RIOC Tackles a Fresh Challenge

How Will Changes Affect Southpoint Park and the Smallpox Hospital?

Updated 1 year ago David Stone
Southpoint Park, Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruins
Southpoint Park, Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruins
Photo Courtesy Fitzgerald and Halliday

As RIOC steers local development through a sea of disruptive change, the State public benefit corporation faces major challenges in finding the best directions for making inevitable changes progressive and community oriented.

“We want to develop a plan to guide the future development of the Park and Ruins,” says RIOC Acting President Susan Rosenthal. “We can’t wait,” she adds, emphasizing the strategic importance of what remains of the Renwick designed Smallpox Hospital. 

In hiring highly regarded Fitzgerald and Halliday, Inc. (FHI) as consultants to head a year long reconsideration of Southpoint Park, RIOC makes a positive step forward, although one glaring flaw threatens to mar an otherwise promising start.

The first time I sneaked into the undeveloped space that is now Southpoint Park, out for a run on a winter morning, I found a gate that barred entry to the island south of Goldwater Hospital left open. A RIOC public safety patrol had either forgotten to close it or found the weather too cold to get them out of a warm vehicle.

Making tracks in fresh, overnight snow, I followed the dirt road past the Smallpox Hospital ruins to a meadow where the United Nations was closer, across the river, than my home in Manhattan Park. The views are still spectacular, but that first time was memorable.

Later, after fire-ravaged ruins of the old City Hospital were cleaned up, an apron installed underground to prevent contaminated waste from seeping to the surface and a landscaped park gracefully realized, it remained a pleasure to run through, appreciating the survival of this small piece of open space.

Today, where mated pairs of wild geese used to invigorate each spring by leading their young charges out from what is now FDR Four Freedoms Park, that valued space is facing pressures unimagined twenty years ago. 

Surrounded by Giants

As recently as 2012, when Four Freedoms Park opened, no one envisioned a world class technology campus rising on the opposite, north flank of Southpoint Park.

While Four Freedoms required years of negotiation and fundraising, Cornell Tech arrived on the scene in a hurry, a twinkle in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eye that yielded awe-inspiring results faster than we imagine city government ever does anything.

As the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial works to stimulate attendance, the campus being built raises local hopes for a tech sector to rival Silicon Valley’s. Between these emerging giants lies the soft-edged recess of Southpoint Park.

Roosevelt Island, at this stage of development is tilting heavily southward, its center of gravity slipping away from Good Shepherd Plaza with accelerating haste.

In recognizing the challenges, RIOC decided to engage FHI as planning consultants “to develop an implementable plan that will guide the future of Southpoint Park and the Smallpox Hospital for the next ten years.” FHI has in turn engaged Margie Ruddick Landscape and Plan A to advise them on architectural matters. Based on achievements, it’s a strong team.

Although not clearly stated as a mission, a primary goal is to keep Southpoint Park — or Open Space, as the planners now call it — and the fragile Smallpox Hospital for which it provides a home from being lost as a neglected valley incidentally separating two mountain ranges. 

Visioning

We used to call it “brainstorming” or “blue-skying” a project. Rough forays at generating ideas evolved into an art form called “visioning” with teams of professionals trained to maximize the process and keep it on track.

At a meeting in the Good Shepherd community room on April 28, Mary Miltimore, FHI’s Senior Community Planner and Designer, lead an advisory committee in such an exercise. This session followed an introduction to the project by Senior Project Manager Arnie Bloch.

There are additional team members, but Miltmore and Bloch will be the leaders Islanders will see most often.

The community advisory committee assembled to represent Island residents may be the weakest link for the project as it rolls out over the next year. We take a closer look at that later in this article.

Bloch set the stage for establishing a “vision for Southpoint Open Space,” which will include evaluating existing conditions and opportunities for improvement; developing, from there, an illustrative concept plan; and an implementation concept that includes prioritizations, cost elements and funding resources.

But that’s just the skeleton on which the community is being invited to add muscle, character and value. Here’s where Miltimore stepped in with an engaging exercise in drawing out ideas and concerns from the advisory committee about what Southpoint ought to be. 

The Exercise

Miltimore started by sharing the Trust for Public Land’s 2004 concept for Southpoint:

“Create a dynamic park that resonates with the spectacular island site,its ruin and landforms, as well as the ‘egalitarian and multi-cultural promise of Roosevelt Island.’

