NEW YORK – The Big Apple is getting another "biggest": the world's tallest Ferris wheel, part of an ambitious plan to draw New Yorkers and tourists alike to the city's so-called "forgotten borough."
The 625-foot-tall, $230 million New York Wheel is to grace a spot in Staten Island overlooking the Statue of Liberty and the downtown Manhattan skyline, offering a singular view as it sweeps higher than other big wheels like the Singapore Flyer, the London Eye, and a "High Roller" planned for Las Vegas.
Designed to carry 1,440 passengers at a time, it's expected to draw 4.5 million people a year to a setting that also would include a 100-shop outlet mall and a 200-room hotel.
It will be "an attraction unlike any other in New York City -- in fact, it will be, we think, unlike any other on the planet," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said as he unveiled the plans against the backdrop of New York Harbor. While the privately financed project faces various reviews, officials hope to have the wheel turning by the end of 2015.
The wheel would put Staten Island on the map of superlatives in a place where "biggest" is almost an expectation -- home to the nation's biggest city population, busiest mass-transit system, even the biggest Applebee's restaurant.
The attraction stands to change the profile of the least populous and most remote of the city's five boroughs, a sometime municipal underdog that has taken insults from New Jersey and was once known for having the world's largest ... landfill.
"It's going to be a real icon. The Ferris wheel will be Staten Island's Eiffel Tower," Sen. Charles Schumer enthused.
As a visible addition to the skyline around the harbor, the wheel "gives Staten Island an identity beyond its role as a suburban community," while letting it tap into the stream of tourist money in a city that drew 50.9 million visitors last year, said Mitchell Moss, a New York University urban policy professor.
The project is expected to bring $500 million in private investment and 1,100 permanent jobs to the borough's St. George waterfront, and the developers will pay the city $2.5 million a year in rent for the land.
Staten Island isn't entirely off the tourist map. Its free ferry is the city's third-largest tourist attraction, carrying an estimated 2 million visitors a year alongside millions of residents, city officials say.
But the city has long struggled to entice tourists off the boat and into Staten Island. Much-touted Staten Island sightseeing bus tours fizzled within a year in 2009 for lack of ridership.
Australian tourists Leah Field and Adam Lica, for example, were riding the ferry Thursday for its views of the Statue of Liberty. They thought they might have lunch on the Staten Island side but weren't planning to explore further.
"We weren't sure what there is to do there," explained Lica, 32, of Melbourne. But were there a giant Ferris wheel, the couple likely would go ride it, he said.
But Henriette Repmann, a German university student, said she wouldn't bother.
"You don't have to have the biggest Ferris wheel in the world to get a good view of New York," Repmann, 20, of Leipzig, said Thursday as she visited the Empire State Building.
Largely a bedroom community for other parts of the city, Staten Island boasts about 470,000 residents and a minor league ballpark, cultural sites and quirky attractions, from locations in the video for Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" to the Staten Island Zoo, home to New York's answer to Pennsylvania's prognosticating groundhog. The Staten Island rodent bears the dubious distinction of having once bitten Bloomberg.
But Staten Island, the only one of the city's five boroughs not accessible by subway, tends to get overshadowed by its bigger neighbors, so much so that some have at times suggested it secede from the city.
And residents often bristle at an image shaped by such television shows as "Mob Wives" and "Big Ang" -- and by a former New Jersey beach town mayor who portrayed Staten Islanders in a blog post as heavy on hairspray and light on class. (The ex-mayor, Ken Pringle of Belmar, visited Staten Island in 2008 to make amends.)
Resident Miatta Bryant also thinks the wheel might bring the borough more respect.
"People always say Staten Island is so boring," the 26-year-old certified nursing assistant said.
The Ferris wheel, state Assemblyman Matthew Titone hopes, will show the world a different Staten Island than the one they see on TV.
"They will see our cultural institutions and will see that we are not idiots," he said. "Shirtless, musclebound idiots."