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New Uses for Old Poor Farm
From the Wall Street Journal of Thu, 04 Dec 2014 23:19:51 EST

Efforts to turn parts of a historic site in the Willowbrook section of Staten Island into a housing development for older people and a comprehensive health and wellness complex have recently gained traction.

A proposal to demolish several landmark buildings inside the abandoned New York City Farm Colony, a 45-acre farm that was established in 1829 for the impoverished, was approved in late October by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission. That provided a crucial step for the establishment of a $91 million housing complex for residents 55 years and older.

“This is an area that has a unique and fascinating history,” said Staten Island borough President James Oddo, who has championed the project over the years in various forms. “You can let these places wither on the vine or you can sit down and breathe life into some of these buildings so it can be used by all Staten Islanders.”

The Landmark Colony project, to be developed by Staten Island-based NFC Associates LLC in partnerships with Vengoechea + Boyland Architecture Urban Planning LLP, calls for the creation of about 350 for-sale residential units next to the Staten Island Greenbelt, a continuous parkland area running through the center of the borough.

A ruin at the New York City Farm Colony on Staten Island.
A ruin at the New York City Farm Colony on Staten Island. John Taggart for The Wall Street Journal

Some of the units would be built in historic dormitory buildings that will be restored. Others would be new construction that includes carriage house-style residences, a mixed-use building with apartment units and retail, a clubhouse, curated green space and woodland paths open to the public.

“These buildings—some that are over 100 years old—will not make it another 10 years” without attention, said architect Pablo Vengoechea, as he walked through a laundry facility completed in 1914. “Our plan is take any stones and other material we can salvage from the buildings that will be demolished and reuse them in new structures.”

One building will be left as a ruin for educational and historical purposes, while artifacts found on the entire site will be displayed for public view, Mr. Vengoechea said. A potter’s field in the northern pocket of the site will also be preserved.

Previously known as the Richmond County Poor Farm, the facility provided room and board to many of its residents in exchange for farm work. Anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people lived and worked on the farm during most years, and many were 50 or older.

A rendering of a carriage-house residence planned for the farm property.
A rendering of a carriage-house residence planned for the farm property. v + b Architecture Urban Planning LLP

The farm eventually turned into a hospital and home for seniors in the 1950s and closed its doors in 1975.

The site, designated as a historic landmark in 1985, is an expansive woodland area that is a popular hangout for teenagers ditching school during the week and for area locals to play paintball on the weekend.

After almost four decades of neglect, as well as numerous fits and starts to various city proposals to develop the site, many area preservationists are excited to see this proposal reach thus far.

“The current plan is extremely innovative,” said Barnett Shepherd, the executive director of the Preservation League of Staten Island. “I love the idea of reusing old materials and leaving a building as a ruin. You see ruins in Europe, not in New York City.”

Project architect Timothy Boyland said he plans to hand in land-use application papers next spring, which would start a public review process likely to last several months.

“The site is awe inspiring,” he said. “You can see the stories in these abandoned buildings so as designers, we used that as our inspiration to put our own plan together.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Oddo is spearheading another hybrid preservation-development plan across Brielle Avenue from the old farm on the grounds of Sea View Hospital Rehabilitation Center & Home, a former tuberculosis treatment center.

The plan calls for an as-yet unspecified portion of the 200-acre-plus landmark area, which is also home to numerous abandoned buildings, an assisted-living facility and the Staten Island Ballet among other things, to be expanded further into a health and wellness district.

Mr. Oddo said that many local seniors and disabled are forced to leave Staten Island and find assisted-living facilities elsewhere.

A building at the nearby Sea View Hospital.
A building at the nearby Sea View Hospital. John Taggart for The Wall Street Journal

The proposal includes a new housing complex for Alzheimer’s patients, residences for adults and children with severe cognitive and physical ailments, a cancer center, as well as curated green space such as farms and gardens.

Mr. Oddo said he met with Mayor Bill de Blasio in October to lay out his proposal and was met with enthusiasm.

“To my delight, the mayor seemed excited about the preliminary plan,” Mr. Otto said. “We may be a long time away for this project to start, but we are further along in the process of reusing both unique parcels of land than we’ve ever been.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio said that “the administration looks forward to working with Borough President Oddo as we evaluate the proposals.”

Other health care-related facilities are already on their way in the immediate area. Construction has started on a 188-bed assisted-living facility by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a social service and antipoverty organization, just north of the entrance to the Sea View Hospital complex. It is expected to open in the spring.

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