“Enhance the shoreline, the wild, and natural landscape, and theecology of the site for the commercial enrichment of the Island community. Use the architecture and landforms of the site to create performance venues and environmental art that will attract large numbers of visitors from the rest of the world.”

That plan, marked by conflicting dynamics and overloaded with intentions, spurred a lively discussion. After marking sheets with elements from the concept plan that most interested them, the committee was asked to suggest more specific ideas for the future of Southpoint.

More esthetic restrooms,  the Historical Society’s Judy Berdy offered along with an unflattering description of those now greeting visitors to Southpoint. Jim Bates, representing the Disabled Association, argued for better accessibility and seconded Berdy’s request for better bench seating.

Jane Swanson from Cornell Tech recommended that the open space be “gate free” while Eva Bosbach, speaking for the Parents Network, joined the Community Coalition’s Matthew Katz in hopes for some kind of cafe.

All these and others were collected for consideration and matched up with the results of a computerized analysis of earlier responses on paper. The program, “Wordle,” showed that, today, the most valued items from TPL’s original concept, at least for this group, are: “scenic viewpoints,” “place to relax,” “natural conservation,” “landscape esthetics” and “public gathering place.”

As entertaining and enlightening as this exercise was, it highlighted the most obvious flaw in the planning process, and that is the questionable composition of the Community Advisory Committee itself. 

The Advisory Committee

At first glance, what stands out with this group is that it’s made up from a lot of familiar names and faces. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Island residents like Matthew Katz, Jeffrey Escobar, and Jim Bates contribute hours of service every year to the incalculable benefit of the community. Christina Delfico’s efforts to engage children with nature are a wonder to observe, and Judy Berdy’s contributions to Island traditions are legendary.

But unsettling as the make up of the attendees might be on closer examination, the interests that go unrepresented are perhaps more substantial. Altogether, the group reinforces what’s consistently missing in Island outreach.

The group as it’s now constituted suffers from being stacked with Residents’ Association members. Jeffrey Escobar, the group’s president, is a member, but he represents Community Board 8, leaving RIRA to claim a second seat with David Lawson. Three more RIRA members represent other organizations, and Matthew Katz, representing the Community Coalition, another group heavily populated with RIRA members, is a RIRA past president and the spouse of the organization’s current vice president.

As the Daily has shown in a recent article, RIRA has little evidence to back its claims of fully representing the community. Putting the organization in virtual command of the Advisory Board raises questions of fairness and inclusion.

Those concerns are exacerbated by interests not represented on the Board. On opposite ends of the spectrum, neither the Senior Citizens Association nor the Youth Board have representatives. Color-Goldwater Hospital is as absent from the Advisory Board as it is from RIRA.

Tenant Associations from Riverwalk, Octagon and Manhattan Park are listed on the Board with their representatives “TBD,” that is, to be determined. That may take a while. As a 25 year resident of Manhattan Park, I’ve known of a single Tenant Association, and that folded the year before I moved in.

Where are our local businesses represented? Why the Visual Art Association and not Main Street Theatre and Dance? Why aren’t any religious organizations on the Board? And what about Hudson-Related, the developer so deeply invested in Roosevelt Island?

Completely lost is the burgeoning Asian community, composed largely of young students and professionals, that is changing our cultural balance.

A suggestion: halt this process until a proper, inclusive Advisory Board can be put in place. The gaps of interests left unrepresented are far too many, and the Residents’ Association’s dominance ought to be reconsidered.

It’s unlikely that FHI picked this board, and it will be unfortunate for the community if they remain stuck with it.

The Saving Grace of the Future

The make up of the Advisory Committee notwithstanding, RIOC’s initiative is off to a promising start. Ample time remains to make up for the shortcomings. Fitzgerald and Halliday is committed to community outreach and has scheduled three all day sessions to talk with Roosevelt Islanders, to share their ideas and to gather yours. Those are:

  • May 14 at the Farmers Market under the Roosevelt Island Bridge helix.
  • May 21 at the Bike Walk New York Helmet Giveaway in Good Shepherd Plaza
  • June 11, Roosevelt Island Day, Good Shepherd Plaza and Blackwell Park

FHI requests your attendance at these events. All Roosevelt Islanders have an open invitation to participate in shaping the future of a critical piece of our community, our last open space, while it can still be fitted to our interests. 

Please share your thoughts.

 

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