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As the city grapples with rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, developers are pressing ahead with plans for an ambitious addition to the shoreline of Staten Island: the world's largest Ferris wheel.
Sandy's flooding spurred some changes to the $500 million project, which includes an outlet mall and hotel. But developers haven't slowed it or scaled it back.
Yet some residents, a city watchdog and a planning group have asked whether it makes sense to push ahead with a 625-foot-tall tourist attraction, set partly in a flood zone, before officials take a comprehensive look at how to build smarter after Sandy.
The storm gave wheel developer Richard Marin "momentary pause," he said. But he quickly decided to keep going on a project he considers a boon for the city's oft-dubbed "forgotten borough."
"We're providing some things for the city and for the local community that they would have no other way of getting right now," said Marin, the chief executive of New York Wheel LLC.
The company is looking to line up a multimillion-dollar sponsor by April, with serious interest from a half-dozen companies at the moment, as the project works its way through government reviews.
The city Economic Development Corp., which is playing a leading role in the reviews, says it's "as committed as ever" to the plan. Private money will pay for the project, and the city would get $2.5 million a year in rent for two parking lots where the wheel, mall and hotel would be.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg envisions the attraction becoming one of the city's premier draws, offering vistas of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Developers aim to get it going by the end of 2015.
The project is several miles from the area Sandy struck hardest. Still, the storm pushed 3 to 4 feet of water onto the wheel and mall sites, developers said.
The project was already planned so ground floors would sit above what the federal government has, at least to this point, considered a once-in-100-year flood. But the 100-shop outlet center and 200-room hotel are already being raised another 2 feet.
Nonetheless, since Sandy, the developers have been making sure the buildings can withstand flooding. Surfaces on the wheel terminal's ground floor are now being planned in marble or other materials that can withstand seawater. Marin said developers are ensuring that electrical and mechanical equipment will be 30 feet above sea level, and the wheel itself will be designed to withstand sustained winds up to 129 mph, far stronger than Sandy's.
Mall and hotel developer BFC Partners is elevating key equipment and looking at stone or a water-resistant wall material for the most vulnerable store spaces, partner Joseph Ferrara said. After residents expressed concerns that the mall's four finger-like buildings could channel a storm surge into the neighborhood, the company is thinking about designing the garages to serve as massive retention pools if needed.
But some Staten Island residents are questioning whether it's the right time and place for the attraction.
Nancy Rooney, a nurse who lives and works on the island, went to a public meeting about the project last month and left with a rueful feeling.
"It was in poor taste to be discussing a Ferris wheel and all this glamor - it was very hard to embrace this when you knew that your colleagues and their family members were devastated, and there were people who don't have heat or electricity or homes," she said later.
Several City Council members and state legislators said in a letter they were aghast that the meeting was held little more than two weeks after the Oct. 29 storm, though they remained "generally supportive" of the project.
Marin said that developers were aware of the concerns, but that the meeting would have taken months to reschedule.
The city Independent Budget Office, a watchdog agency, and the Municipal Arts Society, a nonprofit urban planning group, spotlighted the Ferris wheel plan in separate blog posts. Building the Ferris wheel and other waterfront projects without a citywide look at coastal building "increases the risk that the next 'superstorm' will exact an even higher price tag," IBO spokesman Doug Turetsky wrote.