350 million project from foreign investors seeking visas through the EB-5 program, Mr. Capoccia said, but he declined to say how much.

Building the wheel will also take about two years because it is, in fact, more than a basic Ferris wheel. It is a custom-designed observation wheel similar to the London Eye and the High Roller in Las Vegas, which at 550 feet tall is the biggest one operating in the world, Mr. Marin said.

The New York Wheel will have 36 cabins that can hold as many as 40 passengers each and could be used for parties or corporate events. A ride will last over 30 minutes and will cost about $35 per person, Mr. Marin said.

When all the parts are ready, which should happen early next year, they will be shipped to New York and placed on broad dollies, then rolled onto barges. Tugboats will deliver the loads to a pier that will extend 190 feet into the harbor, according to an application to the Army Corps. The parts will be rolled down the 33-foot-wide pier to a crane at the water’s edge that will lift them into place.

The egg-shaped cabins will be attached to the outside of the wheel so that they provide a pilot’s-eye view of the city. At the top, their height would be equivalent to the peak of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Mr. Marin’s team is hoping to sell naming rights to the wheel, as the London Eye has done with a series of companies.

In Mr. Marin’s offices in Manhattan, some bound copies of renderings of the wheel are titled “The Bloomberg Wheel.” Travis Noyes, the chief marketing officer for the wheel, said the books were intended as a tribute to former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for championing the project. But Mr. Noyes admitted that he had entertained the idea of signing up Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire, or his company as a sponsor.

 

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