Kriescher Hill/Charleston Woods Development

David Burg, October 2004

Kreischer Hill is a 130 acre city-owned site in southern Staten Island. According to the New York State Natural Heritage Program, the site is home to more rare species and ecological communities than any other site between the Hudson Highlands and Eastern Long Island. The rarest species on the site is Torrey’s mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torrei) known from fewer than twenty locations on earth. Though this species has not yet been listed on the official U.S. federal list of endangered species, it is rarer than many species that have been listed. It is very likely the rarest species of plant or animal to occur wild in New York City.

Incredibly, in 2004 the city slated destructive development for almost 100 acres of this publicly owned site. This was remarkable in light of the fact that the city and other government agencies have spent, or are planning to spend, hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase and restore other natural areas in New York City and the metro region. It is particularly disturbing that the city is selling 42 acres for a shopping center development for $15 million, about $8 a Sq. ft., a price that even shocked Staten Island real estate leaders (see article “Charleston land deal a steal?” Page 1, Staten Island Advance, 8/15/04). The Blumenfeld Development Group is the purchaser that will build the shopping center. Leases have been arranged with Home Depot and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Other planned development includes city park sports fields (and attendant buildings and parking lot), a bus depot, and housing. Many alternative sites are available for these developments. Available sites include the former GATX terminal property, the former Fresh Kills Land Fill, and other former industrial sites.

In August 2004, development of Kreischer Hill was temporarily halted by a lawsuit filed on behalf of three environmental groups: WildMetro, Sweet Bay Magnolia Bioreserve Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Among those filing affidavits on behalf of the suit were Staten Island botanist Richard Buegler, president of Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, and Dr. Andrew Greller, president of the Torrey Botanical Society and emeritus professor of botany at Queens College, CUNY. On October 4, a judge ruled that the city could proceed with the sale of 42 acres for development of the “big box” shopping center.

Including the mint, state records show that the site and the adjacent Clay Pit Pond State Preserve harbor 14 state listed “elements”, i.e. rare species or communities. Among the rarities are the northernmost Virginia pines and short-leafed pines in North America, numerous other rare plants, and a population of state endangered eastern mud turtles. Including some of the species just mentioned, studies have identified 30 species of plants on the site that are rare in New York state or New York City. The site has a reproducing American Chestnut tree. This may be the only reproducing tree of this species in New York State. In addition to plants and the turtle previously noted, the site is home to box turtles, a New York State species of special concern, and a large population of breeding eastern towhees, a bird species that has been identified as “declining throughout range” and experiencing significant declines in our region. Further, this area harbors the only breeding population of white-tailed deer in New York City.

Even without the rarities, Kreischer Hill is remarkable, unique and deserving of protection. It has many species that depend on fire ecology, including the largest area of dense native greenbriar vines in the region, and a vigorous young forest of oak, poplar, sweetgum, and other trees. The fact that Kreischer Hill borders Clay Pit Pond State Preserve and is close to Bloomingdale Park and several privately owned natural areas greatly magnifies the value of the site. Kreischer Hill is the heart of the last big block of vulnerable open space in New York City. Though development plans have been announced for almost all the private lands, a number of agencies have made funds available for purchase of these lands. Kreischer Hill is a keystone of the last big natural area protection opportunity in New York City. The sites are still intact and shelter a magnificent remnant of the wild heritage of our region.

Priority protection of Kreischer Hill/Charleston Woods was previously called for in studies by the US EPA Harbor Estuary Program and in the “Islanded Nature” report issued in 2001 by the Trust for Public Land and New York City Audubon. The site was also included in the list of acquisition of the New York State Open Space Plan.

Gotham Gazette article form December 2004 (pdf format) has more information.


Update April 2006

Even though the lawsuit was won by the coalition, the shoppping mall was built, albeit on a slightly smaller piece of land. Most of the photographs to the right depict the development of Charleston Woods. Some aras were maintained for protection of rare plants, although the photographs to the right demonstrate how minimal those lands are. It is important to note that almost all of the rare species found on the site are tolerant or dependent on some degree of disturbance. Even if some construction clearing takes place, the site is still worth protecting. These species can recover from disturbance.

Destruction of Kreischer Hill (2004)

Current view of Kriescher Hil (2006)l

Torrey's mountain mint at Kriescher Hill

"Protection" of rare species (2006)

"Protection" of rare species (2006)