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Ban Parking on Roosevelt Island Main Street?

Updated 18 weeks ago David Stone
For some residents, Main Street parking is now an ingrained entitlement.
For some residents, Main Street parking is now an ingrained entitlement.
© David Stone/Roosevelt Island Daily

A lively conversation started on Twitter this week about the virtues of banning parking on Main Street on Roosevelt Island, but headwinds have pushed in the opposite direction for years.

Ban Main Street Parking: Why Not?

The ban proposed in tweets allows parking to continue in Motorgate and harks back to conditions that once existed here.

Until the mid-90s, traffic control stations near the top of the Roosevelt Island Bridge helix housed PSD officers enforcing a limited parking ban on the island. This was in the days before Southtown materialized into as much as a formal plan. Residential housing ended at the south end of Rivercross and Eastwood, now Roosevelt Landings, and what's now Southpoint and Four Freedoms Parks was closed off for all put PSD patrols and Fourth of July fireworks crowds.

On the ground now occupied by Cornell Tech, Goldwater Hospital was home for around a thousand longterm residents.

Things change...

While a partial parking ban was in place, Main Street's Z-bricks were unique, thematic marks telling a story about traffic. That is, these roads were made for walking. Not cars and trucks. Foundations under the bricks were never built for the traffic loads they get today.

And the narrow canyon design of the WIRE buildings never anticipated choking exhaust fumes or the noises increasing as they climb the walls.

This place was built for walking and easy access across a narrow street without parking.

Three times a year in the 90s, New York Road Runners organized races that drew hundreds to Roosevelt Island. The 10K brought athletes straight down Main Street, and residents lined the route to cheer their neighbors passing. I especially remember Grandpa Al Lewis, cigar clenched in his mouth, clapping as we ran past Good Shepherd Plaza.

You could do that because no cars had to be moved, and there was little traffic to be delayed.

Then, a small but vocal group increased demands for more vehicle access, and RIOC being RIOC, clueless about community values, opened the door. Then opened it wider.

And wider.

From so quiet you could hear a pin drop to double and triple parking and idling trucks congestion...

The Main Street Canyon, now more motorized vehicles than pedestrians.
The Main Street Canyon, now more motorized vehicles than pedestrians.
© David Stone/Roosevelt Island Daily

Before the big breakdown that changed the character of Main Street, these were the rules:

Hospital employees were welcome to drive to parking spaces at Coler and Goldwater, including street parking around Goldwater.

Otherwise, you secured a pass from Public Safety before being allowed on Main Street, and it gave you fifteen minutes to unload your groceries or luggage before returning your car elsewhere, frequently in Motorgate, sometimes across the river in Queens for economy.

But these days, those same PSD officers are more likely filling out parking tickets, and the department uses Main Street for storage of its own excess vehicle inventory.

Needless to say, it was quieter, cleaner and safer. Red buses rolled easily from Tram to Firehouse - with no Octagon apartments yet, that's where they turned around - without maneuvering around double and triple parkers vying for space with idling delivery trucks.

But that was then, this is now, and a parking ban would battle headwinds that are likely even stronger...

Back in the 90s, before the PSD stations were taken away from the top of the helix and vehicles flooded in, residents griped about time limits for unloading their groceries, but the majority of us, then as now, failed to see the wisdom of owning a car in congested, polluted New York City at all. Roosevelt Island was at least a partial respite from all that.

But it was a different complaint, registered in Letters to the Editor, that seemed to tip the balance and inaugurated the first large scale abandonment of community values.

Friends and family refused to visit because they were afraid of the subway and parking in Motorgate was prohibitively expensive, some residents claimed. They demanded the ease of free street parking, like in the suburbs. 

RIOC, all nonresident as it is now, including what was then an actual board of directors, in its wisdom, gave in, although no real survey of resident preferences preceded the breakdown.

And now, no parking advocacy faces the most daunting headwind of all: a government entitlement.

No one has ever happily taken one away, but RIOC, by virtue of its feudal form of management, may have an easier path, first because they don't really care what residents want and they never face voter resentment for choices made. 

What RIOC cares about is hassle, and as a general rule, whoever makes the most noise, regardless of other considerations, wins.

The ban on parking headwinds...

The direction in parking in recent years on Roosevelt Island has gone opposite of what the Twitter feed wants. That is, parking has been encouraged.

A couple of years ago, RIOC opened the gates about as far as they can go by making resident parking free from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. Sundays and holidays are completely free.

Putatively, that was done to help local businesses. Someone at 591 Main Street got the idea that outsiders would flock to nonexistent stores if only there was more free parking. And like so many brainstorms busting out of that nest, no serious reviews were done, before or after, about its effectiveness.

Or lack thereof.

The biggest impact was in lowering RIOC revenues. Flush with cash from what RiOC president/CEO Susan Rosenthal termed a "real estate boom," the state could absorb that easily.

But not now.

Plunging revenues caused largely by tumbling Tram ridership and flat investment income are unlikely to alter free overnight parking. But unavoidable belt-tightening at RIOC argues against losing more revenue as a parking ban would require.

You can argue that belt-tightening is a lesser concern for a budget as obese as RIOC's, but here, you'd be working with common sense, a foreign language at 591 Main. Government entities in New York deal with budget shortfalls by reducing what they do for us or, more likely, increasing revenues through taxes and fees, however hidden. 

Don't expect that to change.

The other headwind blowing against a parking ban is something mentioned earlier. Free and limited Main Street parking is seen as an entitlement for some Roosevelt Islanders. 

As with the rest of Manhattan, most people here don't drive or demand any kind of parking. We use mass transit, and lo and behold, we walk like our ancestors did. But free parking, in effect a subsidy for car makers, is so ingrained that countless efforts to ban it on the bigger island have always failed. 

Studies show that there are three cars for every Manhattan street parking space, and all three of 'em want it bad.

But a parking ban has environmental and esthetic virtues...

It does, but being realistic, not cynical, who honestly cares much about those virtues?

Sure, we all give them lip service, but...

Have virtues kept SUVs from proliferating all over town? Has concern for the environment led to vigorous support for mass transit?

On the local front, while RIOC sings an environmental tune, it serves better as a lesson for trusting in what people do more than what they say.

Stanchion still standing where RIOC booths controlling Roosevelt Island access for cars once stood. Note the "No Entry" sign left behind.
Stanchion still standing where RIOC booths controlling Roosevelt Island access for cars once stood. Note the "No Entry" sign left behind.
© David Stone/Roosevelt Island Daily

It's well documented that RIOC's systematically defoliating Roosevelt Island, driven partly by an administrative lust for making the community more like something you'd find in Westchester County. The tree inventory has been devastated, and in spite of resident complaints, chopping them down has accelerated this summer.

Roosevelt Island's one-time designation as Tree City USA is now, twenty years later, a sick joke, but nobody who lives here is laughing.

So, make some noise where it matters, if a Main Street parking ban is what you want. Common sense speaks a foreign language at 591, and it's seldom initiated there.

And don't expect help from those elected officials, all of whom promised to look out for us. Seawright, Serrano and Kallos are living proof, day after day, that talk is cheap. That's why they dish it out so freely. 

But inconvenient noise, that might get you somewhere.

Prepare for severe blowback from the entitled.

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