Oct 20

Oakwood Beach: Sell out, tear down and leave

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While many city neighborhoods hit by Hurricane Sandy have yet to rebuild, Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach is returning to its original state at breakneck speed.

That earlier condition, however, is the uninhabited marshy lowlands of the type that greeted Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to cross the narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island 500 years ago.

“It’s really mind-boggling,” said Joseph Tirone, a Staten Island resident who led the push for the state to buy out homeowners and turn the area into a nature preserve and bulwark against future floods. “They’ve done over 50 demolitions already.”

For some homeowners who advocated building back, the buyout seemed like a defeatist approach. Residents of a swath of Oakwood Beach, however, the first community to sign up for the state buyout, sold their small homes and bungalows at pre-storm prices. They have moved on with their lives, spurring neighbors frustrated with the rebuilding process to follow suit.

As Crain’s reported last year, Mr. Tirone learned about the buyout offer then taking shape just a few weeks after the storm. Curious, he sought advice from people in Tennessee and upstate New York who had lived through similar disasters and had successfully turned to a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for help. On their advice, he skirted the city government’s still inchoate recovery and, instead, with his neighbors’ overwhelming support, completed reams of paperwork and put his fate and theirs in Albany’s hands.

A few months later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would seek funding from Washington, D.C., to complete the Oakwood Beach buyout—making the area the model for a greener, safer post-Sandy Staten Island. Of the 184 homes in the buyout zone, all but about 40 have taken the deal. Those left over are dealing with problem mortgages, and have voiced interest in a buyout.

Buying into a buyout

“The federal buyout program never anticipated a whole community being bought out, but the utter devastation of our area called for that,” said Mr. Tirone, who is now running for state Assembly.

To sweeten the deal, Mr. Cuomo created an “enhanced zone” within the buyout program that included a 10% cash bonus for homeowners who participated. It worked.

“People on the fence about selling just put blinders on and took the opportunity to get out,” said Mr. Tirone.

Their neighborhood on Staten Island’s southeastern shore today looks somewhat post-apocalyptic. Some lots are empty. Others are in various states of decay. The remains of a white-shingled house on Kissam Avenue sags in on itself behind an orange plastic fence. Six-foot-tall reeds encroach upon it from either side, brushing the boarded-up windows in the gentle breeze coming off the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

With the state cutting checks for dilapidated houses and Oakwood Beach’s transformation moving ahead, it didn’t take long for people in other hard-hit areas to start asking about selling out.

“I thought what happened over there was great, but it was hard for me to appreciate that while my own neighborhood was still totally destroyed,” said Frank Moszcynski, a resident of Ocean Breeze, just a mile and a half north of Oakwood Beach.

Residents there said that city officials who went on to establish the Build It Back program came to Ocean Breeze in November 2012 and pledged to buy back homes, but only at reduced, post-storm prices. It was not a great deal, but it was better than nothing.

“They said they’d be back tomorrow with paperwork to get things started,” Mr. Moszcynski recalled. “Tomorrow never came.”

Joe Herrnkind—a neighbor of Mr. Moszcynski who was unable to get back into his house for three days and who discovered that the floodwaters had gone as high as his attic—was similarly frustrated by what seemed to be the city’s ham-fisted response. In the spring of 2013, they formed the Staten Island Alliance, a community group focused on getting relief for the area around Ocean Breeze. Inspired by what had been done at Oakwood Beach, Mr. Moszcynski inquired about the state buyout program, only to be told by a local city official, “I think we can both agree that ship has sailed.”

Neighbors organize

Undeterred, Mr. Moszcynski began to ask around. A few weeks later, a mutual friend introduced him to Mr. Tirone, who assured Mr. Moszcynski that the buyout program was very much available to those who knew how to apply.

Playing the role that community leaders in Tennessee and upstate had played for him, Mr. Tirone guided the alliance through a bureaucratic maze.

Ocean Breeze homeowners responded much like those in Oakwood Beach had. Messrs. Herrnkind and Moszcynski on weekends set up a tent in their neighborhood and urged neighbors to sign a petition urging the governor to buy them out. More than 90% did, and on Nov. 19 of last year, Mr. Cuomo stood next to the tent and told the community that the buyout would go forward.

“I hadn’t seen that many smiles since before the storm,” said Mr. Moszcynski. “There was finally some sense of hope around here.”

After that press conference, buyouts started in Ocean Breeze, and Mr. Cuomo has again used the enhanced zone idea to increase the participation rate, helping to return this quiet community to nature.

“People here are happy with the buyout,” said Mr. Herrnkind. “We’re moving on with our lives a lot faster than the people in Build It Back.”

Correction: City officials who eventually established the Build It Back program visited Ocean Breeze in November 2012. This fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article, originally published online Oct. 20, 2014.

A version of this article appears in the October 20, 2014, print issue of Crain’s New York Business.