‘It does not end here:’ Hundreds march to protest BJs development on Graniteville Wetlands
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- A crowd of several hundred people marched down Forest Avenue Saturday afternoon to protest a BJ’s Wholesale development slated to be built on the Graniteville Wetlands.
Marchers began to gather at the intersection of Forest Avenue and Richmond Avenue in Graniteville just before noon and only days before work could potentially begin at the site. Some who attended held signs that read, “Save Our Wetlands” and “Wetlands Not Warehouses.”
More than 50 local organizations and community groups took part in the protest, which opposed the 226,000 square-foot project that will house a BJ’s Wholesale Club, a gas station, a supermarket and other retail, and would include 838 parking spaces in a 28-acre L-shaped lot.
“You can see the community has had enough and we’re going to come together. This is too important to just let go by and just say this decision has already been made,” said Ranti Ogunleye, a candidate for the borough’s North Shore city council seat and a recognizable presence at protests on the Island.
“We’re going to make a mark right now and let them know that we need to save these wetlands,” said Ogunleye. “What better fight than to fight for our children’s future?”
The march progressed westward on Forest Avenue as protesters shouted chants in opposition of the development, garnering the support of some passing motorists who honked horns in approval.
The NYPD blocked off one lane of traffic on Forest Avenue as the marchers moved down the street.
“It does not end here,” said Kwynn Hogan, a member of the Staten Island Democratic Socialists of America organizing committee. “The Graniteville Wetlands are here to stay.”
The embattled plot of land is part of a larger wetland ecosystem that has seen multiple developments swallow up pieces of receiving lowland that is vital to flood management, said Carl Alderson, a former Staten Islander and the Mid-Atlantic restoration coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Associations’ Fisheries’ Habitat Restoration Center.
WORRIED ABOUT HURRICANES
The continued push for new developments is leaving advocates, many of whom attended Saturday’s march, worried that the next Hurricane Sandy-level-storm could cause levels of devastation not seen by the 2012 system.
“Staten Island has faced the effects of climate change in a very specific and pointed way,” said Brittany Ramos DeBarros, who is running for Staten Island’s congressional seat. “We still have a South Shore that is recovering from Sandy. We have several other environmental justice issues. We have a real opportunity to build a BJ’s somewhere else.”
Saturday’s march was “about making sure our borough is ready to confront the next superstorm that will definitely come, to make sure that we are protecting our wetlands, our green spaces,” said Cesar Vargas, a Staten Island Borough President candidate. “Staten Islanders are here to support our green spaces because our survival is at stake.”
“We’re not going to go without a fight,” said Vargas.
Rose Uscianowski, the Staten Island organizer of Transportation Alternatives and a former longtime resident of Graniteville, said that the effects of the development — which could increase traffic to an already-busy area and worsen pollution — will not benefit the neighborhood.
“We need those wetlands to protect the neighborhood, to protect vulnerable populations, to protect a lot of wildlife that is indigenous to those wetlands and to protect the Island,” said Uscianowski. “The next time a major storm happens, we’re not going to have that buffer space.”
SITE WOULD CREATE JOBS
However, Mitchell Korbey, lead counsel to the owner of the site, said the environmental impact of the proposed development has been “exhaustively vetted.”
“We look forward to providing hundreds of new local jobs with advancement potential and excellent, lower-cost shopping for Staten Islanders,” he said previously.
BATTLE NOT OVER
Aly Stoffo, a main organizer of the march, returned to Staten Island in 2019 after receiving sustainability degrees from Arizona State University. Stoffo discovered the battle to protect the Graniteville Wetlands and said she immediately wanted to get involved.
“My goal with this event from the start has been to empower and inspire other people who don’t have the privilege of having the education that I do to step in for local environmental causes like this,” said Stoffo.
The destruction of wetlands is not a Staten Island-specific issue, and developments have been replacing these areas for decades. Despite renewed pushes to invest significant amounts of money on green infrastructure, environmental supporters have expressed frustration when pieces of the environment — like the Graniteville Wetlands — are being destroyed amid a rush to address climate change.
Stoffo’s former high school science teacher, Christopher Chieh, an educator at the College of Staten Island High School for International Studies, said he encouraged his class to attend the march and has closely followed the proposed development for years.
Garbed in a green frog outfit, Chieh said the march was “a golden opportunity for me to put into action what I’ve been teaching in class.”
Chieh’s outfit was matched by other distinctive attendees, some of whom wore “Shrek” costumes — referencing the character’s desire to protect his home swamp — and some who dressed as turtles and other wildlife.
Jade Michaels, a West Brighton resident, brought with her some of the youngest attendees of the march — her two children. She said they are “learning a lot about civics right now, and I wanted them to see how you put civics into action.”
“The most important thing is protecting your community,” said Michaels. “It’s important for them to see that here on Staten Island there’s huge issues they need to attend to, and they can lift their voice up with other community members to make a difference.”
The march concluded adjacent to the wetlands, near the Regal United Arts site that was recently put up for lease.
There, Gabriella Velardi-Ward, the leader of the Staten Island Coalition of Wetlands and Forests, spoke to the large crowd about ongoing efforts to protect the area.
“If we leave nature alone to do its own thing, it will incorporate us,” she said. “It will not harm us.”
Velardi-Ward has been engaged in a years-long battle in the courts against the developers of the BJ’s Wholesale store. Most recently, she challenged the Queens Supreme Civil Court’s 2017 ruling that her organization missed the date to file an appeal.
A voluntary agreement between both parties has halted construction on the wetlands until at least May 1, 2021.
After initial hearings in 2017 — which Velardi-Ward previously said she was not aware of at the time — did not find significant public disapproval in the project, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) received more than 1,000 letters requesting a public hearing on the land, but the agency later said a hearing was not warranted.
The DEC, which said it does not comment on pending litigation, said it “subjects all permit applications to a rigorous review to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.”
Korbey previously made hotly-contested claims that concessions made by the developer to plant additional trees and install bioswales to offset any potential negative impacts on the environment would actually improve the wetlands.
Despite the legal challenges, Korbey previously told the Advance/SILive.com that the developers “remain confident in our approvals, having received a full and complete sign-off and a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation based on our wetlands protection program and well-designed site plan and having completed the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process) and it’s own environmental review and Planning Commission approval.”
Graniteville, which has a large Hispanic and Black community, could be disproportionately affected by the risks of flooding as a result of recent developments, advocates contend.
“Why is it that every time that overdeveloping happens, it happens in Black and brown communities?”, said Yesenia Mata, the executive director of La Colmena, a community-based organization founded in 2014 to empower low-wage immigrant workers on Staten Island.
Lori Honor, a Staten Island Borough President candidate, said the large showing at the march shows that “there are citizens who are getting in front of discriminatory practices and poor land use and indiscriminate destruction of wildlife instead of protesting after the fact.”
“This seems like a new dawn of activism in Staten Island,” said Honor.