About Roosevelt Island

When the Roosevelt Island Residents' Association Gets It Right

Updated 3 years ago David Stone
Traffic Stalled at the Bridge, Blocking Access To and From Roosevelt Island
Traffic Stalled at the Bridge, Blocking Access To and From Roosevelt Island
Photo: Courtesy of Frank Farance

When quickened with activism, Roosevelt Island's Residents' Association (RIRA) can do great things. Recent inspiring examples show how.

It's no surprise when Frank Farance steps into the fray. His default is to action. It's harder to imagine him sitting by, waiting for someone else to take the first step.

A longtime Residents' Association Council Member for Island House and former President, Farance looked out at Main Street on a Monday Morning, two weeks ago, and saw more than a nuisance. The massive, construction-induced traffic jam posed an imminent threat to safety, blocking the Island's single artery so completely that cars, trucks and buses were backed up across the Roosevelt Island Bridge and for blocks into Queens.

No emergency vehicle could arrive to fight a fire or to rush a heart attack victim to a hospital.

Farance swung into action, quickly documenting the mess with photographs and followed that up with detailed emails to RIOC, Con Ed – which was responsible for the construction – and the media. By day's end, RIOC's Acting President/CEO Susan Rosenthal announced that steps had been taken to assure that the situation would not repeat, thanking Farance for the heads up.

Trouble Waters at Manhattan Park

Ten days later, Farance reported to a Common Council online discussion group that an invitation for all Island residents to join Manhattan Park's pool club appeared to violate its ground lease by offering higher fees for those not living in Manhattan Park. He posted pertinent sections from the document.

He also chided management for not abiding, in his opinion, with the spirit of the lease, which includes reduced rents for Section 8 housing that accounts for 20% of the occupants. 

He was joined by a second RIRA Council Member, Helen Chiviras, who added concerns about racial discrimination as a factor in the pricing.

Within one day of fielding an inquiry on the matter from this newspaper, Manhattan Park management placed an ad in the Roosevelt Islander blog that removed the tiered fees.

(Note: Manhattan Park has made not a public statement about the change and continues to advertise tiered fees in its lobbies. It has not responded to Chiviras's concerns.)

Lessons To Be Learned

Earlier, I wrote that RIRA was not doing enough to make itself relevant to the community as a whole. Actions like these can quickly change that perception.

Because RIRA has no true budgeting authority or any right to make laws, its one true power lies in its ability to get things done for the community as a whole, to convince residents that it's the goto resource when concerns demand group action.

Frank Farance deserves credit for taking swift steps in the cited situations, but he is far from the only Common Council Member with the ability to do so. The Council is packed with smart, energetic people with foresight. Those qualities need to be turned toward a bias for taking action.

I'm not suggesting a Wild West show of chaotic plunges into disparate initiatives. Farance tempered his efforts by alerting the entire Council about them in detail. Why not make that a standard? To enable action, what if all an idea needs is to pass this test: Would I feel confident presenting this to my colleagues? 

Individual initiatives can be great and can, as these did, spur change without having to wait unnecessarily for meetings and consensus. Consensus can come later, if the problem is immediate. These acts can't help but raise RIRA's status in the community's view.

But on a broader level, a change of culture can serve the community in ways for which other organizations aren't capable or active.

Fortunately, we have an impressive example already in place.

The Roosevelt Island Community Coalition

The RICC, as it came to be known, was scrabbled together from residents, many already involved with RIRA, deeply concerned that Cornell Tech would overrun the community without giving enough back. In Cornell, the RICC faced an institution with a history of working positively with communities, including some in New York City, and the impromptu group hastily defined the contours of an engagement and worked diligently to be recognized through the ULURP process required by city law.

Covering what was to become the RICC for the Main Street WIRE, from the formative "Who? What? Where?" phase to its becoming a respected partner in welcoming the university to the community,  I was repeatedly (and as a resident, happily) surprised at how the group pulled itself together as a force.

ULURP, an ungainly abbreviation for a refined process requiring developers in New York City to jump through enough hoops to ensure that communities are respectfully considered before projects begin, was the pivot around which the RICC was organized.

At a first meeting, Jeff Escobar, an attorney who later became RIRA President, outlined the ULURP process through which Cornell was obliged to present its plans. Numerous points were indicated where, formally or informally, a community group could make its concerns heard and considered.

The details of that story have been reported elsewhere, but what matters here is how the RICC figured out how to find its leaders and worked with considerable elegance and effectiveness to succeed on behalf of Roosevelt Islanders. Escobar, Jonathan Kalkin, Joyce Short, Ellen Polivy and others stepped in as needed to keep the the coalition organized and energized.

At every step of the ULURP, the RICC showed up in force. Members arrived, hauling charts and presentations, to raise awareness, whether the meetings were in the evening or at midday. By the time the nearly year long process played out, Cornell had worked with the RICC to satisfy a long list of concerns from air quality to infrastructure to education. It was a clear win for all concerned.

The win was so resonant that it extended beyond its original intent. In our interview with RIOC President Charlene Indelicato as she was ending her tenure, she praised the RICC's leadership and the guidance that the group offered her organization. She told us, at the time she took control at RIOC, she'd have been lost without them.

What the RICC showed me – and continues to in a less active role – is that Roosevelt Island has the talent, the wisdom and the energy to do as much or more for its residents as any community can. It just needs that galvanizing force for leadership to take hold.

For the Future

In the past, Island groups have been energized into action when perceived threats, such as  the Tram's closing and the construction of Southtown, spiked worries. Undoubtedly, the people, abilities and passions are there to do it again. But do we need an Island-wide threat to get things started?

As Frank Farance has shown, individuals can quickly make a difference. The RICC has taught us that we have enough committed individuals and leaders to form groups for broader initiatives. The message for RIRA seems clear. To become not just relevant, but vital within the community, harness the creative powers we've repeatedly seen and use them to build inclusive initiatives.

RIRA has a chance to be the force where action is defined by community consciousness, more than a defender of last resort. Easter egg hunts and blood drives are fine endeavors with which RIRA routinely gets involved, but they aren't the defining efforts that only community activism can drive. A dozen organizations can organize blood drives and Easter egg hunts. Only a community coalition can lead the way to equal partnership with institutions for a dazzling future.

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