Staten Islander Joseph Ferrara, principal of BFC Partners, takes on one of the most anticipated projects in the is land’s history
by JENNIFER VIKSE • Photos By Pasha Nowrouzi
If you live on Staten Island’s South Shore, Joseph Ferrara just might be your neighbor. A Brooklyn transplant, like so many in the borough, he called the Island home for years, along with his wife of 26 years, Elvira, three grown children, and a grandson.
Ferrara was born “Giuseppe” to parents Pietro and Francesca, who emigrated from Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily. When he was growing up, he spent his summers on the Mediterranean shores of Trapani.
“I remember steamy summer nights, enjoying incredible meals, being around my family, and watching my parents interact with everyone joyously after being out of touch for what seemed like an eternity. Remember that back then, there was no Facetime or Facebook, so the only time we got to be with or see my Italian counterparts was when we flew to Italy,” said Ferrara. “So no moment was taken for granted.”
As his career began to take shape, Ferrara would often reflect on those summers and what it meant to travel with family and make memories. These experiences serve him particularly well with his latest endeavor.
Ferrara is a principal of BFC Partners, which has developed and built many of the city’s finer residential, office, and mixed-use projects with owner/operators Donald Capoccia and Brandon Baron. If BFC sounds familiar, it’s probably because the firm is the parent of the high-profile Empire Outlets project, which, according to a company statement, will be “a category-defining retail destination and New York City’s first and only shopping outlet.”
The shopping facility, which will be located just steps from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and adjacent to the in-progress New York Wheel, will be home to 100 retailers as well as more than 60 food and beverage options and a boutique hotel. The much-anticipated center is set to open in the next year.
Empire Outlets is being marketed as the “retail centerpiece of New York City’s newest entertainment district of Staten Island’s waterfront,” and will showcase retailers that appeal to both mainstream America and to consumers looking for more upscale designer brands.
“It’s the retail jewel of what’s happening on the waterfront. It’s pretty important,” said Ferrara, speaking from his Staten Island office. And this project isn’t the first time BFC has worked on the Island.
“We started doing business on Staten Island eight or nine years ago,” he recalled. “We completed the Rail building [in Stapleton]. That kickstarted what’s happening on the North Shore now.”
At the time, Ferrara said, he was constantly under siege by anti-development groups that didn’t share his and his partners’ vision for Staten Island. But that’s changed. “Our book of business on Staten Island has grown to 2 million square feet,” he reported.
When it’s completed, Empire Outlets will come in at 1.1 million square feet. With the outer build almost finished, the company feels the most challenging parts of the project are behind it.
“From a construction perspective, this was very challenging,” Ferrara confided. From displacing commuter parking to reinforcing the Island’s train system and building in storm resiliency, it was a unique undertaking. “The Staten Island train sits underneath us. There’s a big difference in elevation from the promenade to Richmond Terrace. We had to build a tunnel to protect the SIRR. That control building that controls the train—it was a challenge. We’re through it, though.”
As for storm resiliency, the build—which sits on an eight-acre tract of land—has a huge retention tank for overflow water. “Being right on the harbor, we wanted to protect as much as we can of the ferry building,” explained the developer. “We turned an eight-acre piece of dirt into a retention tank. Most of our mechanicals are above-grade. We’ve gone above and beyond to be able to protect our neighbors regarding weather events.”
Concurrently, Ferrara’s marketing team has been working with the New York Wheel to market the destination on a national and international level and to rebrand Staten Island as a premier place to visit.
“It’s a huge international draw we have to cater to, plus the entire city,” he explained. “When a visitor comes to New York City, they are looking for the most efficient way to spend their time. They come for three to four days, and jam in everything they can—the number-one thing is shopping, then tourist attractions.”
And the Staten Island Ferry, as luck would have it, comes in third behind Times Square and the Statue of Liberty on the list of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
“Historically, our borough has been stigmatized by reality TV and the dump; when you are trying to talk to international clientele, people just don’t understand,” he said. “I’m proud to say I am from Staten Island. I’m so passionate about the borough.”
To help explain to that foreign market what the waterfront and the borough at large has to offer, Ferrara and his team created the Destination St. George campaign. “We folded in the St. George Theatre, the Staten Island Museum, Snug Harbor, the Lighthouse Museum, Lighthouse Point, and the Staten Island Yankees.”
Looking back on his experiences traveling as a child and young adult, opportunities his children would also enjoy with their grandparents, Ferrara smiled. “I sit and think about what kind of experience I want our visitor to be submerged in. First and foremost, I remember the seaside shops and restaurants my family used to take to me as a child. I remember walking a waterfront esplanade on the shores of Sicily and being amazed at the flutter of activity, from street vendors to the smell of the sea, along with tempting culinary options—as people interacted with one another and just enjoyed being outdoors in an active and vibrant setting. That’s what I am trying to create here. From world-class shopping to the latest and hippest culinary talent options, I want to make sure that our visitors experience something they will want to repeat time and time again.”
Ferrara’s goal, from a retail perspective, is to have those visitors spend three to four hours in the outlet center. “Do your shopping, ride the Wheel, experience the gardens, a museum, a kid who wants to go to a ball game. We’re promoting the whole North Shore. Give people different options to get them to stay longer than a day.”
And since the region’s other outlet centers are a two-hour drive from the city, it’s really a no-brainer. “When they come here, they are not wasting time traveling further. Each year, 3.5 million tourists ride the Staten Island Ferry, take a selfie with the Statue of Liberty; [now] they can do all of that and go to a Broadway-like show…no time wasted,” he said. “Not many people get the opportunity to create a tourist attraction.”
For Staten Islanders, Ferrara is creating an experience, a lifestyle center that people will want to return to frequently. “Our project is first in class when it comes to design—we are overseen by the Design Commission. We’ll be made of aluminum, zinc, glass—very sexy, very urban. People are amazed by the architecture.” As important as the look, Ferrara said, is the programming, and what’s happening in public spaces will be just as important as the retailers—which will range from the Nike Factory Store to a jewelry exchange to the Mighty Quinn BBQ and Staten Island’s first
“Each year, 3.5 million tourists ride the Ferry and take a selfie with the Statue of Liberty; [now] they can do that and [go to] a Broadway-like show. No time wasted.”
artisanal food hall, a concept designed by the creative team behind the Market on Gansevoort Street in the Meat Packing District in Manhattan.
“We’re thinking in advance to engage the visitor with sensory experiences,” he said. “We need to engage children, and millennials are a very important component to what we do. We’re looking at programming music festivals, food festivals, sporting events, and running clubs.”
It’s crucial to hit every demographic, Ferrara added. “Shoppers will have the ability to buy anything from a onesie to a $15,000 couture gown at an $8,000 savings.”
Perhaps the biggest impact will come from the employment opportunities for Islanders—more than 1,000 jobs will be created. “That’s really important from an economic standpoint. The waves that it will generate will echo upland. Now the storefronts in the area are sort of sleepy.” But Ferrara thinks that will change. Retailers that didn’t get space in the outlet center itself will find spots in the neighborhood, and there will be a cohesive alignment along the waterfront and up into St. George and other nearby neighborhoods.
While the developer is excited about every aspect of the project, what he finds most thrilling is that it’s all happening here in his hometown. “I don’t want to disappoint Staten Islanders. I want to get it right. I want to create an experience that the borough can be proud of,” he said.
“I really want to get it right,” he emphasized with a laugh. “Or I’ll have to move.”