About Roosevelt Island

Inside Out on Roosevelt Island: Will Main Street Always Fail?

Updated 24 weeks ago David Stone
Chapel of the Good Shepherd and Island House
Chapel of the Good Shepherd and Island House
© David Stone for Roosevelt Island Daily

The problem with Roosevelt Island's Main Street is the same as you'd have if a depopulated Manhattan circled New York City with the other four boroughs pushed into the middle with all the people.

Roosevelt Island History in Reverse

You may not notice it at first because you're used to seeing things in a predictable way. You walk down the street and see the fronts of buildings. The unimpressive backsides are forgotten in alleys, often impossible to reach, wasted spaces.

But on Roosevelt Island, the opposite is true.

I lived here at least a year before going to a town meeting in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and discovering that the charming front entrance faced away, impossible to see from Main Street.

All this time, I thought, I've been admiring the church's rear end.

I should have noticed, of course. When you look with a clear eye, you find no obvious entrance on Main Street. What I'd been looking at every day really did look like what it was – the unimpressive back of a building, featuring a ramp to the basement.

Walk a little farther south to Blackwell House and see the pattern is repeated. 

You find an inviting doorway shaded by a tall tree that gets decorated in December. But don't be misled. From Main Street, you are gazing at the back door. Need proof? Swing around to the other side and you will find a broad, welcoming front porch, sweetly appropriate for its day.

Blackwell house was built on a knoll facing the river. On the far shore was Ravenswood, bucolic and destined to become New York City's first suburb. Main Street was paved past its back door.

A hopelessly unattractive power plant grows across the river in Queens now, but the area really was full of trees offering homes to birds, back then.

A Question About the WIRE Buildings

I've never heard or read a convincing answer to why the original Roosevelt Island housing complexes – Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastwood – were designed to defy the notion that they are located on an island, drastically diminishing views of tidal water flows, river traffic and even the skyline.

All four buildings shun the water and the skyline, crowding instead into a narrow, sun-deprived canyon that has watched numerous business fail for lack of foot traffic, among other things. Worse yet, lurking behind them are baffling pathways and courts as well as a row of what look like afterthought mother-in-law apartments, all of which obstruct river access and views.

My first impression of Main Street in the canyon was that it reminded me of campus dormitories I'd seen at the University of Buffalo, buildings maximizing space to house as many students as possible on limited real estate.

Later, I saw a more sinister reminder. Driving from Austria into the heart of Hungary, where decades were wasted under socialist rule behind the Iron Curtain, you first see concentrated urban space in the Hills of Buda, an old neighborhood of graceful homes overlooking the Danube, except that the neighborhoods are now broken up in places where the Soviets replaced single family homes with monotonous worker housing, employing an exterior esthetic similar to what we see of Island House.

Recently, a visitor from Europe was overheard looking across Main Street past the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, comparing the architecture to "early Stalinist."

That's an unfair assessment, of course, because once inside, you find living quarters that sharply contrast the external dullness of the building. Arresting views, exceptional amenities and a community more energetic and open than the gray harness of socialism ever permitted.

But standing on Main Street or walking by the WIRE buildings, you have to wonder what kind of thinking led the original designers to hide the waterfront with buildings like this and to make access between the single artery and the East River almost always indirect to the point of discouraging passage.

Why would anyone build a community's Main Street, a planned community yet, so that it skirted the rear end of an historic church without exposing its front and did the same with the even older farm house once owned by the local first family?

Main Street Shadows

Five years after Hudson and The Related Companies struck a deal with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. intended to spur development on Main Street, we still see numerous vacant storefronts, including spaces where a bakery, a hardware store and a chiropractor did business not long ago.

Frustrations surface and accusations fly over outsourced lease management, but in context, it seems lucky that the Hudson and Related partnership has accomplished as much as it has, adding a Subway, Scott Bobo's popular Main Street Sweets, Wholesome Foods, Roosevelt Island Liquor and preserving a home for RIVAA, the local artists' collective.

Unlike RIOC, which did so for years to support community services, Hudson and The Related Companies cannot subsidize businesses that aren't viable enough to pay current rents, let alone catch up on arrears. Virtually every business that closed on Main Street left a pile of debt as a parting gift to Roosevelt Island. Each struggled to the end. Few, if any, will ever repay RIOC for moneys owed. In the end, the business models didn't work, no matter how much cash RIOC sunk into them.

Demographics are a big issue on Main Street, given that businesses have little chance to draw off-Island customers. Population density coupled with discretionary spending capacity has never been enough to support the variety of businesses local residents want.

How many storefront bakeries can you find in the wealthier, more densely populated neighborhoods on the Upper East Side? How many hardware stores? If a successful formula is one of each for every 10,000 residents, which is what surviving on Roosevelt Island requires, you'd find bakeries on almost every block and hardware stores too.

It was never realistic to expect businesses like these to survive unsubsidized on Roosevelt Island.

