Stapleton Waterfront Park, Staten Island

A former short-lived naval port was returned to the city in 1994 and nearly two decades a new waterfront park opened in the Stapleton neighborhood of Staten Island where a hidden waterway used to flow into the harbor. In contrast to its southern shore, the side of Staten Island that faces Brooklyn does not have a long string of parks. This Stapleton Waterfront Park is part of a larger effort citywide to open the waterfront to the public.

In this view, we see an inlet where stormwater from the streets flows out into the harbor. As with many coves and inlets on the city’s shoreline, the one at Stapleton Waterfront Park hints to a creek that originated nearly a mile inland from this park.

Where It Is

In this Google Earth screenshot, I highlighted the Canal Street of Staten Island, which carried a stream until the late 19th century. As is the case with Canal Street in Manhattan, its width testifies to the phantom waterway that flowed here prior to urbanization. The cove at the foot of Canal Street is Stapleton Waterfront Park, which extends north on the harbor shoreline to Sullivan Pier. The elevated train line here is the Staten Island Railway, which curves around the cove and has a station at Stapleton.

At the mouth of the cove looking south, one can see the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, the tip of Coney Island, and the open water of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon. The water’s edge is comprised of rocks and floating trash. In the early 19th century, country retreats lined this shore, where the wealthy could enjoy the breeze and watch ships. One such home is Clear Comfort, the home of Alice Austen, which has a natural spring on its grounds. Close to this home is the Clifton neighborhood, which has a private pond near the shoreline. In the early 20th century, docks for oceangoing vessels were built on the shore between Stapleton and St. George, transforming the area from residential to industrial.

Historical Overview

On this 1906 topographical survey, I highlighted Front Street where the park is today. At the time, a ferry to Manhattan departed from this location. Its history goes back to the American Revolution, when it was known as Cole’s Ferry, which shipped produce from this loyalist island to the British occupation forces in Manhattan. After independence, Cornelius Vanderbilt established his ferry service here, which he later expanded into a sizable railroad empire. In 1864 his railroad line relocated the ferry terminal to St. George, where it continues to operate today. A smaller ferry service continued to dock at Stapleton until the 1920s.

In the early 20th century, the flat open space next to a deep channel with access to railroads resulted in the development of the waterfront into a seaport. As with many ports, the land along the water’s edge was reclaimed from the sea using landfill. The tracks of the Staten Island Railway curve around the port following the natural shoreline that predates urbanization.

In 1937 the city designated the waterfront at Stapleton as a Foreign Trade Zone, which operates as a duty-free area with enhanced security. The poster for this zone follows the Art Deco style that was popular at the time. The WPA logo on the lower left indicates federal funding as part of a Depression-period jobs creation program. The trade zone operated until 1972, when it was temporarily relocated to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then to Port Newark, which remains the largest international seaport in the metropolitan region.

In this 1966 model from the Municipal Archives, we see plans for a wharf with ships docking on the shoreline . Warehouses would then hold the goods. The depth of the harbor here made Stapleton idea for a port but as the Staten Island Railway had abandoned its North Shore Line connecting to the mainland, and as trucks were overtaking railroads as the leading form of freight transportation, the port demonstrated its obsolescence. Trucks would have to travel on Bay Street, only one lane in each direction, through residential areas, to reach the nearest highway. For rail service, freight trains would share the tracks with passenger trains to St. George, and then travel west on the North Shore Branch, which was abandoned in 1953 and would need to be restored. Instead, the port at Stapleton continued to decline.

An aerial view from 1970 from the Municipal Archives some of the piers were in use and others stood vacant. The highlighted area will later become a park. Across the world, former ports afford opportunities for creative redevelopment as they have waterfront access and open space on a flat terrain. Local examples include Brooklyn Bridge Park and Bush Terminal Park. Internationally, the example of Barangaroo Reserve near Sydney, Australia comes to mind.

Naval Port

The final chapter in Stapleton’s history as a port was in the 1980s, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Ordering a dispersal of naval facilities across the country, Stapleton was chosen as the homeport of the U.S.S. Iowa battleship. Within the defense establishment, there was opposition to an urban naval base citing the high costs of operation. Locally, residents did not want their neighborhood hosting warships capable of carrying nuclear warheads. They also did not expect to see any job gains from this facility. The short-lived Homeport closed in 1994 and was returned to the city. Its legacy is the lengthy Sullivan Pier, named after the five Sullivan brothers of Iowa who were all killed during World War Two. A fireboat station was established on one of the piers while the rest of the site was considered for a racetrack, and a movie studio, among other unrealized proposals.

A New Neighborhood

At the turn of the millennium, the 35-acre Stapleton waterfront was rezoned for residential and commercial development that reopens public access to the water’s edge. Sullivan Pier remains used by FDNY Marine Company 9 as a fireboat dock. Phase 1 on this map is the Urby set of upscale residences designed in a postmodern style evoking Stapleton’s industrial past.

The seawall allows for views of the fireboat and the light fixtures date back to the site’s past as the Homeport. Although seawalls are no longer the preferred design for constructed shorelines, in this case it was cheaper to preserve it as part of the park rather than to install riprap. Between the Urby apartments and the seawall is a green space that can absorb storm surges, a design that accommodates climate change.

Trucks parked here and cranes stood here when Stapleton was a seaport. The rolling landscape is naturalistic and functional in its ability to absorb a storm tide.

What’s New is Old

The opening of Stapleton Waterfront Park in 2016 is really a long time coming. On this 1907 Elisha Robinson map, we see the ferry pier at Canal Street having a park, along with the block between the pier and Tappen Park (known then as Washington Square) proposed for a park. The idea was to connect the center of the neighborhood with the pier using a linear park, with the train station in the heart of this park.

The park has a lookout platform at the point where Canal Street’s phantom stream emerges to the surface at sea level and widens into the harbor. Across the waterway is Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This section of the Harbor is known as The Narrows, carved after the last ice age as it carries the water of Hudson River into the ocean. In the 1920s, a subway tunnel was proposed near this site, and one could have imagined an urbanized Staten Island that would have been more dependent on public transportation instead of cars. In the meantime, the eastern shore of Staten Island can realistically expect more bike lanes, bus routes, and perhaps revived ferry service at Stapleton.

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