Staten Island is home to beautiful parks, lovely architecture, tasty restaurants and fascinating museums. As Joby Jacob and I recently documented, on a warm sunny day thousands of tourists take the ferry to the island, getting a free harbor cruise. While there, they could grab a quick bite, explore the prewar architecture of the North Shore, or take a short bus ride to the museums of Snug Harbor. Instead, the vast majority catch the next boat back to Manhattan without ever setting foot outside the ferry terminal.
Some tourists play it safe, follow the herd, go where they're told or plan in advance. Those kinds of tourists will require more explicit marketing, which deserves its own post. Other tourists like to explore, and many of them do this already.
Part of the problem is that the design of the ferry terminal and the streets around it discourage exploration. The neighborhood by the ferry terminal, Saint George, is charming and walkable, and has been acknowledged by the New York City Economic Development Corporation as the most promising site for "the kind of vital downtown that has long eluded Staten Island." The terminal and the streets obscure the attractions of the area and make pedestrians feel unwelcome. Since tourists getting off the ferry are pedestrians, the design winds up making tourists feel unwelcome.
The problem begins with the elevation of the main passage of the ferry terminal. While the roof deck has a clear view of some interesting-looking buildings in Saint George, tourists are not guided up there. Instead they are confronted with a series of ramps leading up to bus platforms, a stairway down to the Staten Island Railway, and a stairway marked "Richmond Terrace." None of these provide a view of anything outside the terminal; the line of sight is blocked by stairs and canopies.
Some tourists find their way up the stairs to the walkway. It affords a decent view of Saint George, but it is mostly bare, exposed concrete with a minimal canopy protecting people from the elements. It is very wide right outside the terminal, but narrows to a twenty-foot sidewalk when crossing the SIR tracks before the intersection with Richmond Terrace. Half the width of this sidewalk is currently blocked by construction for the Staten Island Wheel and outlet mall project.
The intersection between the ferry terminal approach and Richmond Terrace is the third part of the problem. The walkway is now just a sidewalk for the Ferry Terminal Viaduct, four two-lane ramps carrying buses, cars, taxis and bikes over the Railway. The intersection is designed for the cars and buses, with slip lanes, recessed crosswalks and lots of extra asphalt. It is confusing and intimidating to pedestrians.
The fourth and final obstacle is the buildings that greet visitors leaving the ferry terminal: Staten Island Borough Hall, the Richmond County Courthouse and the Saint George branch of the New York Public Library. According to my AIA Guide they were all designed by Carrère and Hastings in the early twentieth century. I should rather say that they fail to greet visitors, because they all have turned their backs to the ferry.
On one visit in 2014 I passed a troupe of thespians performing scenes from Shakespeare on the steps of Borough Hall, but this past Saturday Joby and I found the steps deserted, and the courthouse entrance permanently closed (without even any markings to indicate what it was). The handful of shops on the next block of Richmond Terrace were either closed or of no interest to tourists, or both.
A short walk around the corner showed us a different scene. Stuyvesant Place offered a variety of modest but inviting restaurants and shops. The courthouse has a fully functioning door on that side. So does Borough Hall - with parking for the Borough President and various high-level functionaries. The Library still presents a closed door to Stuyvesant Place, but you can walk around the block again and find a welcoming entrance, as well as the new Supreme Court building.
These buildings, shops and restaurants may not be things that every tourist would find interesting, but Joby and I saw a number of tourists who were tempted to stay on Staten Island for more than ten minutes. Many of them made it past the first two obstacles of lack of visibility and the exposed walkway (it was a warm Spring day), only to disappear at the intersection with Richmond Terrace.
I can easily imagine more tourists spending an hour or two in Saint George, New Brighton and Tompkinsville. We saw a number of storefronts that were either empty or closed on Saturday. It wouldn't take many more tourists to support a few more cafes and shops, which would in turn bring more tourists.
It would cost a lot to reconfigure the terminal so that arriving passengers can see the way to Saint George. It might not be worth spending that much right now, but we should talk about that when it comes time to redo the terminal for other reasons.
The walkway from the terminal to Richmond Terrace needs to be wider for its entire length, so that tourists never feel like second-class citizens, even if they are on foot on Staten Island. It needs to be better protected from sun, rain and wind, but also to be more interesting for tourists. A few signs advertising nearby attractions and businesses would help, but the city could also grant permits for vendors and buskers in the wider parts.
The intersection where the terminal viaduct meets Richmond Terrace needs to be reconfigured to be more welcoming to pedestrians. This is the kind of thing the DOT has done all over the other boroughs. They know how.
Finally, the institutions of Richmond Terrace - Borough Hall, the Courthouse, the Library and even the Post Office - need to turn around and welcome tourists. The Shakespeare performance I saw was a nice start, but the borough could do a lot more with that plaza. What about a Bryant Park-like cafe? Or the Supreme Court could rent the space inside its east facade to the Staten Island Museum, which is a block north on Stuyvesant Place.
Saint George is a pretty, walkable neighborhood just steps from the ferry. There is no good reason for eighty to ninety percent of people who arrive in the ferry to turn right around without leaving the terminal.