Staten Island is one of New York’s five boroughs, but it seems like another world. Nobody goes there except for tourists who want to ride the free ferry and residents commuting home. The cool kids across the river have long laughed at the perennially unhip borough, treating it–if they ever think about it at all–like some loud, embarrassing cousin who you pray doesn’t show up at your birthday party and hit on your Warby Parker-wearing friends. The stereotypes can be ruthless: Mob Wives, tanning, SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS!, hair gel. Three members of the Jersey Shore cast were actually Staten Islanders. But here’s the thing: how many smug New Yorkers who mock that land on the other side of the ferry have actually spent any time there? What if Staten Island secretly has the potential to be…kind of cool?
That’s what David Barry is banking on, anyway. The 48-year-old co-president of real estate development company Ironstate is investing $150 million in a new residential project being built along the North Shore of Staten Island, and he’s specifically targeting the sort of cosmopolitan millennials who typically head directly to the sexier parts of Brooklyn. The project, set to open in fall 2015, is the first of Ironstate’s Urban Ready Living (URL) developments, which have been created with the help of Dutch design firm Concrete. The 571 initial units, with another 300-plus scheduled for phase two of construction, will be affordable–at least by New York standards, where the median price for an apartment tops $3,100 a month, according to data from the real estate research firm REIS. Pricing for the project isn’t finalized yet, but Barry says that 400-square-foot studios will start around $1,600, 550-square-foot one-bedrooms around $2,000, and 700-square-foot two-bedrooms around $2,400. That’s roughly $45 per square foot. Compare that to Williamsburg, Brooklyn–still the epicenter of NYC hipness–where studio apartments now cost an average of $2,632 a month, per the latest Brooklyn Rental Market Report.
Still, Staten Island? But once you stop laughing, consider the situation. Recent census data shows that the population of the city is growing at its highest rate in decades, and more people need more space in which to live. At some point, dwindling choices in the other boroughs might force young New Yorkers to look toward that forgotten fifth option. “Nobody can afford to live in New York City anymore except for the 1%, or the tippity top percents,” says Barry. “That’s a problem we’re trying to solve. I don’t want to pretend [URL Staten Island] is some artist commune, but at the same time, we’re trying to figure out what makes the most sense allowing young artists and entrepreneurs to flourish–and what’s going to resonate with that market.”
Barry, an ardent art collector, already knows a lot about creating hotspots. The developer is majority owner of chic businesses like The Standard in New York’s East Village and the new Chiltern Firehouse in London, for which he partnered with famed hotelier André Balazs (Google’s Eric Schmidt is also an investor). The Daily Mail has already called Chiltern’s restaurant “impossibly sexy.” Now the question is whether or not Barry can bring some of that buzz to sex-appeal-free Staten Island.
Not only will the development offer residents Manhattan views from prime waterfront property–currently an industrial graveyard–but it will go beyond what most luxury rentals in Manhattan provide. There are plans for an outdoor pool, a community garden (which will be run by urban-farming company Brooklyn Grange), a rooftop bee farm, shared work space ideal for start-ups, a waterfront esplanade, more than a dozen retail and restaurant spaces, a 4,000-square-foot gym with a yoga studio, and a café that will serve as the building’s lobby. There are also discussions about a performance space or a gallery, or maybe an open kitchen where chefs will help residents cook gourmet meals.
And then there are the tech-friendly components: Keyless entry so residents can unlock doors with their iPhones, an Amazon-esque procedure for picking up packages in lockers, and an Airbnb-friendly system where staff will not only check guests in for you, but also haul a lockable wardrobe to your apartment for storing valuable items while you’re away. “The idea is to support platforms that people like, instead of having them feel like they need to be hush-hush about it,” says Barry. He’s also excited about the filtered water “wells” in the lobby–a place where people can fill up on clean H20 and also get to know their neighbors in a more natural way than some forced wine-and-cheese party. The danger is that all of this aggressive trendiness and newness could result in a place more Disneyland than Williamsburg. But luckily for Barry, there’s already an arts scene forming on Staten Island, spurred by organizations like the Snug Harbor Artist Residency Program and Staten Island Arts. And by filling URL’s retail spaces with businesses already functioning in more established quarters of New York, the development will seem organic rather than contrived. Assuming, that is, everything works out the way Barry hopes.
