Notes from the First Regenerating Tottenville Workshop

 

What is Regenerative Economic Development? It is about creating ongoing community learning networks that help members acquire the skills to work collaboratively with one another, to create local businesses and a cultural identity,  and to effectively navigate local systems from schools, to planning & zoning boards, to city councils. It is about finding common causes which motivate community members to join together, honoring their diverse interests and tapping into their diverse talents in ways that forge effective group decisions through open, honest and fair dealing with one another. 

Regenerative Development is about learning to take small steps, and regularly reassess progress and alter strategies as unexpected challenges arise. It’s about developing a just, distributed leadership structure that empowers and incentivizes people at every level of a community to participate in its vital functioning.  It is about honoring, seeking out, and cultivating all forms of leadership in a community, from formal to informal. 

On the morning of June 1, 2017, we held our first Regenerating Economic Development workshop at the Biddle House at Conference House Park in Tottenville.  We engaged in a lively, informal discussion with a small group of community members about how to implement an integrated, generative approach to creating a durably vibrant community in Tottenville.

 

WORKSHOP ATTENDEES

Linda Cutler Hauck

...a third generation Tottenville resident, is the founder of the Tottenville Historical Society and its current director. The Staten Island Advance newspaper recognized her as a Woman of Achievement “for her awareness that the concepts of ‘roots’ and ‘history’ are key elements in forming bonds with others, and for committing to one cause and diving in deep.”

John Kilcullen

...Director, Conference House Park and SI resident. John oversees the park’s management, stewardship initiatives, capital program, and adaptive re-use, and leads the comprehensive evaluation of the branding and promotion of the park as a community and regional destination.

Richard Putonti

...a SI resident, is owner, with his wife, Elaine, of Cape House Gallery. Housed in a repurposed former doctor’s office and residence, Cape House successfully competes with the big box stores in neighboring Charleston, and features custom framing, a unique collection of home décor, hand-crafted jewelry, and decorative and fine art.

Alex Zablocki

...a former Tottenville resident, now lives on Staten Island’s North Shore. Alex is currently Executive Director, Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. He is the former senior program manager, NYC Regional Lead and Rebuild by Design Living Breakwaters Project Manager of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.

Flynn Ferguson

...Project Director, Living Restoration, was born and lived in Tottenville until the age of 5. At Living Restoration Flynn manages the 13,000 square-foot Living Roof garden at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation. Living Restoration also works closely with Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness to promote school gardens, child wellness, and healthy eating initiatives.

Eric Derks

...is Director of The Canopy Lab, a non-profit group of international development practitioners, project managers, researchers, strategic advisors, trainers and theorists, whose mission is to “seed an ecosystem of individuals and organizations dedicated to the pursuit of systems thinking approaches that address complex social challenges and local and international development.”

Dr. Sally Goerner

...Capital Institute’s Science Advisor, is a high-tech engineer who suggests we use the principles of systems science to support the next stage of society emerging all around us. Sally is the author of The New Science of Sustainability and After the Clockwork Universe, of which Jane Jacobs wrote: “This is the current human condition, socially and scientifically, laid out for all to see.”

Susan Arterian Chang

Director of Capital Institute’s Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy project, grew up in Prince’s Bay and attended Tottenville HS. She was the founding publisher and editor of a community newspaper in White Plains, New York, that championed locally led economic development.

Julian McKinley

is Capital Institute’s Director of Communications. He previously worked for United Way, and was a community news editor in central Connecticut, where he founded and managed operations of multiple hyperlocal news websites.

Nora Bouhaddada

Capital Institute’s leverager, has studied at the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia and is a research assistant to Regenerating Tottenville.

Jack Fullerton

...is a Capital Institute intern working on a project with Greenwave.org to study how agricultural farming methods of harmoniously harvesting multiple species of crops might translate into a model applicable for aquaculture.

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Participants began by working to identify Tottenville's underutilized capacities and untapped resources.

Participating community members acknowledged that Conference House Park and the Tottenville shoreline is the community’s most treasured natural asset.  They also noted the largely untapped mentoring potential of the handful of business owners in Tottenville who have managed to create thriving, value-added businesses against all the odds. We took note of the town’s fine public and private elementary and middle schools and their ability to attract young families to Tottenville.  Although we admitted that many Tottenville homes and buildings of historic distinction had been demolished, or altered in ways that did not honor their architectural integrity, participants also observed that a number have been preserved in ways that are of immense value to the community.

