Can The Roosevelt Island Residents Association Become Relevant?

Updated 9 weeks ago David Stone
Good Shepherd Plaza, Roosevelt Islanc
Good Shepherd Plaza, Roosevelt Islanc
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

What’s True?

Benefitting from years of free, biweekly promotion in the Main Street WIRE, the Roosevelt Island Residents Association may seem like a powerhouse, an institution deeply engaged with Islanders and their concerns. But does that perception square with reality? 

Take a closer look. You may find yourself scratching your head, trying to figure out what RIRA is, what it really does and, importantly, for whom it does it.

What Is RIRA?

The simple answer is that the Roosevelt Island Residents Association is you and me. You and all your neighbors are the Residents Association.  

According to RIRA president Jeffrey Escobar “each and every one of us” is a member “when we become a resident of this Island…” 

Each of us instantly earns the privilege of voting for RIRA’s officers as well as the Common Council. If we like, we can even nominate ourselves as candidates to represent our buildings. Residents needn’t be registered voters or even American citizens.

But does that simplicity, that ease of membership, result in a Common Council that, as Escobar says, “represents your interests,” as you might expect? For reasons that aren’t always obvious, the answer is far from clear.

Raw facts can’t tell you why the Common Council meets once a month, gets the ears of elected representatives and limitless lines of free publicity in our print media, but they can teach us some things about the dynamics and community values of the Association.

Fact #1: In 2014, the last round of voting for forty-two seats on the Common Council, designated by building, a grand total of 1,005 ballots were cast, according to the Roosevelt Islander Blog. The 2010 census reports the Island’s population as 11,661 residents. 

Do the math and you see that less than 10% of Islanders voted. If we generously assume 20% were ineligible, being under 18, the results still linger drearily at under 11%. Or, looked at from another angle, nearly 90% of eligible RIRA members didn’t bother to vote at all.

Fact #2: Although RIRA’s leaders set up a half-dozen “Candidate Night” gatherings and the Main Street WIRE promoted the 2014 election as a “watershed” event, most residential buildings failed to come up with enough candidates to vie for all the Council seats up for grabs. One building, 2 River Road, failed to scratch up a single candidate. Neither Riverwalk nor Manhattan Park fielded enough candidates to fill half their allocated seats. 

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that nursing facilities for long term residents, Goldwater (now defunct) and Coler Hospitals, have not been recognized by RIRA at all. The city owned nursing homes, where residency may be as stable as in any other residential complex, are not given seats on the Common Council. 

That’s not democracy, and it’s a sobering reality for Islanders who remember how proudly the community was launched as a pioneer in handicapped accessibility.

With numbers barely scraping the surface of community participation, how can RIRA claim to represent the interests of Roosevelt Islanders? And if it does not, what interests do fill up the Council agenda?

A Community Question

As a resident of Roosevelt Island, when was the last time you had something on your mind, an issue or a problem, where you thought your best bet for resolution meant contacting the nearest RIRA representative?

Let’s take it a step farther: do you know who your representative is or even if you have one?

Chances are, you didn't answer either question positively, and if you did, chances are you’re the representative yourself. 

So, what has the Common Council been doing in your behalf lately and how would you know about it?

Considering this raises a troubling question of balance. 

Of the original WIRE buildings (Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastview — now known as Roosevelt Landings), only Roosevelt Landings failed to field enough candidates to fill their allocated seats on the Common Council. Of the remaining buildings, from the Octagon to Southtown, only 4 River Road, which has only a single seat, was able to encourage enough candidates to run.

The result is a structural imbalance that weighs heavily in favor of the concerns, interests and enthusiasms of the original set of Roosevelt Island residential buildings. RIRA has failed to be inclusive enough to bring into its fold a significant presence from any of the buildings that followed in the next quarter of a century.

What Does RIRA Do?

With members as passionate and committed to the community as Sherie Helstein, Frank Farance, Dave Evans and Ellen Polivy, among an impressive roster, residents can take for granted that the Common Council does some good, constructive work.

A high water mark came a few years back when then President Matthew Katz’s artful cultivation of relationships with our elected representatives was partly responsible for bringing the Metrocard System to the Tram, saving us money and generating increased revenue for our often endangered treasure.

RIRA also organizes an effective blood donor drive every year that unselfishly benefits friends and strangers alike. And whether the subjects are of universal value to the community of not, the Common Council is an ongoing forum for debate, one that gets passionate enough at times that fists can fly.

