We were struck the other day by a story in the Advance about the borough’s leading environmental organization, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, marking the anniversary of one of its greatest triumphs.
The event was a nature walk through the beautiful St. Francis Woodlands tract atop Todt Hill and the occasion was a commemoration of the group’s success in persuading then-Gov. George Pataki to have the state purchase most of a 29-acre tract surrounding the St. Francis Friary.
The Conventual Franciscans, the order that owned the property and ran a retreat house and religious center in the main building on the site for the better part of a century, was eager to shed the expense of maintaining the sprawling tract.
No doubt, the order was also well aware that the value of this ultra-prime piece of real estate amid one of the region’s most affluent communities was considerable.
According to reports, it had been priced at $21.5 million, and that’s in 1995 dollars.
However, to their eternal credit, the Franciscans patiently worked out a deal whereby the state could buy 24 acres of the woods and other open space on property for about half that price, with the order retaining the rest for its friary and spirituality center for the past couple of decades.
‘Truly a treasure’
“The woodlands of the friary are truly a treasure,” Clifford Hagen, the president of Protectors said during last week’s nature walk. “Our mission has always been about preserving and protecting the beautiful areas that are part of our borough.”
He’s right to crow. His organization, led at the time by the dauntless Ellen Pratt and co-founder, Richard Buegler, was instrumental in preserving what was to become the crown jewel of the 2,500-acre Staten Island Greenbelt.
But now the Franciscans have moved out altogether and have been in discussions to sell the remaining five acres. A sale, we’re told, is imminent.
But to whom?
And for what purpose?
The Franciscans, citing the need for confidentiality amid ongoing negotiations, say they can’t say, but the Rev. Brad Milunski, the vicar provincial for the Our Lady of the Angels Province of the Conventual Franciscan Friars, has told residents and Mid-Island Councilman Steven Matteo not to worry.
Mr. Matteo said, “First and foremost, I want to see the property used in a way that does not burden the community. I have let the Friars know that I believe the site should be sold to a buyer that would use the friary for a purpose similar to the use they had for it over the years. I am reassured that is their intent with the sale of this property.”
And Dr. Mohammad Khalid, president of the Iron Hills Civic Association, echoed that confidence when he reported last month, “Father Brad assured me that there will be no other things except a religious order coming here, and it will be something similar to what is here now. The only reason they can’t disclose [which organization is interested in the property] to us is because of a confidentiality agreement. But Father Brad assured us that this won’t be a another Mount Manresa.”
Those are the magic words for wary Staten Islanders who have recent, bitter memories of Mount Manresa, another beautiful property owned by another religious organization with long-standing ties in the community.
But that 15-acre property that was sold before anyone knew what was happening, and to a developer whose plans to tear down the woods and the historic buildings to build 250 townhouses are proceeding, thanks to the complacency of many.
‘A stronger voice’
No, the same thing won’t happen on Todt Hill. Its restrictive zoning allows for only detached houses on large lots. We just don’t share the confidence Mr. Hagen had when he assured his fellow Protectors, “It’s similar (to Mount Manresa) in a sense it being a religious institution, but it is very dissimilar. The community here up on Todt Hill has a stronger voice, they’re certainly well-organized and they have the help of City Council.”
All true, but even that would mean the loss of priceless open space and significant old buildings.
What’s more, even medium-scale residential development on the site, with the increased traffic and other effects it would bring, would inevitably have a negative impact on the quality of life of the larger community.
We still don’t know what “religious order” is the buyer. And, despite assurances, we don’t know what its intentions are.
Do they plan to host large events, for example? Nor do we know its capacity for carrying out its plans, whatever they might be.
Another non-profit religious organization could find maintaining the property as financially difficult as the Franciscans did. What happens then? Might that group turn around and sell again in a year or two? Some developers are surely salivating at the prospect of building an enclave of high-end homes there.
So with all due respect to Father Milunski and his brethren, as well as Mr. Matteo, a lot of Staten Islanders won’t be able to rest easy until they know who the new owners might be, what their plans are and what kind of track record they have.
Sorry, but we think wariness is still the most prudent approach here.