Staten Island businesses eye North Shore development with mix of hope and fear

Ed Varuolo, who co-owns Hypno-Tronic Comics in St. George  with his partner, Joy Ghigliotti, believes  North Shore developments will bring more foot traffic to their store.
Ed Varuolo, who co-owns Hypno-Tronic Comics in St. George with his partner, Joy Ghigliotti, believes North Shore developments will bring more foot traffic to their store. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin Merriman

To Joy Ghigliotti, the number of bewildered tourists walking into her St. George comic book store is a testament to the need for more destinations in the neighborhood.

“One time a tourist came in and asked, ‘How do I get to the Statue of Liberty?’ She actually asked that,” said Ghigliotti, who had to explain that it would require a trip back on the Staten Island Ferry and another boat ride from Battery Park.

Ghigliotti co-owns Hypno-Tronic Comics with Ed Varuolo. Their shop, just a short walk from the St. George Ferry Terminal, sees about 10 to 15 “adventurous” tourists wander in each day, according to Ghigliotti — a tiny portion of the nearly 10,000 tourists who ride the ferry each day, according to a 2014 city estimate.

That’s why the co-owners support the New York Wheel and Empire Outlet developments on the neighborhood’s waterfront.

“There just needs to be more things to do here,” Ghigliotti said. “There’s not much right now and [the wheel/outlets] can get more people to walk around the neighborhood, we can get a lot more foot traffic, a lot more people coming into the shop,” Ghigliotti said, as “The Ren & Stimpy Show” played on a television overhead. “Now, tourists come in and ask where else they can go. … There’s not much for people who don’t want to get on a bus.”

Other businesses in the area, too, expect the attractions to help lure tourists off the ferry and into the neighborhood — partially because more people are anticipated to stay in the area.

The Empire Outlets project includes a 190-room hotel. Two other ongoing mixed commercial and residential projects in the area will add to the influx. Lighthouse Point, blocks away in St. George, will also bring a hotel with 180 rooms, and 109 residential rental units. And the Urby complex in Stapleton, when fully built, is expected to feature 900 rental units.

Adem Klobucista, who has served up pizza from his parlor, A&S Pizza, near the corner of Stuyvesant Place and Wall Street in the neighborhood for more than three decades, reasoned that more visitors and residents could help stabilize what he described as ever-rotating storefronts that open and close in just a few months.

“It might be because there aren’t enough customers or that businesses haven’t offered quality,” Klobucista said. “But this will be good for business. It will be great.”

Still, there are fears that the tourist-focused projects could tarnish the existing character of the North Shore. Others business owners expressed worries that the developments would come without the city addressing the quality of life issues, like homelessness and public inebriation, that many feel need more focus.

Ed Polio, who co-owns Stapleton’s 5050 Skatepark, said the projects were “jammed down the throat” of the neighborhoods and that “inflated speculation” has made it difficult to do business across the North Shore.

Rent at his park, located across the street from Urby, has nearly doubled since he and his partner first moved into the space in 2011, according to Polio.

“The landlords here are giving everyone one-year leases because they’re anticipating developers to come here and pay millions for our lots,” Polio said. “Eventually we’re all going to get pushed out and that’s just the way it is.”

Though his lease runs to 2022, Robert Honor, co-owner of Honor Wines in St. George, said he could be facing a buyout within months to a year to make way for a developer looking to build a third hotel in the neighborhood on a commercial strip that includes his shop.

He wondered where he would move and if the infrastructure — roads, mass transit and schools — would be able to support the area’s growth. A proposal to build a Bus Rapid Transit system over an old rail right of way on the North Shore has hung in limbo — and it would be a key opportunity for a better connection to businesses and jobs, according to Polio and Honor.

“I see more franchises, more chains — the usual suspects — moving in, because I don’t know who will be able to afford the rents,” Honor said. “I was originally for the projects, because maybe I was naive, but I thought there would be thoughtful development. And I think that’s the problem now. There is development, but not thoughtful development.”

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, a champion of the developments, considers the projects — the outlets, wheel, Urby and Lighthouse Point — the “Core Four” that will invigorate the area

“On balance, the nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars in private sector investment in the ‘Core Four’ … can be a huge win for Staten Island, and the North Shore in particular,” Oddo said in a statement. “While I won’t speak in absolutes, since we should expect the unexpected, the changes that are coming will leave us in a better place than a neglected and underutilized waterfront, an underperforming baseball stadium, a lack of interest in investment from the private sector, and folks bemoaning the status quo and anxious for some sort of improvement.”