Arguably, however, the Residents’ Association’s greatest responsibility lies in guiding RIOC, the State public benefit corporation charged with managing development here, in how it disburses Public Purpose Funds. This job is one that needs looking at more closely.

About Public Purpose Funds

Public Purpose Funds are one of those Island things you hear about but few understand. That’s unfortunate because their influence substantially affects the quality of life here and should reflect the will and values of the population.

The Funds began as a pioneering concept in community development. When Manhattan Park was built, its developers agreed to turn over a substantial amount of cash to be used for “community purposes” in lieu of taxes. 

In 2008, with money running low, RIOC generously made an appropriation of $100,000 from its annual budget to add to the fund. As part of a RIOC Board resolution, RIRA was charged with “reviewing applications and making recommendations” for how the money is given out to organizations “…supporting programs and projects that enrich the Roosevelt Island community.”

It’s a program any community could embrace, a sign of the State’s commitment without political overtones. But is it clear that RIRA, which cannot legitimately claim to represent the community as a whole because participation is so light and unbalanced, should be the group that decides who gets what funding?

According to RIOC rules, a committee formed within RIRA to consider applicants must meet strict requirements for avoiding conflicts of interest. That’s easier said than done, of course, because self-determined interests are endemic within any political organization. Those interests are necessarily territorial for elected representatives.

Would a building representative from Rivercross, for example, reach out to an organization, however beneficial and effective, that operates from the Octagon? Would the Rivercross resident even know about it?

Making the case more clearly is the unavoidable fact that RIRA’s obliviousness toward the residents of our longterm care facility results in not a single application or award to or from any group supporting them. Yet we know, from the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association’s advocacy, that creative artist groups thrive there. Simple intuition tells us that funds for activities for shut-ins might well “enrich the Roosevelt Island community.” 

Making RIRA Relevant

To give credit where credit is more than due, RIRA President Jeffrey Escobar pulled off a near miracle by bringing calm to a fractious Common Council he inherited. Already a highly respected attorney at Haynes and Boone as well as an active member of Community Board 8, Escobar was still willing to run for reelection in 2014 at what must be a considerable personal sacrifice.

In addition to leading the Common Council, Escobar produces a lengthy column for the Main Street WIRE, which features it prominently as a voice to the community from RIRA. A closer look, though, exposes the political conflicts that entangle RIRA and its intimate relationship with the newspaper.

In the most recent WIRE issue, as of this writing, as an example, Escobar’s column echoes an article about the unveiling of Blue Dragon, a children’s sculpture donated by world-renowned artists Gustav and Ulla Kraitz. In the WIRE article, RIOC is mentioned only in a comment from RIVAA President Tad Sudol. Escobar doesn’t mention the State agency at all while ramping up praise for his own organization and its role in bringing the sculpture here, which in reality was inconsequential.

Kudos go to RIOC’s Acting President Susan Rosenthal, an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, as much for her commitment to partnering with RIVAA as for raising not a single objection to being snubbed by both RIRA and the Main Street WIRE.

Blue Dragon was such a signature project for RIOC and RIVAA that Rosenthal hosted the unveiling ceremony while workers from her organization provided the physical labor of putting the sculpture in place and setting up chairs, tents and public address systems. 

It’s of no service to the Roosevelt Island community when the benefits of multiple organizations working together fail to be recognized fairly by RIRA's President who instead turns the spotlight on his own, lightly involved organization. 

As a start toward getting better, the Residents’ Association might begin by recognizing RIOC as a partner in the community, not as the opposition. The dynamics are there to accomplish much. Recent RIOC administrators have consistently been open to talking with RIRA and its committees. The results have been mixed but can be better.

Another step would be the kind of open communications any successful grass roots organizations must have with its community. Council Members might host listening sessions with the residents of their buildings on a scheduled basis. Initial attendance would be small, but effective action coming out of the meetings would increase it.

People are political animals eager to be part of their communities. RIRA should acknowledge that readily and welcome the vast range of views in a community as diverse as ours. Cultural changes inevitable with the increasing Asian population in many buildings can infuse RIRA with fresh ideas, for example.

As important as anything else, RIRA would be wise to shed long held resistance to partnerships with our governing officials. The current administration at RIOC, coupled with its Board of mostly local residents, offers as good a chance as Roosevelt Island is likely to have to begin working creatively together.

Wouldn’t that be nice, a community bucking the current trend of living off adversities and showing how much more partnerships, mutual respect and flexibility can accomplish? 

Outsiders might again look at Roosevelt Island as they once did, recognizing its promise as the “City of Tomorrow.”

What do you think?


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