Over the last few years, something like conventional wisdom cohered around northern Staten Island: New development and new arrivals would make it the New Williamsburg.
Art galleries, bars and cafés opened near the ferry to Manhattan. The first annual Rock the Harbor music festival took place last June. A graffiti artist scrawled "Williamsburg II" on construction fences. The New York Times a year ago dubbed the North Shore "Bohemia by the Bay." Condominium towers with city views sprouted along Bay Street Landing, luring Wall Streeters across the water. Creative types and Brooklyn refugees trickled in.
But in this market, can the gentrification continue? Although home sales are up annually by close to 30 percent in St. George, the relatively trendier neighborhood on the North Shore, the median sales price dropped 20 percent between October 2007 and September 2008, according to Trulia. (Compare that to a 6 percent decrease in home sales in the borough overall.)
"The whole condo market along the North Shore–it was still in its infancy when this whole market turmoil happened," said Matthew Giordano, a Staten Island broker for investment-sales firm Massey Knakal. "So I don’t think it ever got a chance to really fully get on its legs."
James Prendamano, a broker at Casandra Properties—which manages the condominium towers the Pointe at 155 Bay Street; the View at Nicholas Street and Richmond Terrace; and the Pearl at 130 Bay Street Landing—has seen a 12 percent to 15 percent drop in prices borough-wide. He observed less of a decline in St. George, which he attributes to a lack of Williamsburg-level price inflation.
The View opened three weeks ago, and 14 of its 40 units are in contract. ("We’ll take that in this market all day!") But sales at the unfinished Pearl have been slower: a year ago, buyers picked up half the condos; the credit crunch cost them financing, and now only a quarter have closed.
"It’s slower," Mr. Prendamano said, "but what’s happening now is not specific to any one group of buyer, any one neighborhood, any one state. This is a national and an international situation."
But the North Shore developers have a few more strikes against them. The condos are targeted toward buyers from Wall Street; converting them to rentals means competing for tenants with surrounding smaller landlords; and, of course, there’s Staten Island’s reputation amongst outsiders.
"I don’t think [Staten Island] is a risk, but it is an unknown," said Kamillah Hanks, executive director of the Downtown Staten Island Council, a non-profit that attracts community and commercial development to the North Shore. "People have to be exposed to what the benefits of living on Staten Island are right now before there is a revitalization effort that will push the prices up again."
But in this economic climate, will the retail come to lure fresh tenants and buyers?
"It’s harder," Ms. Hanks conceded. "Almost two, three years ago, even the new restaurants that opened were doing O.K. They were flourishing. But the economic downturn definitely has had an effect on people spending … That does put a hindrance on our effort as a whole."
"What is happening on Staten Island is very different from Williamsburg or Dumbo," wrote Cynthia von Buhler, founder of the SHOW Gallery, across the street from the ferry terminal, in an email. "Williamsburg attracted young college students. Dumbo attracted yuppies. Staten Island’s North Shore attracts eccentrics."
A better analogy might be Long Island City or Prospect Heights, areas where lower prices lured buyers who were shut out of Manhattan or more expensive Brooklyn locales. If they aren’t priced out, will this same type explore Staten Island? And will developers bring the density to the waterfront?
"Can it happen? I guess," said Mr. Giordano of Massey Knakal. "But at the very least this probably stretches it out on the order of a multiple of five years." He added that Staten Island will not see the same "rags to riches story" as Tribeca or Brooklyn’s "hot" neighborhoods.
Or, as one resident wrote to the Staten Island Advance, "There is no wonder why no one is moving into those brand-new buildings. You can find $2,000 per month apartments in much better, or more hip neighborhoods, with much easier access to Manhattan."
"If you’re talking about hipsters–if I were them, I’d stay in Williamsburg," said Mary Bullock, treasurer of the St. George Civic Association and gallery director at SHOW.
Ms. Bullock arrived in 2002, after jettisoning a Florida three-bedroom, two cars and a second husband. She is well versed in "the economics of eccentricity," her theory that residents on Staten Island can afford to live a less conventional lifestyle. As evidence, she points to one of the current exhibits at SHOW: childlike sculptures molded by a former employee of Lehman Brothers. Ms. Bullock wagers the downturn could be the best thing in the world, slowing the pace of Staten Island development, allowing the art scene to solidify.
"I’m not against development," she said, "but maybe it’ll give us more time to figure out what we want."