Turtle Raffaele, 41, is the CEO and co-founder of Coffeed, a socially conscious coffee shop in the trendy Queens neighborhood Long Island City. (Yes, he goes by Turtle, a nod to his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-ish last name.) A New York native with a thick, friendly accent to prove it, Raffaele talks about the city like it’s running through his veins, although that might just be all the caffeine. Coffeed has signed on to operate the café in URL Staten Island’s lobby, and Raffaele hopes that all kinds of Staten Islanders–not just residents–will grab their lattes there, integrating the new development into the old-school community. “It’s important to get the whole local vibe going,” he says. Coffeed will also serve beer from Staten Island breweries and food made from the on-site garden. “People used to say that downtown Manhattan was dead, and the opposite has happened,” says Raffaele. “I think soon Staten Island won’t have the stigma it has now.”
Actually, lower Manhattan’s resurgence is part of what could make this work. Already on an upswing, the area will get a major boost this fall when One World Trade opens its doors. Magazine giant Condé Nast will move in this year, making downtown not just the financial capital of the city, but also one of its key media hubs. The commute from Staten Island to the WTC area is about 30 minutes door-to-door–and it’s free.
Barry and Ironstate will have some help: The city is putting $32 million into restoring the streets and parks in the neighborhood around the URL property, and if all goes as planned, an estimated $1 billion of private investment will be made in the area, says Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. There’s already the Staten Island Yankees’ minor league ballpark, and in 2016, a massive Ferris Wheel (similar to the London Eye, but 200 feet taller) and a 350,000-square-foot outlet mall are set to open. In anticipation of more tourists and new residents, the ferry that serves as a lifeline to Manhattan will start running at more than double the frequency it does now. Says Oddo: “We are on the verge of having the hippest, most diverse waterfront neighborhood in the city.”
The borough president is passionate about attracting not just residents and tourists to the North Shore, but also New York’s growing startup community, which seems just as challenging as wooing hipsters. But maybe not. “I actually don’t think it will take too much to get people out there,” says Sage Wohns, the 31-year-old CEO and co-founder of tech startup Agolo, which is currently based in Manhattan’s pricey Chelsea neighborhood. “Super nerds aren’t even aware of the negative stereotypes. They just need creative space that’s not crazy expensive.” Another tech entrepreneur, SportSetter co-founder Trevor Ferguson, 28, also thinks it could work. “If these guys could make it feel like Manhattan and get rid of the huge financial burden that hangs over every entrepreneur’s head, I would consider going,” he says. Okay, fine. But would he live there? “Sure, why not? If it’s done right.” A somewhat surprising answer, considering Ferguson had to look up Staten Island on Google Maps before our meeting. “I had no idea where it was,” he says.
After a drive through the more suburban parts of Staten Island (which is a whole lot of it), Barry tells the driver of his black SUV to take a left toward the URL property. Behind him are Bay Street and Richmond Terrace, currently home to more than a few worn-down mom-and-pop shops and the occasional Dunkin Donuts. There’s also the Island’s self-contained subway, which chugs along every four to five minutes, shaking on its above-ground rails as it heads toward the ferry terminal. In front of him is the URL Staten Island site–now a massive, fenced-in field of dirt with a few trailers scattered around for workers. Construction is in its early stages, but if all goes as planned, URL Staten Island will be welcoming its first residents in about 18 months. It’s hard to pinpoint which is Barry’s bigger challenge: Building the sleek, stylish development from what are now piles of dirt and steel, or finding cool, young residents willing to give up Brooklyn for a swankier, iPhone-operated apartment in a borough that’s totally alien to most of them.
But maybe that’s just it. Barry isn’t nervous about luring the hipsters, the artists, the entrepreneurs, because that crowd doesn’t want to be lured. They come on their own. And some won’t come at all. “I don’t need to convince every person in Manhattan that Staten Island is the place for them,” Barry says, holding a stack of renderings of the property. “I just need to look at the fundamentals of this place, realize there are a lot of reasons it makes sense, and know that we are going to create something great.” He takes a few steps onto the construction site, wind whipping in his face, and stares up as if the buildings are already there. “Look at this view,” he says, pointing toward the water and the rows of glistening lower-Manhattan skyscrapers. “Do you see it?” Now that I’m actually standing here, I kind of do.