Participants identified the challenges Tottenville faces, including:

Isolation and fragmentation.  The town’s remoteness from the rest of Staten Island and New York City and the fragmentation among its different demographic groups – in particular, a lack of connection between older and newer residents – were frequently cited. It was lamented that so few locals utilize Conference House Park or the shoreline, although they are just a stone’s throw away, as everyone retreats to their backyard pools, BBQs, and nuclear family recreational activities.  Not surprisingly, this has tended to engender less support and appreciation for public assets and public investment in them.

Opioid crisis and lack of youth opportunity. Tottenville is among a group of south shore communities identified as having one of the highest rates of opioid addiction in New York City. Many young people leave Tottenville after graduation because they see few prospects for rewarding employment, and because the town lacks a vibrant town center with attractive destinations.

Few entrepreneurial visionaries. With a few notable exceptions Tottenville has failed to attract visionary, value-add entrepreneurs.  High business turnover and redundancy were cited – too many pizza parlors, nail salons, and bagel shops. Business owners along Main Street fail to network and work together supportively. The downtown business community has failed to organize and collaborate in effective ways.

Tottenville’s town center is poorly designed for its “car-culture." Main Street has limited parking and residents don’t consider it a destination for an evening or afternoon stroll.  The factories that once employed local people and encouraged foot traffic through the town’s commercial and retail arteries no longer exist. In contrast, by embracing the “drive-in state of mind,” Page Avenue, the town’s predominant shopping center, has drawn activity to the town’s edges, and further isolated community members from one another by keeping everyone in their own little vehicular box.

Reactive mindset and lack of interest in public asset investment. Private property owners often react negatively to proposed changes aimed at improving public access to either the shore or other Commons. For example, property owners who have developed along the shoreline have opposed the proposed public pathway that would extend along the waterfront as part of Living Breakwaters project.  Yet few protest when dwindling natural spaces are destroyed to make way for private residential development. This inability to develop and value “commons” is a critical and overarching issue for the community that further limits its ability both to improve local vitality and increase positive community interactions.

Opportunities for Regenerative Change

 
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Discussing the community’s untapped asset and its challenges opened space for discussion about possible initiatives that might increase community circulation, expand opportunities for knowledge sharing and interaction, and create better “containers/structures” for all these good things to happen. Here are a few:

  • Revive the Perth Amboy Ferry – This would create a corridor of activity connecting Perth Amboy and Tottenville. 
  • Redirect Main Street Flow – Main Street is now a one way in the wrong direction.  Why not propose a new traffic flow that would direct people onto Main Street!
  • Add parking meters – Install metered parking near the apartment building on Main near Amboy Road to create more customer circulation for local businesses.
  • Draw people into a vision for a new “Town Center” – Instead of focusing narrowly on Main Street revitalization, expand the focus to the Main Street/Amboy Road corridor. Amboy Road has already begun to revive with new businesses (Mike’s Bike Shop;  restoration and adaptive reuse of the Bedell House; new restaurants) anchored by a number of older thriving businesses. To anticipate negative reactivity to any change, create full-size visuals along Main Street storefronts that encourage residents to reimagine what a new town center might look like and how they might interact with it.
 
 Image courtesy of SCAPE/Landscape Architecture

Image courtesy of SCAPE/Landscape Architecture

 
  • Bring back the beach community – If public resistance can be overcome, the Living Breakwaters project will draw people to active and passive waterfront activities, and create connectivity to adjoining communities and parks along the south shore waterfront. We talked about finding more ways and opportunities to create a flow between the Conference House Park shoreline area and the downtown center.
  • Revive the Marine Economy – The marine economy along Arthur Kill was discussed, and how it could be revived, perhaps seeded by successful businesses that now operate below the local community’s radar.
  • Support kelp farming – Tottenville may be considered as a possible site for a kelp farm off the shore of Conference House Park, part of a State of New York pilot project.  Could aquaculture be an emerging industry for Tottenville?
  • Plan for strategic rezoning – The opportunity to think about a slightly higher-density, low-rise, mixed-use development near the train station along Main Street was explored. It was noted that the bedroom communities of Westchester have mature, mixed-use development centered on Metro North stations.  Tottenville never developed a plan for this.  Is now the time to do so, as part of a rethink of zoning and development by New York City Department of Planning’s Staten Island/Bronx Special Districts Zoning Text Amendment initiative?

Conclusion with Plans for Next Meeting

The workshop ended with an eagerness for another visioning meeting.  The goal would be to begin to build a broader and more diverse group to collaborate on Regenerating Tottenville and to perhaps begin to identify specific project(s) that have the potential to catalyze regeneration.