But even if the demographics are against some commercial efforts along Main Street, the fact that community infrastructure has been built backwards makes all obstacles harder to overcome.

Think about it this way: if the original planners had followed the orientation of the existing historic buildings and faced the WIRE complexes toward the water, how much easier would it be to draw investors to locations that take advantage of water access and the dynamic views of sunrises and sunsets on the skyline?

But wait. Don't we already have an answer?

Southtown's Riverwalk Bar and Grill, for one, was so eager to exploit its island identity when construction allowed, it incorporated "river" in its name. It thrives as a meet up place for residents as well as a great spot to grab a bite from breakfast until closing.

Success also arrived for Fuji East, another local restaurant escaping Main Street's shadows. And Starbucks strategically placed its local coffee shop in open space too, the river and skyline unobstructed out its front windows.

The success of Southtown's businesses teaches us that, to be appreciated at its best advantage, an island needs to make a big deal of being an island. Why the original planners chose a completely contrary esthetic for the first buildings is hard to understand.

How much discussion went into the best ways to nullify the eye-pleasing fronts of Blackwell House and the Chapel of the Good Shepherd? What reasoning prevailed?

We are never going to know the answers, but we can do something about the results.

Reimagining the Main Street Canyon

Since the day does not seem imminent when engineers levitate structures to easily reorient them, we have no choice but to make the best of what we've got. And what we've got isn't hopeless, just maybe in need of a few tweaks and livelier uses. Some ideas:

  1. Move the Farmers Market to the plaza alongside the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. With renovations on the crumbling helix, underneath which the market now sets up, being inevitable, a new location might be needed anyway, at least temporarily. Why not conveniently in the center of the traditional community center? Access from Southtown would be much easier, and we might even see Octagon residents hopping off red buses to gather fresh vegetables, mingling with their seldom met neighbors. While we're at it, why not add a weekday to the mix? Fresh fruit needs to be, well... fresh, not a week old.
  2. In the same spirit of bringing the fuller community together in one location, wouldn't the same plaza be a great spot to put up tents for a holiday market? We can't compete with Columbus Circle or Union Square, but we have a golden opportunity to spend money locally. And wonder of wonders, we might very well draw residents out of campus housing at Cornell Tech. Coler Hospital employees might wander in the crisp air to consider goods not so easy to find in their home neighborhoods.
  3. The Roosevelt Island Residents Association extends volunteer efforts for blood drives, Easter egg hunts  and more. Wouldn't it be a great opportunity, if they sponsored a community night or two in the plaza. Neighbors get to know neighbors and share their experiences. Plug in a band and get everyone dancing. Is there a better way to spark the community involvement RIRA has long sought?
  4. Why not work with Hudson to make use of empty commercial spaces, the same way Chelsea Market does? Instead of trying to find a single business to fill them, why not break them up among multiple, smaller ventures? Chelsea Market rents out a large block of square footage to a motley, enterprising collection of artists and artisans who are able to sell their goods because they can pool the risks. Filled with local as well as outside vendors, the space would create an additional opportunity to increase foot traffic on Main Street.
  5. Apart from the Visitor Center at the Tram, why don't we have a Roosevelt Island Store? Time and again, local residents have shown their passion for home by buying out baseball caps and tote bags decorated with images of the Tram. But we have other landmarks, a lighthouse, a church, a farmhouse and even the historic framework preserved in the building of The Octagon. Tourists arrive by Tram, subway and bus every day. Why not sell them something to take home and pull them to the center of town for the opportunity?
  6. We could take a lesson from FDR Four Freedoms Park and use signs to increase the use of island assets. There's not a single sign at the subway directing visitors to The Promenade or Meditation Steps. Are we hoping visitors will just find one of the most exciting strolling locations in New York, stretching over a mile to the scenic lighthouse? Once on The Promenade, why isn't there a single sign pointing to The Chapel of the Good Shepherd or even, simply, "Shops and Stores?" And why is there no easy way to tell newcomers about the location of always needed restrooms? All of these are opportunities waiting to encourage traffic into, through and around Main Street, enhanced by river access.
  7. Since the relentlessly uninteresting wall of Island House will always tower over Good Shepherd Plaza, why not spruce it up with a mural? It would need to be appropriate for the character of the space below, but artists could vie for the honor.
  8. RIOC has teamed dynamically with the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association to relieve Motorgate of its poured concrete gloom with large artworks, most of them created at Fall for Arts Festivals. Doubtless, there are or can be more. A few enlivening the borders of Good Shepherd Plaza would create an additional inducement for visitors to come, linger and enjoy.

These are a few of the ideas that spring to mind for responding to the challenges of a Main Street weirdly built inside out. Readers, I am certain, can come up with more and better.

The important thing is that, as a community, we have the resources to jostle the status quo of struggling businesses and limited community engagement. There is never any better time than the present to get started, is there? So, who is going to lead?

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