A DEVELOPER’S SUSTAINABLE ROOFTOP FARM IS CHANGING THE WAY THE COMMUNITY THINKS ABOUT FOOD
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO AND VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
The Nicotra Group is Staten Island’s largest private real estate developer. With its latest project, owners Lois and Richard Nicotra are thinking about “development” in another sense: the development and promotion of organic farming on Staten Island. The cornerstone of the project is their 40,000-square-foot sustainable Nicotra Grown Organic Rooftop Farm, located atop the eight-story Corporate Commons Three Class A office building. Agriculture has always been a major component of the island’s history, and with this latest venture, the Nicotra Group aims to make it the future, too.
Nicotra Grown Organic Rooftop Farm, developed by the Nicotras in consultation with urban agriculture expert Brooklyn Grange, formally opened in April of this year, with Mayor Eric Adams and DEP Commissioner Rohit T. Aggarwala in attendance. The building itself is a marvel, a blend of office space and outdoor working pods and classrooms, paired with restaurants, art, and outdoor walking trails. As this all came together, though, the growth of their Rooftop Farm was always at the heart of the Nicotras’ plan to enhance the cuisine served at the Nicotras’ five eateries in their Corporate Park of Staten Island.
“The Farm was part of our first discussions about Corporate Commons Three, more than seven years ago,” said Lois Nicotra. “Over time, the idea of our Farm grew to include different sections and functionality. The idea grew as we brought our farmers together with our team from our Hilton Garden Inn, our Lorenzo’s Restaurant, Bar & Cabaret, Pienza Brick Oven Pizza Café, and COMMONS café. Our chefs plan to use the seasonal crops that are featured in the cuisine at all of our eateries and event venues.”
As the Nicotras and their team worked to make that idea a reality, they met unexpected challenges. Building an eight-story, 330,000-square-foot Class A office building is unsurprisingly complicated, and especially so during a global pandemic. Adding the 40,000-square-foot agricultural element required all kinds of Herculean undertakings: installing irrigation, blowing tons of soil up to the rooftop, and creating a foot-deep planting bed, but the Nicotras had committed to the environ – mental effort and the vision of bringing fresh produce, herbs, and flowers to their tenants, guests, and the community. As farmers do, they weathered each storm and pushed through to make the Farm come to fruition.
The classic inaccessible New York rooftop this is not. The project is based on a sense of responsibility, both to the community and the environment. Along with farmers from Brooklyn Grange, The Nicotra Group team sources fresh food for several of its restaurants while keeping rainfall out of Staten Island’s drainage system, helping to manage storm water and reducing flood risk. The environmental advances marry beautifully with their goal of elevating the dining experience for their restaurant and hotel guests.
“With permeable pavers and by employing other measures to reduce water waste and run off, we are conserving water,” Richard Nicotra said. “By eliminating any use of pesticides, our Farm hosts an ecosystem that allows Mother Nature to bring the fruits and vegetables to harvest without man-made interference. And we are working with Brooklyn Grange to utilize processes that regenerate the soil in ‘green’ ways by using the nutrients from the previous crop to prepare for the next plantings.”
Of course, farming is also about enjoying the fruits of your labor. The Farm at Corporate Commons Three is home to a variety of perennial wildflowers, as well as an extensive vegetable garden. In this first growing season, from spring to fall, Nicotra Grown Organic Rooftop Farm has yielded romaine lettuce, arugula, raspberries, tomatoes, basil, lavender, thyme, zucchini, patty pan squash, and more. Those vegetables constitute the menus of three of the Nicotra eateries, two of which, COMMONS café and Pienza Brick Oven Pizza Café, are located in the same Corporate Commons complex as the Nicotra Grown Organic Rooftop Farm.
The Farm harvest stars on the menu for special events at Lorenzo’s Restaurant, Bar & Cabaret as well as Nicotra’s Ballroom and Above Staten Island, the Nicotras’ wedding and event venues. Local, fresh ingredients add a touch of personality to an event, one that produce trucked across the country simply can’t match. In today’s wedding landscape, where bespoke, custom concepts are all the rage, this Farm is truly in style. In season, the Nicotras deliver over 40 flats of fruits, vegetables, and herbs to their chefs twice a week.
“It’s a way to enhance both flavor and the dining experience,” said Executive Chef Peter Bereza. “For a bride to know that the tomato she’s enjoying on her plate was picked fresh that morning, it lends a different flavor to the entire experience.”
Both Pienza Brick Oven Pizza Café and the COMMONS café are social enterprise eateries. The Nicotras don’t take a penny of profit from the two social enterprises. They have gifted profits of more than $1 million in donations to the Staten Island community in the form of grants to non-profit groups and as higher education scholarships to their employees’ children and grandchildren. The Nicotras have added signature public art, a vineyard, and a walking path to the grounds around their buildings, and they invite tenants and neighbors to enjoy the neighborhood they created. It all ties back to the concept of cultivation, from environmental stewardship to tending to the soil to investing in the wider Staten Island community. As any gardener knows, you have to put in a sustained effort over many years to get results. The Rooftop Farm and the harvest it yields is the culmination of years of effort and planning.
“We have been told by the hundreds of people who have visited our Farm, from our tenants to neighbors to our Rooftop Yoga participants, that we are setting a trend – and that’s a title we will happily embrace,” Lois Nicotra said. “We feel like we have always been farmers at heart, previously planting flowers and trees around the 425 acres we have developed on the West Shore of Staten Island. We think our Farm has brought the farm-to-table movement to our borough in a very real and sustainable way.”
It’s a radical concept, the idea that farming can be a daily part of life in a borough of New York City. With each harvest, the Nicotra Group is making that idea a reality, changing the way the community thinks about where they live and what they eat. It’s a momentous shift, but this company has never been one for small projects.
The Nicotra Grown Organic Rooftop Farm Corporate Commons Three, 1441 South Avenue officespacestatenisland.com